Reclamation is a powerful thing. When you take what oppresses you and weaponise it you don’t just neutralise your enemy, you take a step closer to some kind of equanimity. In Tanz, playing briefly at Melbourne’s Rising festival, the Austrian performance artist and choreographer Florentina Holzinger seizes on the pointe shoe, ballet’s deeply troubling symbol of beauty through physical pain, and makes of it a totem, bloody and brutal.
Not that she’s the first artist to see ballet as a form of torture. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan explored the prima ballerina’s career through the prism of body horror; Powell and Pressburger spun a nightmarish vision out of the creative urge with The Red Shoes, transforming it into a literal dance of death. Even Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria exploited the idea of dance as a manifestation of witchcraft, an act of violence against the self and the other.
Holzinger seems perfectly aware of these antecedents – it isn’t for nothing that her dancers wear red pointe shoes, nor that she includes a scene of atrocity via the art of telekinesis in an overt reference to Guadagnino’s film – but she is also determined to carve her own distinctly feminist path, even if it requires a chainsaw and some meat hooks. Tanz takes those previous investigations into ballet’s dark side, rolls them up into a spit ball and shoots it straight into the audience’s eye.
The show opens with an ordinary ballet class, presided over by the real-life German ballet legend Beatrice “Trixie” Cordua. Everything is perfectly credible save the fact Cordua is stark naked and keen to get her students de-robed as soon as possible. Incredibly inappropriate sexualisation occurs, along with increasingly surreal divertissements, until Holzinger herself comes downstage and explains a few things. What we’ve witnessed is the naturalistic first act; what will follow is “the freaky shit”.
To say Holzinger’s work isn’t for the fainthearted is to undersell it somewhat. Tanz includes scenes of mutilation, gynaecological examination, vomiting. Performers mount aerial motorbikes, lift themselves up by their hair, impale someone on a metal rod. At one point, a woman in her 80s gives birth to a rat. It’s not just provocative, it’s a deliberate affront. It is also, in the most surprising way, thoughtful, hilarious and occasionally very beautiful. It takes a serious artist to navigate so many modes and keep the audience on side.
Admittedly, not everyone is on side all of the time and even those most inclined to Holzinger’s perspective will find something confronting in it. Some people on opening night walked out – a couple of men in the front few rows rather ostentatiously exited before things got remotely degrading – but those who remained may have felt as though they had passed through a ritual of some kind, eldritch and unholy.
Tanz takes what have become theatrical cliches – sudden piercingly loud sound effects, Artaud-inspired acts of occultism, a stage increasingly awash with debris and destruction – and gathers them into a funny and furious howl of resistance. The work flirts with pure silliness but it isn’t remotely spurious or glib. The program notes list two dramaturgs (Renée Copraij and Sara Ostertag), a theorist and researcher (Anne Leon) and even “outside eyes” (Michele Rizzo and Fernando Belfiore). They bring an intellectual heft that animates everything on stage.
Technically, what looks like theatrical carnage is often ingenious and supple. Stefan Schneider’s sound composition swirls and surges, lifts into ethereal harmonies and pitches into guttural screaming. The video design (Josefin Arnell and Jessyca R Hauser) is striking, and even – in a show where everyone is naked most of the time – the costumes (advised by Mael Blau) are powerfully effective, with their fairytale wolves and witches, their nods to Swan Lake and La Sylphide.
Holzinger draws on a range of resources – from Bruno Bettelheim to Ghostbusters – in a freewheeling exploration of female bodies and the history of romantic ballet, her eye firmly on the horrors and violence inflicted on women in the pursuit of beauty. Tanz is angry and goading but it’s also funny and, in the end, strangely rapturous. It is perfect festival fare, boundary-pushing and unforgettable. An act of theatrical reclamation that should by rights produce a bonfire of ballet shoes everywhere.
Tanz is on as part of Melbourne’s Rising festival until 10 June; Florentina Holzinger is also performing her show A Divine Comedy at Dark Mofo in Hobart 16-18 June