With spectacle, stunts, sex, blood and gore, Florentina Holzinger shreds classical ballet to pieces. In her latest work, A Divine Comedy (2021), the Viennese choreographer tackles theatre’s claim to transcend death. During the Ruhrtriennale festival, Florentina transformed an industrial hall into a smoky netherworld. Inspired by Dante’s eponymous work, we are offered a vision of heaven and hell like a staged Bosch painting, scorched by the female gaze. We witness live taxidermy, a vanguard of skeletons chopping wood, characters masturbating and squirting, leaping over hurdles while being encircled by motorcyclists driving at full speed, rolling down staircases, and a goofy Dante chasing ambulant, portable Dixi toilets while desperately needing to shit. If this is hell, then it’s a pretty cool place; utopian even, in the way women live and work together in harmony. We enter a world turned upside down, creating space for something new, rather than punishment. Maybe that is a rather Socratic way of looking at the end as a new beginning, as the show’s tagline draws freely from Plato: ‘Death is not the worst thing that can happen to women.’
The relation between dance and death seems ontological. Think of The Red Shoes. Think of The Rite of Spring. Think of the exhausting marathons of Jan Fabre. Our culture rehearses these stories of dancers dancing themselves into oblivion. ‘Dancers die twice’, as the character of Beatrice, Dante’s great love – performed by Beatrice Cordua – says in A Divine Comedy: ‘once at the end of her career, and once at the real end.’
We could advocate that all art is haunted by the spectre of death. After all, the first opera in history was based on the myth of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to retrieve his deceased love. ‘It’s why people go to the theatre’, Florentina says. ‘To be confronted with death, to ward it off. When I pay for a ticket, I know it’s not about me, the catastrophe is happening to others. I’m going to be safe.’
Persis Bekkering: After your trilogy on the spectacle and disciplining of the female body – Recovery (2014), Apollon (2017) and TANZ (2019) – you have chosen to adopt an epic poem to the stage. As the adaptation doesn’t seem to follow the original very closely, I was wondering what interested you in Dante’s La Divina Commedia?
Florentina Holzinger: Initially, I was working on the theme of the Totentanz; the danse macabre or ‘dance of death’. This is where my research started. The first visit to the Kraftzentrale at the Ruhrtriennale in Duisburg, Germany, where the show premiered, sparked my imagination. This venue screams for a Nitro Circus. It could be the gateway to hell. And then Dante was just there. It was an internal joke: we were premiering at this prestigious theatre festival and I imagined it could be funny to transform an epic theatrical piece into dance. But I wasn’t interested in adapting the book too closely; there is no catholic imagery, for example. I haven’t even read it entirely. With the approach of staging a danse macabre through the lens of the classic poem, I wanted to research what happens when dance takes itself too seriously; when it tries to transcend and become more-than-human, to move beyond death.
We called this transcendental experience that dance is proposing ‘flipping to the other side’. In the scenography of A Divine Comedy, this flipping is quite literally depicted: first, everything happens on the floor, and then, the entire scene turns ninety degrees. The grand piano is lifted into the air, cars are suspended at the ceiling. From the perspective of the audience, it’s as if you look from above, from the other side of life.
In TANZ, I also explored ballet’s claim to defy gravity – the flying, weightless bodies of dancers. This theme keeps on coming back in A Divine Comedy, although now a different kind of ques-tion triggered me: what happens to the dancer’s body after death? Does the soul depart when we die? Does it fly away from our corporeal selves?
Persis: The list of Dante specialists credited for the show is quite impressive. What have you taken from all that research?
Florentina: So many specialists were involved in the piece. During my research, I became particularly curious about feminist and queer readings of the book, and I especially invited several scholars. There is a homoerotic aspect in the relationship between the narrator and Virgil, contained in their teacher–student relationship, which is a quite important theme in my work. The teacher is the historical forefather. The student, Dante, is thirty-five – exactly my age – and he’s lost in life, questioning where to go, how to live in the future. He falls off the straight path, loses his way in the dark, and emerges as a renewed person, understanding there is more to life than just the subjective experience.
