TANZ at RISING: A Spectacle of Effort

TANZ pinpoints the subtleties of individual taste by putting everything on the table. There is a freedom begat by this intense exposure, which demands that you think something–anything–of it. You must consume everything or leave (or, occasionally, faint). And you must own your choice: you can walk out of TANZ, but everyone will see you do it.


CW: Nudity

Florentina Holzinger’s nudist ballet spectacle TANZ (“dance” in German) showed at the Arts Centre for just three nights as part of RISING festival, an apt performance attesting to the program’s moonlit, occult aesthetic. This stunt-heavy transmogrification of Romantic ballet stages a series of ascents and descents: descending into nudity; rising in flight; raising the house lights; descending into the forest. It is not only bodies that are stripped in Holzinger’s bizarre phantasmagorical production, but beauty of its effortlessness.

Fake fluids mix with real excretions as the performers–a unique ensemble of contemporary dancers and circus performers led by once-prima ballerina now-octogenarian Beatrice “Trixie” Cordua–bare the effort of their art to the audience through their nude bodies, which literally bear their weight. The contradictions of traditional dance aesthetics, which demand flight, suspension, beauty and effortlessness, are reformulated in TANZ: flight is beautiful, but it is painful–for the artist and the audience. Act 1 opens as a quasi-faithful replica of a ballet barre class that, once the ballerinas’ clothes and the barres are removed at the encouragement of their teacher Trixie, becomes a masturbation class. This rapid, slapstick initiation into TANZ’s cult of nudity relieves the audience of a potentially agonising process of undress. It is a chance to get all your giggles out before the serious stuff starts but also expedites the crowd’s assimilation to the naked body, which becomes the on-stage norm. Humorousness dissolves into austerity as the class, which is training for performer and audience alike, culminates in a trinity of suspension: two dancers in blood red pointe shoes mount suspended motorcycles; a third pulleys herself several metres off the stage floor by her hair. Hung like mobiles, the steeds rotate achingly slowly as their riders dangle perilously and delicately off each side, hooked in the tension between ballet slipper and bent steel. Centrally, the hair-suspended performer is rigged such that her arms and scalp take the strain of effort.  Flying high above, she is alien and holy. Holzinger explained in an interview for Frieze magazine that the effect of elevation is estrangement. Yet the exposure–of the rigging, of the body–leaves no question of how, only awe. Each deliberate, powerful and patient pull on the rope harnessed to her hair testifies to the threat of gravity that lies beneath, against which every muscle must fight. The magic is that there is no magic.

Holzinger’s decision to denude the entire ensemble for the majority of the performance means that inevitably nudity is central to the show’s discussion. When someone asks “What did you think of TANZ??!” they really mean ‘What did you think of the nudity in TANZ??!!?’ It will be hard to convince them that the nudity is nearly forgettable across a performance that folds in witches and wolves, a bizarre mid-show announcement and magic trick from the choreographer (like an interval but you don’t get to pee), live body-puncturing, a death dance, a bloody (long) battle scene, and more. Dance tends towards the symbolic, the non-literal, but here no obvious metaphorical significance of nudity makes itself known. There is no sense of vulnerability or loss in the discard of clothing in TANZ. It is neither symbolic of release nor solely erotic. Despite some obscene comedy in the early moments of full nudity, the presentation of bodies in TANZ for the most part challenges an identification between nudity and eroticism. This moves in opposition to a German dance tradition that glorified the nude female dancer in order to attract audiences and revenue. Simply, the dancers are too warm with their clothes on and thus this discomfort is shed. By stripping the whole cast, its significance is dispersed; there is something going on besides nakedness. Still, Holzinger latches onto the sense of prurience nudity provokes for spectators. The divide between who is watching and who is being watched is further heightened by two portrait screens suspended downstage that directly transmit footage captured by an obtrusive film camera carried by one of the performers. The twin screens triple the audience’s view of the performers’ effort, providing close ups and angles of vision that live theatre traditionally denies. Memorable is the zoomed-in footage of Trixie’s vagina as she gives birth to a rodent in the folkloric forest of Act 2. Blood sprays and metal music screams from Trixie’s open mouth: it emphasises labour above all else.  

How does ballet fit into TANZ? Holzinger’s research into Romantic ballet went “really fucking far”, in her own words. The two-act structure is a nod to 19th century romantic ballet, as are representations of fable creatures like wolves, witches and birds. Following the barre class, reference to classical ballet is more esoterically threaded through the narrative. Although the performers don pointe shoes to clamber up onto the motorcycles and to be hoisted by harnesses into the air, ballet is at times lost in modern gesture. The contemporary movement is some of the most powerful in the show, as when Holzinger and a co-star move in synchrony with broad, circular motions to overpower the rampant witch, with rigid limbs epitomising muscular control. The ensemble again rise onto pointe towards the end of Act 2. None of them, besides Trixie, come from a ballet background. The sight of non-elite ballet dancers on the Arts Centre stage is refreshing. Breasts and pubic hair disturb the perfect lines demanded by ballet, exonerating the performers of technical excellence and liberating the expressive potential of classical compositions.

The opening night of TANZ at RISING received a standing ovation. The ensemble re-emerged for a second round of bows. Days later the show collected four star reviews from a slew of newspapers and sites, including The Age, Limelight and the Guardian. In the foyer post-show opinions were more ambivalent; there was a sense of bewilderment in dazed smiles and wide eyes. A state of confusion develops beyond the theatre space, driven by the show’s defiance of convention and predictability. Although we are not entirely sure what to make of TANZ, it has inspired relatively consistent critical analysis: wild, shocking, beautiful, fantastic–even if its penchant for disturbance misses the mark occasionally. Where this miss falls exactly differs from person to person, if it is at all identifiable. For some it may be the meat hooks, or perhaps the mid-show audience participation. Maybe you think the nudity isn’t theatrically justified, or that the feminist messaging doesn’t pierce through the radical presentation. TANZ pinpoints the subtleties of individual taste by putting everything on the table. There is a freedom begat by this intense exposure, which demands that you think something–anything–of it. You must consume everything or leave (or, occasionally, faint). And you must own your choice: you can walk out of TANZ, but everyone will see you do it.

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