Florentina Holzinger’s ecstatic dance work TANZ is a standout in Melbourne’s winter Rising festival. It is a wild, confronting meditation on care, permission and desire. By Alison Croggon.
Florentina Holzinger’s TANZ
It’s beyond dispute that TANZ – the standout in a somewhat lacklustre first week of performance at the 2023 Rising festival – is outrageous. Here is the female body exposed on a public stage in all its squalor, mess, pain and joy, all its scandalous permeability. I spent a decent proportion of the show watching through my fingers or involuntarily gasping “Oh my god” – as often at its strange beauty as its corporeal extremities.
It’s perfect headline fodder for its “gross-out body horror”, its nudity, vomit and blood, its audience walkouts and fainting. The night I went, an unfortunate young man passed out in the row in front of me, disrupting the performance – if a performance already so deranged can be disrupted. Perhaps most shockingly of all, it’s enormously entertaining. TANZ, created by Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger and a cast of nine other performers, is the succès de scandale every modern festival needs.
I approached it with a degree of scepticism, being something of a survivor of “transgressive” art. Too often this kind of work has left me feeling violated, that something has been done to me without my permission or choice. We all know, consciously or not, that we live in a world increasingly defined by people and structures that unthinkingly exert their power over others without consent or care. Art that lazily reproduces the sadism of exploitation is deeply uninteresting to me.
The fascinating thing about TANZ is that it does none of these things. Somehow invitations are extended (and sometimes refused) and permissions given (including the permission to leave). Somehow the audience is granted respect. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about its profound sense of liberation and exhilaration. I couldn’t stop thinking about how funny it is, how beautiful. How this unforgiving, take-no-prisoners performance feels like an act of forgiveness – even an annealing of shame and trauma – as it poises itself, with extraordinary grace, above its own extreme contradictions.
Since 2017, Holzinger has been reworking icons of European “high” art – notably classical ballet but also Shakespeare and Dante – in performances that showcase “vulgar” art forms – freak shows, stunts, sex work, circus. Apollon (2017) explores George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète, dissecting the idea of the muse, and includes onstage defecation. A Divine Comedy (2021), which plays at Dark Mofo this weekend, draws on Dante’s epic poem and features a woman masturbating onstage with a vibrator. Ophelia’s Got Talent (2022), created when Holzinger was artist-in-residence at the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin, features a helicopter, swimming pools, tap dances and sea shanties. TANZ, originally subtitled “a sylphidic reverie in stunts”, is, among other things, a dissection of Romantic ballet, such as Giselle and Swan Lake.
Among Holzinger’s antecedents are the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s – mostly male artists such as Günter Brus and Otto Mühl who, with much of the avant-garde of the time, were interested in creating art that resisted commodification by breaking taboos. Brus served six months in prison for outraging public decency in his Kunst und Revolution performance, during which he masturbated while singing the Austrian national anthem. As well as this lineage, TANZ draws from the white feminist performance art of the 1990s, such as the “post-porn Modernists” – Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera and others – who, as critic Rebecca Schneider describes it, induced “binary terror” by collapsing the boundaries between porn and art.
These and other influences are clear, but this work is far from stale imitation. In the 21st century, the political context has changed. The Actionists “positioned themselves against a mega-bourgeois concept of art and narrow-mindedness in society”, Holzinger said in an interview for the German magazine tanz.dance. “I’m not concerned with that, but rather taking a stand on what it’s like to live in a super-neoliberal society.” She adds mischievously: “Of course it’s a criticism but at the same time a celebration.”
Holzinger resiles from, as she puts it, “being put in this shitty feminist drawer”, perhaps because some strands of feminism have become imprisoning, proscriptive and prescriptive, and also perhaps because the label “feminist” can often be, even after all these years, a form of marginalisation. This work has a lawless radicality that prefers to create its own rules: Holzinger refers to the women and non-binary performers with whom she works as “warriors”. Art, she suggests, is a means of war – and also a means of survival.
The bodies we are watching are trained bodies – disciplined, in many senses of that word. At the centre of the show is the dancer Beatrice “Trixie” Cordua, who was the first woman to dance Le Sacre du printemps nude in John Neumeier’s 1972 version. Cordua is now 80, and at the beginning of the show – “Lesson One: How to be where you are” – she is the first person to be naked, aside from a belt to carry her sound equipment. She is teaching a barre class, working patiently through pliés, frappés and adagios, gently instructing her students – “this is really the high level, it is very hard to do!” – in between exhorting them to take their clothes off. “It’s hot, girls, you must be hot!” Already there is an absurd tension between the idealised grace of the ballerina and the imperfect body, flushed, scarred, hairy, labouring, sweating.
Here I find myself winding back to the fugitive sense of beauty that inhabits TANZ and that also seems mysteriously to negate the violation that could make this work insupportable. I should note this is a wholly subjective sense, since there were several walkouts: for some people, this work is clearly an affront. I did not experience it in this way. What surprised me – and I think it’s there from the beginning, in Cordua’s strangely tender exhortations – was a palpable sense of care between the performers, of negotiated permissions and mutual attention. This care felt subliminally extended to us, watching breathlessly in the auditorium.
I think this is partly why, when Cordua shifts to the obscene – when she ecstatically cries “Now it’s time to inspect the vaginas!” or “The fist is going down your back into your ass and you enjoy it just like me! You are sisters in crime ... I knew it, I knew it!” – it stays in the realm of the ribald and comic rather than the degrading. We are all generously let in on the joke. Given the realities of sexual assault, it is a complicated joke: but there’s nothing simple about this show. We are always aware, in watching these disciplined bodies, of their autonomy. If desire is expressed here, it is firstly the performers’ desire. It feels astonishing – and liberating – to be reminded how radical the desiring body can be.
In her book The Explicit Body in Performance (1997), Schneider nails the discomfort that attends this kind of spectacle, as opposed to, say, the display of the traditional nude that is offered up for the gratification of the male eye. “Nudity was not the problem. Sexual display was not the problem. The agency of the body displayed, the authority of the agent – that was the problem with women’s work.” Each performer – none of them with conventional ballet training, as Holzinger points out during a discursive “interval”, but drawn rather from disciplines such as stunt work or circus – carries the authority of both their body and their skills.
Perhaps this self-authorisation, more than the naked women, is why I kept thinking of the witches’ sabbath. The witch is always present – the “corporate witch” with one tooth who boils a dancer in a cauldron, the crone with a hooked nose, the women flying on vacuum cleaners or motorbikes or suspended from metal wings pierced through their shoulders. Together, they are a collective, a coven.
The witches’ sabbath, where naked women gathered to worship Satan and engage in perverse rites, was a fevered sexual fantasy invented by the mediaeval church. The historian Carlo Ginzburg argues the confessions forced under torture conceal a seed of truth, that they subtextually reveal broken remnants of ecstatic pagan ritual. TANZ feels like a wild, contemporary reanimation of these forgotten rites, wrenched through the punitive patriarchal fantasies that stamped them out. It’s a defiance of everything that imprisons desire, a joyous refusal of trauma, and it reaches towards something that feels like healing.
The Rising Festival ends June 18.
State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, June 23–July 1
THEATRE Romeo and Juliet
The Neilson Nutshell, Sydney, June 23–August 27
EXHIBITION Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, June 24–September 17
CULTURE Belonging: Stories from Far North Queensland
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until August 13
CINEMA Spanish Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Brisbane, until July 5
MULTIMEDIA Geumhyung Jeong: Under Maintenance
Arts House, Melbourne until June 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "The joyous refusal".
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