…He didn’t shy away from vulgar language, from gruesome imagery. His writing was rock and roll, full of sex and death…
Persis: La Divina Commedia is written in vernacular Florentine, whereas Dante’s fourteenth-century fellow writers published in Latin. It is often said that Dante brought literature to the people. Is it far-fetched to see a relation here between vernacular language and your work, in which you deconstruct traditional, elitist notions of dance?
Florentina: Maybe, yes. In Dante’s time, La Divina Commedia was so popular, it’s comparable with Netflix in our era. He didn’t shy away from vulgar language, from gruesome imagery. His writing was rock and roll, full of sex and death. Yet nowadays, we take it so seriously! Dante is read in school and considered to be high art, but really, he’s much closer to popular culture. The cast was already familiar with Dante, before even reading the book; it turned out they knew certain famous quotes, expressions and images. This is because it is such an underlying part of our traditional culture. The image we have of heaven and hell: Dante shaped it. In our generation, I feel that we no longer connect to those concepts of an afterlife, of a hell that exists somewhere buried under the ground. However, the iconography is still part of our collective consciousness.
Persis: One aspect I enjoy about your shows is how you keep surprising us with your cast. Continually, you go beyond the habitual and the known. You find performers outside of the contemporary dance context and art-educational institutions. You work with sideshow performers. You cast sex workers. For A Divine Comedy, there’s a taxidermist; the only existing female show hypnotist, Miranda van Kuilenburg; and a former ballet dancer, Beatrice Cordua, who is seventy-two years old.
Florentina: I love sharing my choreo-graphic practice with people who don’t necessarily represent dance as we know it, and who don’t have an idealised body. Personally, I see it as a privilege to bring different practices together onstage and to question what having a skill means. What deserves to be seen? Does it have to be someone trained in dance? In A Divine Comedy, the most skilful performer, if you ask me, is Foxxy Angel, who can squirt on the exact last notes of The Rite of Spring.
The size of the production made it possible to have a diverse range of different age groups, which is also connected to the notion of dances of death. We had conversations about what it means for a dancer to age: who is closer to death? The young and fit person, or the old person that has lived the longest? The answer is not necessarily the latter, as ‘a dancer dies twice’.
Secondly, I was looking for performative practices with a specific relationship to death. Hypnosis, for example. During the show, Miranda puts the audience to sleep through hypnosis. And sleep is an important theme within Dante’s poem – he falls asleep a lot. Sleep is very close to death, of course; both states lack consciousness and control.
Persis: Beatrice Cordua, performing the role of Dante’s beloved Beatrice and playing an even older version of herself in a scooter, states: ‘When I orgasm, I completely lose control, it feels like dying.’ Later in the piece, there’s a beautiful scene when Dante makes love to her with a strap-on, after which Beatrice is put in a coffin.
Florentina: When we were talking about death, Beatrice – Trixie – immediately brought up orgasms. Death and sex have been connected throughout the ages of course – Eros and Thanatos, or la petit mort – it’s almost a cliché. However, she was completely serious. Trixie feels as if she were dying when she comes. So, during her part, she proposed dancing the dance of death through an orgasm. Trixie says that, at a certain age, you are no longer regarded as a sexual being, but she masturbates more often than some of our younger cast members! Older women’s representation of sexuality is so rare, and it deserves to be put in the spotlight. Another aspect that is expressed in this scene you mentioned is the erotic of the teacher–student relationship, as in the dynamic between Virgil and Dante, which is enacted here on another level. Dante is played by Annina Machaz, a young dancer who has been taught by Beatrice in real life.
Persis: There’s a scene in TANZ, in which Beatrice is teaching a young group. Has Beatrice been your teacher too?
Florentina: Yes, as were A Divine Comedy performers Renée Copraij and Ria Higler. Ria was one of my teachers at the School for New Dance Development (SNDO) in Amsterdam. As a trio, they represent different generations and notions of dance. Trixie has a background in classical ballet, whereas Renée was one of the main performers of Jan Fabre, which is not modern dance per se but still represents strong formalistic aspects. Ria taught me about the integration of body and mind, where inner experiences are as important as physicality. All three have such distinctive personalities as mentors which is why I invited them to be a part of the show; to bring in their respective backgrounds, to stage a negotiation of form. Then, there’s also the importance of the symbolism of the number three in La Divina Commedia – three as in the Holy Trinity.
