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Florentina Holzinger on opera, bloodletting and helicopter sex

She brought water tanks and helicopters to the Volksbünhe. Now, Florentina Holzinger is about to tackle a new stronghold: the opera world.

Photo: Apollonia T. Bitza

Holzinger’s shows explore gender, gore, and the history of dance through performances that test the limits and possibilities of the human body. Her controversial work has won not only critical acclaim but also—since Apollon in 2018— increasingly attracted crowds well beyond the dance world.

Currently, she has two performances ongoing at the Volksbühne, A Divine Comedy (2021) and Ophelia’s Got Talent, which premiered in September 2022 and will be part of Berlin’s Theatertreffen in May.

Often, when people write about your work, they focus on the blood or bodily fluids and its more extreme gestures – dancers dangling from wires attached to their hair or hammering nails into their nose – as pushing beyond the boundaries of pain and shock. But that doesn’t seem to be fully where your focus lies. Is there something more imaginative that drives your work?

Fun is a big factor that plays a role. But I also don’t want to be dismissive – obviously, it’s not just about having fun. I like to do quite deep research on my topics, and then also gather the right people who also want to go in for this kind of deep research. Usually, it’s a bunch of hard workers that I try to get together – people that enjoy this type of hard work. For example, a dancer has that usually in their DNA, that they enjoy waking up in the morning and training, or spending the whole day thinking about how to manifest a certain topic physically, which can be very challenging for other people.

For me, it is very logical to have sex with a car or with a helicopter or something like that.

I mean, my absolute passion is really the physical experiment, so I try to gather these people who also enjoy it, for whom this is easy to go for, or who really get pleasure out of that. ‘Okay, today, let’s try to do something today that we have not done before, and really try to see how we can make it possible and really put out something different than what is usually being put there.’

Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak

It’s not so much that the thought behind our work is to be obsessed with doing something that has never been done before – we do it because that just sparks our own curiosity as a team. So, of course, the water [tanks in Ophelia], everybody can imagine that was a big, big playground for us, because it is a privilege to work with that in an arts context. And it was a lot of hard work to make that possible. God knows we had to really push to get it done – with a lot of trial and error.

Fainting is different from when you get knocked out by a heavyweight punch

At the end of the day, it’s not a Cirque du Soleil production.

Have you experienced audiences passing out in Berlin with Ophelia’s Got Talent – as was the case with some of your other shows?

Apollon was the show where people started passing out. But, after that, we kind of got used to it because, with Apollon, there was just a lot of real blood. That was the show where we realised that people can react quite sensitively to that, I would say.

People passed out a lot during all the other shows that involved some kind of bloodletting. In Ophelia, people don’t faint because there is no real blood… Oh no, there is – and probably people have fainted – because there is a hook [through the cheek]. So people do also faint in Ophelia, but not as many. It was never an intention of mine to have such an impact on the organism of a person in that way. Ideally, nobody faints. It was just that we still wanted to involve bloodletting in shows, and we have used specific trigger warnings to eliminate the number of people who faint.

But fainting is also not the end of the world. I mean, our fainting is different from when you get knocked out by a heavyweight punch or something. It’s just a harmless little shoop (swooning gesture) and then you come back and you can even watch the end of the show.

You mention your deep art historical research. When you created Ophelia’s Got Talent, what were you thinking about in terms of other art and media? 

I am interested in the goriness of this body transformation, because dance is very much always busy with the transformative aspects of the body.

Generally we always do a big dive into dance or theatre history, but also art history.

In this context, with Ophelia, probably what interested me most was really more the [John Everett] Millais picture than the Shakespeare version of it. And I mean, everybody talks about Titane with the helicopter scene [in Ophelia]. But I was always a big fan of body gore films. For me, it is very logical to have sex with a car or with a helicopter or something like that.

I am interested in the goriness of this body transformation, because dance is very much always busy with the transformative aspects of the body. Ideally, theatre ‘should transform’ and dance ‘should transform’ and the body ‘should transform’. And that’s fine. But for me, I also like the gory aspects of it.

I like to also acknowledge that the body can be this absolute alien object – and to play with that.

Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak

Ophelia’s Got Talent is the first show you’ve conceived and made specifically for Berlin, and also specifically for the Volksbühne. How did your expectations of the audience shape your conception of the piece? 

I’ve always thought of a Berlin audience as very open-minded and up for fun. People come to get challenged and see a sort of entertainment in that. We know that this is an audience in the Volksbühne that we can really play with. That’s probably why so many people end up on our stage. It’s Berlin!

Here, I know that if you call out into a room, “Hey, who feels like coming up?” there will be a couple of hands in the air. It’s not that you need to push people for something like that. If I knew it was an audience that you might need to push, I wouldn’t do it. People want to be included here. 

You’re going to be at Theatertreffen in May. How do you feel now that it’s going to be your second time at the festival after Tanz was selected in 2020? 

People come to get challenged and see a sort of entertainment in that.

For me, Theatertreffen has usually been a selection by people who I would consider to have a quite old-school approach to theatre. When we were invited the first time, some people in my cast would say, “Oh no, that’s the beginning of the end because that means you have gotten conventional.”

I see this as not so bad, though, because it means that they are opening up. And I think it’s great that they have us on the radar. That is great. And it is a sign of some change in another direction, for sure. We have to be an active part in bringing it back from its conventionality.

Do you have plans to push against the bounds of convention in your next projects?

It’s not that my main motivation in life is to break conventions. I mean, it’s more that conventions are usually boring, and then we end up quite organically breaking them. We are very busy with the question of ‘Why not?’ where other people say, “You cannot do that.” We’re like, “Here, we did it!” So now we are excited to take on another beast.

And, speaking of conventions, we really are about to enter into a fucking Hochburg [stronghold] of an institution: the opera world. In terms of gender, it’s just so sad. I mean, I see my biggest nightmares confirmed there in terms of [lack of ] female conductors, or diversity in an orchestra. It’s just depressing. 

Why did you choose an opera as your next project? Where does the inspiration come from? 

I would not have started flirting with this idea if somebody had not approached me and said “Hey, make an opera.” But of course, sitting with that offer I was, like, “Fuck, a 70-person orchestra, big choir, I can finally focus on sound equally to physicality and vision and visuals.” I could not say no to that proposal because it means having a totally new corpus of things at my disposal.

It’s going to be quite a satanic opera.

And then, of course, all the problems I encountered in the opera also sparked my interest. I was like, “Okay, that’s something to take on.” Also, everything about opera is super camp. I mean, it’s just fucking camp. It’s a fantasy and a fetish. 

Can you tease anything about the new show thematically? 

We’re working with the church for this opera. It’s a nun opera. It’s us in the convent! It’s going to be quite a satanic opera.

  • Ophelia’s Got Talent at Theatertreffen May 12-28, details.