History repeats itself and repressive tendencies come and go in waves, exposing topics related to gender inequalities in modern societal structures. The Berlin-based choreographer, performance artist, and dancer, Florentina Holzinger, uses dance to comment on these topics and investigate the limits and physicality of the female body, as well as more general themes such as female representation. Her fearless exploration of taboo subjects and her willingness to take physical risks have earned her a reputation as one of the most daring and innovative artists performing today.
“BERLIN 2022 — In a rehearsal hall on the city’s outskirts, Xana Novais was hanging by her teeth. On a recent evening, the tattooed 27-year-old performer was suspended a few inches above the ground, biting down on a piece of leather hanging from a rope, perfecting a new skill called the “iron jaw.” It did not look easy. Novais was practicing for a sequence in “Ophelia’s Got Talent,” a new work by the Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger that premieres at the Berlin Volksbühne theater at the end of the week.” Thomas Rogers, New York Times (2022)
Florentina Holzinger was born in 1986 in Vienna, she has gained international recognition for her unique and daring performances that blend dance, acrobatics, and theatre. Holzinger began her training in dance at an early age, and after completing her studies at the Amsterdam School of the Arts, she embarked on a career in contemporary dance. Her performances often involve extreme physicality and risk-taking, with elements of circus, martial arts, and performance art. Her work has been featured in prestigious festivals and venues around the world, including the Venice Biennale, the Berlinale, and the Tate Modern. From the perspective of a movie enthusiast, there are some shared aesthetical references and DNA links between Holzinger’s work and some iconic films such as Crash (1996) by dir. David Cronenberg and Titane (2021), dir Julia Ducournau. Motorized objects such as cars that the characters drive, crash, and derive pleasure from, act as a kind of extension of their bodies. Similarly, the use of motorised objects as symbolic associations is detectable in Holzinger’s shows. According to her “Motorized objects, are charged status symbols and represent masculinity, speed and power; they are the by-product of capitalist society; representing pollution and excess, etc. We try to take control of these symbols and aim to turn them into something else – something sublime. Usually, they fly in our shows, devoid of motor and engine, they become objects of flight or machines with which to physically connect and become one. One of our tasks for shows, and my interest in dance in general, is practicing to become more than human; one can learn a lot from machines.”
One of Holzinger’s most acclaimed works is “Apollon Musagète,” which she created in collaboration with Dutch choreographer Vincent Riebeek. The piece reimagines the classical ballet “Apollon Musagète” by Igor Stravinsky, incorporating elements of BDSM and eroticism. The performers are suspended from ropes and chains, with their bodies contorted in intricate and often uncomfortable positions. The result is a mesmerizing and unsettling exploration of power dynamics and sexuality. However, Holzinger’s career took a pivotal turn after a close brush with death during a performance at an arts festival in Norway in 2013. While executing an aerial stunt, a screw that was supporting her weight came loose, causing her to fall from a height of 16 feet. Despite sustaining a concussion and a broken nose, she survived the accident. This incident, combined with her previous collaborations with Dutch choreographer Vincent Riebeek, prompted Holzinger to adopt a more cautious and meticulous approach to her work, placing greater emphasis on safety. Holzinger has deeply explored themes of femininity and violence in her work, particularly in her piece “Recovery,”. The performance features Holzinger and her collaborators engaging in intense physical combat, often leaving each other battered and bruised. The piece is a commentary on how women are expected to be both powerful and submissive, and the toll that takes on their bodies and psyches.
Her trilogy project, entitled Recovery, featured 3 performances; Apollon, TANZ and A Divine Comedy, all of which examined how the female body is ‘cultivated, shaped and transformed’ via different physical disciplines. A ballet class goes gross and brutal in TANZ, as motorbikes appeared on stage and bodies are contorted in abnormal ways. Fluctuation, reflection, reproduction, healing, and violence are the key themes of the recent show, Ophelia’s Got Talent, by Florentina Holzinger and her multi-disciplinary company. The wet terrain the stage has turned into provides the training ground for the viewer. As the artist mentions: “Water is the element of assimilation and adaptation, a symbol of the boundless capacity to expand, of eternal, inseparable unity with the outside world. Ichnographically, water has been associated with womanhood – and with death: a figure standing next to a quiet pond is a cypher for the domestication of female subjectivity; whitecaps on the sea’s surface stand for the result of her disintegration and disengagement, a mermaid’s fishtail is a metaphor for denied female sexuality. An oceanic landscape arises, full of allusions, cultural and historical references to all water creatures and drowned strangers.” The audience will have the chance to enjoy her daring performance at Tanzquartier Wien – Centre for contemporary dance & performance in Austria from 04/17 till 04/19. This production has been invited to the 2023 Theatertreffen festival in Berlin.
Discomfort is central to the work of Holzinger and the result is unapologetic, uncompromising and unexpectedly visually appealing. With the potential to unsettle the audience, Holzinger examines the objectifying and sexualizing of female bodies, and how dance, a typically feminine, pretty form, can be subverted to showcase such dialogues.“If people come to me expecting an evening of abstract postmodern dance, I fully respect their decision to leave,” she mentioned. “I’d rather be left with 10 people in the audience who find it cool.” Holzinger is currently an associated artist at the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxumburg-Platz in Berlin (from 2021-2026). It is what makes us discomfort that leaves a lasting mark. That’s why art that makes you uncomfortable is the most powerful art of all.
“If people come to me expecting an evening of abstract postmodern dance, I fully respect their decision to leave. I’d rather be left with 10 people in the audience who find it cool.” Florentina Holzinger
Florentina Holzinger / The Art of Discomfort
Artist: Florentina Holzinger / @floholzinger
Words: Iro Bournazou / @irwb
Assistant: Alisia Marcacci / @miabrowe