Persis: When Beatrice says that line about a dancer dying twice, her physical presence expresses a contradiction. She’s still here. After quitting her notorious ballet career in her thirties – her nude performance in The Rite of Spring (1972) is legendary – she has returned, back from the dead. Is the death sentence of the dancer hovering above your own career as well?
Florentina: Ria would never agree with this, she would say: a dancer only gets better with age. But if you look at the dance world at large, the young, fit body dominates the scene. And in Trixie’s background of classical dance, it’s absolutely the case. When she turned thirty-five, she presumed people would think: ‘What is that old lady doing onstage?’ It’s unbelievable given how capable and incredible she is to watch. I believe you get better and gain experience with time. Injuries can be understood in the same way. While I’ve experienced my fair share of injuries, these setbacks have never thwarted me. They helped me become a better dancer. I’m also aware of the physical changes going on in my body as it is ageing. In this sense, the trajectory isn’t necessarily downwards. For instance, I have always been a bad runner but, in preparation for this show, we trained to leap over hurdles. I couldn’t have possibly pulled that off ten years ago.
…Where I come from, people swim naked all the time. Nudity is part of our culture. And yes, it has become my signature style…
Persis: Often, the performers appear naked; it has become a signature element of your shows. You once said nudity has become a costume for you. Do you still stand by this statement?
Florentina: No, I no longer believe that nudity is a costume. You’re truly naked when you’re onstage. In fact, this is exactly how I discuss nakedness with my cast; how I prepare them to be at ease with the thought of exposure. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m so used to it … Where I come from, people swim naked all the time. Nudity is part of our culture. And yes, it has become my signature style. In my experience, it makes it easier to look at the important things when we’re not wearing clothes. Besides that, in A Divine Comedy specifically, nudity is an essential component which is utilised to allude to the traditional depiction of heaven and hell in art history. Museums are filled with images of naked bodies, and the show contains many references to these historic works. For instance, we mime out iconic Renaissance paintings, so nudity is part of the aesthetic.
Persis: There’s a dialectic between intimacy and publicness in your work. In A Divine Comedy, I’m thinking of the scenes where performers perform sex acts on each other or pleasure themselves for the audience to witness. Why is it important, for you, to show these acts onstage?
Florentina: When Trixie proposed to explore the relation between Eros and Thanatos, from the beginning, it was clear there had to be actual sex, whatever that might mean. In previous shows, I was more interested in the relations and interactions between pornography and performance or body art, but here, I’m not explicitly grappling with that precise delineation.
At an earlier point in my career, I was labelled as a pornographic artist. Tabloids discussed if I was making art or porn, which is interesting because, in my opinion, this classification is for the individual spectator to decide. It seems that the best art troubles the boundary. Such art can highlight how the female body is sexualised in our culture by raising the question: is a naked woman onstage always a pornographic image?
There’s a subtle difference between the visual conventions of theatre and film, and the way in which these mediums are received by an audience.
On camera, the production would lose all its nuance and immediately appear like pornography. That’s why I didn’t want to stream my performances online during the lockdowns: it wouldn’t have been possible to create conversation between the spectators and performers on a stage. At the same time, it’s not inherently bad if my shows are regarded as porn, and I inform my performers not to be naïve or scared about that reaction.
Another answer to your question is how the work negotiates the form. There are sex workers and dancers in the cast, and they perform the same acts, or they switch roles: a sex worker performs a tendu and a dancer masturbates. It’s refreshing regarding the old debate about the relation between dance and sex work. Traditionally, ballet dancers were often exploited as sex workers, too. Here, it is completely interchangeable – there is no difference anymore.
Persis: Regarding this, I feel it’s important to note that you are onstage too. You’re not the choreographer sitting behind a table telling other people what to do with their bodies. Far from taking a distanced position as the instructor, you put your own body on the line with the other performers and, in this way of being close, you are a part of them. This seems like an ethical choice.
Florentina: Moving is my passion. I would be completely bored if I wasn’t involved. Going through the motions helps me understand what a work can be. And this process is intuitive rather than cerebral: does it feel good when I do this, when I move like that? Everything that is pleasurable has a purpose. And by enacting these movements or gestures myself I’m better at explaining them to others. Honestly, this aspect of my creative practice is not about empowerment or ethics, it’s just the way I prefer to create.
