BERLIN – In a rehearsal hall on the outskirts of the city, Xana Novais hung on his teeth. On a recent night, the tattooed 27-year-old actor hung inches off the ground, bit down on a piece of leather hanging from a rope, and perfected a new skill called “Iron Jaw”. It didn’t look easy.
Novais was practicing for a sequence in Ophelia’s Got Talent, a new work by Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger, which premieres Thursday at Berlin’s Volksbühne. As part of the performance, which mixes dance, stunts, and sideshow-inspired acts, Novais was expected to hang like a fish on a hook for about half a minute. But after 20 seconds she let go, settled and grimaced. “This is about learning to deal with complaints,” she said.
Discomfort is central to the work of Holzinger, 36, who has recently become a star of the European dance and performance world by pushing the boundaries of what performers – and audiences – can endure. Holzinger, whose interest in physical extremes stems from her own training as a dancer, has found recognition for work that features large casts of nude female performers and explores sublime ideas about art and gender, while showing acts that sometimes involve bodily fluids that erase that limits of good taste.
In “Apollon,” a 2017 play that explores the work of choreographer George Balanchine and notions of artist and muse, performers bled and defecated onstage. “A Divine Comedy,” a 2021 riff on Dante’s epic poem about the circles of hell, included a scene in which a woman ejaculates explosively while using a vibrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of her performances are interrupted by spectators walking out.
Ophelia’s Got Talent – an exploration of myths and tales about women and water, including mermaids, sirens and the tragic, drowning character from Hamlet – is the first of several original works Holzinger is creating under a multi-year agreement with the Volksbühne , one of the most influential theaters in the German-speaking world.
René Pollesch, the theater’s artistic director, said he was drawn to Holzinger’s work in part because she was interested in showcasing a variety of strong female performers, including older women and women with disabilities, who put on daring and challenging performances on stage accomplish. “This is radical feminism, not reform feminism,” he said.
Holzinger, who has a self-deprecating wit and the physical intensity of a boxer, explained in an interview that during the show she and her cast would thread fish hooks through their skin and hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes. At one point, she said, performers would form the shape of a fountain and spurt water from their noses. “It’s going to be a beautiful picture,” she said.
She added that while she drew inspiration from dance history, mythology and action films, including the James Bond franchise, she viewed the stage as a “laboratory” where supposedly taboo acts could be freely performed. “I might be able to educate people about what forms of shame are necessary and which aren’t,” she said.
Living under capitalism encourages individuals to perfect themselves, Holzinger said, adding that her work was about the way this shaped women’s bodies. “We’re in a society where you can buy and create your own femininity and tweak yourself in whatever way the system wants you to be,” she said. In her work, she added, she tried to find “unexpected” ways to use the body that was conditioned by social pressures to look and move a certain way.
Barbara Frey, the artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, a major arts festival in Germany that commissioned Eine Divine Comedy, said Holzinger created a “new form” of performance that combined “dance, exuberant wit, great tenderness” and “the Roman gladiator arena” and explores “the male gaze – and the female gaze – of the female body”.
Some have compared her work to the Vienna Actionists, an Austrian art movement of the 1960s and 70s whose (predominantly male) followers staged performances in which they engaged in extreme acts, including self-mutilation, in order to confront viewers with what they were seen as repressed elements of Austrian society. Although Holzinger has previously said she takes little inspiration from the movement, her association with the Actionists, who are now a revered part of Austrian art history, helped her gain early respect in her home country, she explained.
Born in Vienna as the son of a pharmacist and a lawyer, Holzinger started dancing late. She said that shortly after beginning her training at the age of 17, she realized that it was too late for her to perfect the skills needed for a classical dancing career and that she was “too strong, too muscular for it.” Ballet” was.
After being rejected by several traditional European dance academies, she enrolled at the School for New Dance Development, an experimental school in Amsterdam, where she began exploring alternative ways of using her body as a vehicle for spectacle. “When I train my body to pee on command, I exercise control over my body,” she said. “It could be considered a form of dance technique, even if it’s not a grand jeté or tendu.”
After several eyebrow-raising collaborations with Vincent Riebeek, a Dutch choreographer, Holzinger said she reached a turning point in her career after a near-death experience during a performance at an arts festival in Norway in 2013, during which she fell from a height of 16 years had feet in the air during a stunt. Although she survived with a concussion and a broken nose, the accident caused by a loosening bolt holding her weight led her to take a more diligent approach to her work and safety.
Since then she has focused on creating her more elaborate works for all-female ensembles. Four years after the accident, she debuted with “Apollon,” a play that wrestled with what Holzinger called the “lived experience of ballet” and the “exaggerated femininity of ballerinas.” The show was widely acclaimed and toured internationally. This piece, as well as its 2019 follow-up Tanz, drew parallels between the suffering of dancers – including through the ballet shoe, which she described as an “object of torture” that often deforms and bleeds dancers’ feet – and the staged violence of less sophisticated ones Acts like sword swallowing or body hanging shows.
Finding performers for her work, she admitted, wasn’t always easy. Some, like Novais, have a theater background, while others are sex workers or supporting actresses. As part of her recruiting efforts, she said, she once advertised on Craigslist for “women with special talents.”
But her work has also attracted artists from more traditional dance backgrounds, including Trixie Cordua, 81, a former soloist with the Hamburg Ballet who has worked with John Cage. Cordua, who has Parkinson’s and sometimes uses a motorized wheelchair to move around on stage, said in a telephone interview that she was drawn to working with Holzinger because she has “the ability to combine things that don’t normally go together, to form a whole new constellation” and because of their willingness to go “very, very far”.
Holzinger said she was comfortable with the fact that the extreme elements of her works often caused people to leave her performances. “When people come to me expecting an evening of abstract postmodern dance, I totally respect their decision to leave,” she said. “I’d rather have 10 people in the audience who think it’s cool.”
Ophelia’s Got Talent
Sept. 15 to Oct. 25 at the Berlin Volksbühne; volksbühne.berlin.