‘I Want the Pope on Stage’: Florentina Holzinger Takes on the Church

The choreographer speaks to Matthew McLean about ‘TANZ’, ‘Ophelia's got Talent’ and her plans for the future

BY Florentina Holzinger AND Matthew McLean in Interviews | 02 FEB 23

Florentina Holzinger is one of the most exciting performance artists and choreographers working today. Her epic female-led performances merge body art with ballet and acrobatics. Here, she speaks to Matthew McLean about ‘TANZ’, ‘Ophelia's got Talent’ and her plans for the future.

Matthew McLean There seems to be an impulse in your recent work to meld different genres or traditions of performance. ‘Apollon’, the second work in the trilogy that concludes with ‘TANZ’, is based on the 20th century choreographer George Balanchine, for instance, but draws on the American sideshow tradition.

Florentina Holzinger I am interested in things that people maybe see as ‘high art’, like ballet, but also in so-called ‘low art’, like the circus. In my research for ‘Apollon’, I realized that the sideshow world and the performance art world employ some of the same actions. It was interesting for me to think about the rules governing each context. For example, in the sideshow, it was very important that the action be entertaining: whereas in an art gallery, it sometimes seems like the opposite is true. Ultimately, I see it as my responsibility to entertain the audience. Not so they switch off their minds, but precisely to allow them to look at more difficult things.

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Portrait of Florentina Holzinger. Photograph: Theresa Bitzan

MM ‘TANZ’, which was performed most recently at London’s Battersea Arts Centre, is subtitled ‘A Ballet in Stunts’. How do you see the relationship between stunt work and pointe work, so to speak?

FH The more I researched the history, the more I realized that the early Romantic ballet pieces really were stunt ballets. Choreographers like Charles-Louis Didelot had ballerinas literally hanging from wires, and this was around the time that theatre machinery became very fashionable, achieving ‘special effects’ like blockbusters. There were accidents happening all the time, especially with gas lighting – many ballerinas burned to death in theatres. What I wanted to convey was this juxtaposition of the apparent idealized lightness of the ballet, with the risk of the crash – the possibility of gravity in the end taking over. 

Florentina Holzinger, ‘TANZ’, Battersea Arts Centre, London. Photograph: Eva Würdinger

MM Resisting gravity seems to be a recurring desire for you. In ‘TANZ’ you put dancers up in the air, suspended by their hair or by hooks through their flesh, and in ‘Ophelia’s Got Talent’ you elevate heavy objects like the helicopter. What is it that draws you to the aerial space?

FH  I have this strong fascination for the circus world, where one is not just operating on the floor: you have the whole space to play in. The dream of human flight is so persistent. As someone coming from dance, which is all about gravity on some level, that’s very compelling. Really, there are all kinds of different reasons to have things flying. In ‘TANZ’, in which the witch topic is very present, we were thinking about what kind of ‘urban’ broomstick the witches could fly on, and we came to the idea of elevated motorcycles. But this is also what you can do with art: take shit off the floor and lift it up it so it becomes decidedly object. A motorized vehicle that symbolizes capitalist production, this smelly thing that is destroying the world with its emissions: in levitating it, it goes beyond this function, and it becomes something other, a heavenly object.

Florentina Holzinger, ‘TANZ’, Battersea Arts Centre, London. Photograph: Eva Würdinger

MM It’s a kind of estrangement?

FH Exactly. And that’s in some way my attraction to dance itself because dance is also estranged – estranged from what a body usually does when it’s there to fulfil a certain function, like going to the toilet, or cleaning something. I mean, in a way, it’s pretty ‘useless’ to dance.

MM I was struck in ‘TANZ’ by the phrase spoken by the dance teacher figure at the barre class that opens the show and then repeated at its close: ‘Today I will teach you to govern your bodies’. It seems to convey this unease about what it means to control the body. Is ‘TANZ’ an ambivalent work?

FH The mainstream ballet stage is the place where someone’s grandmother can be charmed by how light and elegant everything is and doesn’t have to think about how much blood this takes, how high the percentage is of ballet dancers who have a hip operation by the age of 35. These are not people who treat their bodies in a kind way. On the other hand, I came from a contemporary dance world where it was all about treating the body nicely and being very efficient, and I did not particularly think this was very interesting either. I still wanted the superhuman factor, which is why I was more drawn to athletics and sports. What interests me is showing an audience what discipline looks like, what certain practices require. Drawing attention to the choices that people make, but also being okay with their choice to discipline themselves, even if it is ‘unhealthy’.

‘Ophelia’s Got Talent’, performance still. Photograph: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak

MM Where did the thinking for ‘Ophelia’s Got Talent’ begin?

FH It started when I dreamt of making a show in the water. I wanted to explore the link between death, feminine beauty and water through the lens of John Everett Millais’s image of Ophelia (1851-2), who is depicted as the most beautiful when she is dead in the water. We are investigating archetypes – from The Little Mermaid (1845), to what in German we call the Melusine, medieval water spirits that are half-woman half-fish, or half-woman half-snake (she’s the figure on the Starbucks cup) – and what cultural effects that these myths have on us today. We look at these through the talent show format. We were looking at how to train to be the perfect Ophelia. Or how to train to not be Ophelia and avoid her fate.

‘Ophelia’s Got Talent’, performance still. Photograph: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak

MM What did you learn on this production?

FH We wanted, in a sort of utopian way, to learn about surviving under water for a long time. We asked swimmers, divers and circus performers to train us. Another pillar was the psychology of water as a substance: fluidity, connectedness, flux and weightlessness. It’s the first time we’ve had differently abled people in the cast, because I was looking for people for whom water, which has a different gravity, might be an easier realm to live in. Also, it’s the first time we invited kids on to the stage. It’s a way to represent the future, because a third pillar of the show was water as a resource: one that symbolizes a lot of ecological issues. Everyone warned us against this. There are scenes in the show which children can’t understand and cannot participate in. But we didn’t want to treat them as ignorant of the world they are a part of; it was important to talk to them about the content. It was a great learning curve, but not at all as complicated as people thought it would be.

Florentina Holzinger, ‘TANZ’, Battersea Arts Centre, London. Photograph: Eva Würdinger

MM What are you working on next?

FH It is still completely at the beginning stage, but we are slowly starting to work on an opera, which is likely to address the church. There are many operas based around nuns and their sexual obsession with God. It’s a campy subject, so it would be a lot of fun.

MM I’ll warn the Pope.

FH I want to have the Pope on stage!

Florentina Holzinger’s upcoming tour dates can be found on her website

Florentina Holzinger is a choreographer and performance artist.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.