Persis: Your work is often defined as ‘provocative’. Before the start of your shows, we are warned about explicit content. What does this characterisation mean to you? Do you consider yourself transgressive?
Florentina: These trigger warnings … I always thought their necessity was an exaggeration. Initially, I felt that it was a pity that, before taking a seat in the auditorium, audiences had to walk past these sheets of paper warning them about the depictions of violence and sex. Thus, their expectations were set before the show had begun. However, after a while, I’ve grown into them. Now I prefer people having expectations, rather than being caught off guard and leaving. The press often scandalises the ‘shock factor’ of my work but the intent is not to traumatise. Ultimately, the experience of watching the performance should be peaceful, and while yes, there is graphic imagery and not everyone can handle it, to me, it is beautiful.
I don’t seek out ‘transgressive’ content, rather I am occupied with certain boundaries and norms; to understand why they are there and stretch them. As such, the transgressive quality is there by default. Transgression is inherent to the act of working within different disciplines and putting them together in one artwork.
Persis: From hurdle running, to chopping heavy logs of wood, and then the muscles required to weightlift (in Apollon) – the rigour required to prepare for your performances is intense. From participants of your workshops and classes, I’ve heard about how your practice taught them to expand their physical capacities beyond what they ever conceived of as possible. Can you elaborate on your fascination with strong bodies?
Florentina: ‘A strong body carries a strong mind’, so they say. Building up muscle, becoming physically stronger, helps people to feel more powerful mentally, and I need my cast to have a certain amount of self-esteem to carry the work. And that’s very much how I see it: when you perform, you carry the work. Having a strong spine has certainly never hurt anyone.
However, this isn’t necessarily a requirement for everyone involved in the production – not everyone I work with is strong and formally trained. Actually, the audience can expect to see all kinds of body types. In A Divine Comedy, there is the string quartet.
Persis: Do you know Kathy Acker’s essay on bodybuilding, ‘Against Ordinary Language: the Language of the Body’?
She writes about bodybuilding as a project of failure. You work the muscle until it fails to move. You need the muscle to break down to grow bigger. She is fascinated by training the body, because ultimately you can’t control it. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Bodybuilding means ‘to come face to face with chaos, with my own failure or a form of death’. I was thinking of this text in relation to your work and the dances of death in particular.
Florentina: Yes, I know the text! I share the connection she draws between physical training and death. The athletic body, the trained body, which is represented in A Divine Comedy by the hurdle runners. This level of physical prowess is the ultimate expression of vitality. We see these young bodies at the height of their physical capacities. But they are surrounded by motorised vehicles. Despite all their strength, they might just get run over by a car in the next five minutes. Their fitness won’t save them from death. The vital body is surrounded by death.
Sport also fascinates me for another reason: training entails overcoming an obstacle, to transgress the boundaries of your limitations. In other words, destruction creates growth. That is how I think of dance.
Persis: You mentioned Ria’s teachings on the inner experience of dance, beyond formal expression. In your solo work, you once said that you have diverged from the body–mind integration, which was emphasised in your choreographic education at SNDO, and you are now focusing more on the body and strength. Can you elaborate on this?
Florentina: Body and mind are both important to my work. It’s not that I disregard the dancer as a thinking body. On the contrary, it’s extremely important that the dancer has autonomy, thinks and speaks. But these analytical facets don’t preclude movement. The body needs to make its own experiences. To be able to articulate verbally, you need to work things out with the flesh first. My brain is definitely involved – it’s not a competition between body and mind – but the body is my starting point.
Persis: Your main theme so far has been the female body and its position in the discipline of dance. Do you think this research is developing in a certain direction, or do you find yourself circling around the same theme?
Florentina: My own experiences are always the point of departure. And since I am always changing, the discourse is not static. For a while now I have been looking at my internal experience of sexual identity. And this comes from my cast, too. I don’t need to make powerfully feminist work for the rest of my life, but as long as there are undiscussed topics left, I’ll continue. Maybe it will dissolve at a certain point, but, for now, I’m still having fun.