BERLIN — In a rehearsal hall on the city’s outskirts, Xana Novais was hanging by her teeth. On a recent evening, the tattooed 27-year-old performer was suspended a few inches above the ground, biting down on a piece of leather hanging from a rope, perfecting a new skill called the “iron jaw.” It did not look easy.
Novais was practicing for a sequence in “Ophelia’s Got Talent,” a new work by the Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger that premieres at the Berlin Volksbühne theater on Thursday. As part of the performance, which blends dance, stunts and sideshow-inspired acts, Novais was meant to dangle like a fish caught on a hook for about half a minute. But after 20 seconds, she let go, lowered herself down, and grimaced. “This is about learning to manage discomfort,” she said.
Discomfort is central to the work of Holzinger, 36, who has recently become a star of the European dance and performance worlds by pushing the limits of what performers — and audiences — can endure. Holzinger, whose interest in bodily extremes dates back to her own training as a dancer, has drawn acclaim for works that feature large casts of nude female performers and explore lofty ideas about art and gender while showcasing acts, sometimes involving bodily fluids, that obliterate the boundaries of good taste.
In “Apollon,” a 2017 piece exploring the work of the choreographer George Balanchine and notions of artist and muse, performers bled and defecated onstage. “A Divine Comedy,” a 2021 riff on Dante’s epic poem about the circles of hell, included a scene in which a woman ejaculates explosively while using a vibrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of her performances are punctuated by audience members walking out.
“Ophelia’s Got Talent” — an exploration of myths and narratives about women and water, including mermaids, sirens and the tragic, drowning figure from “Hamlet” — is the first of several original works Holzinger is creating as part of a multiyear agreement with the Volksbühne, one of the most influential theaters in the German-speaking world.
René Pollesch, the theater’s artistic director, said he was partly attracted to Holzinger’s work because of her interest in showcasing a variety of strong female performers, including older women and women with disabilities, doing daring and demanding acts onstage. “This is a radical feminism, not a reform feminism,” he said.
Holzinger, who has a self-deprecating wit and the physical intensity of a boxer, explained in an interview that she and her cast would pull fish hooks through their skin and hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes during the show. At one point, she said, cast members would form the shape of a fountain and squirt water from their noses. “That will be a nice image,” she said.
She added that she drew inspiration from dance history, mythology and action films, including the James Bond franchise, but that she viewed the stage as a “laboratory” where ostensibly taboo acts can be performed freely. “I can maybe teach people something about what forms of shame are necessary and which are not,” she said.
Life under capitalism encouraged individuals to perfect themselves, Holzinger said, adding that her work delved into the ways this shaped women’s bodies. “We are in a society where you are able to purchase and create your own femininity, and optimize yourself in ways the system wants you to,” she said. In her work, she added, she tried to find “unexpected” ways of using the body, which has been conditioned to look and move a certain way by social pressures.
Barbara Frey, the artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, a prominent arts festival in Germany that commissioned “A Divine Comedy,” said Holzinger had created a “new form” of performance that combines “dance, exuberant wit, great tenderness” and “the Roman gladiatorial arena” while exploring “the male gaze — and the female gaze — on the female body.”
Some have compared her work to the Viennese Actionists, an Austrian art movement in the 1960s and ’70s whose (largely male) adherents staged performances in which they carried out extreme acts, including self-mutilation, as a way of confronting spectators with what they saw as repressed elements of Austrian society. Although Holzinger has previously said she draws little inspiration from the movement, the association with the Actionists, who are now a revered part of Austria’s art history, helped her gain early respect in her native country, she explained.
Born to a pharmacist and a lawyer in Vienna, Holzinger came late to dance. She said that soon after she began her training, at age 17, she realized it was too late for her to perfect the skills necessary for a classic career as a dancer, and that she was “too strong, too muscular for ballet.”
After being rejected from several traditional European dance academies, she enrolled in the School for New Dance Development, an experimental school in Amsterdam, where she began exploring alternative ways of using her body as a vehicle for spectacle. “If I’m training my body to pee on cue, then I’m exerting control over my body,” she said. “It could be seen as a form of dance technique, even if it’s not a grand jeté or a tendu.”
After several eyebrow-raising collaborations with Vincent Riebeek, a Dutch choreographer, Holzinger said she reached a turning point in her career after a near-death experience during a 2013 performance at an arts festival in Norway, in which she fell from a height of 16 feet while doing an aerial stunt. Although she survived with a concussion and a broken nose, the accident, caused by a screw holding her weight that came loose, led her to take a more meticulous approach to her work and safety.
Since then, she has focused on creating her more elaborate works for all-female ensembles. Four years after the accident, she debuted “Apollon,” a piece that wrestled with what Holzinger described as the “lived experience of ballet” and the “overdone femininity of ballerinas.” The show was widely acclaimed and toured internationally. That piece, as well as her 2019 follow-up, “Tanz,” drew parallels between the suffering experienced by dancers — including via the ballet shoe, which she described as a “torture item” that often deforms and bloodies dancers’ feet — and the staged violence of less highbrow acts, such as sword swallowing, or body suspension shows.
Finding performers for her works, she admitted, hasn’t always been easy. Some, like Novais, have a background in theater, while others are sex workers or sideshow performers. As part of her recruitment efforts, she said, she once advertised for “women with special talents” on Craigslist.
But her work has also attracted performers with more traditional dance backgrounds, including Trixie Cordua, 81, a former soloist with the Hamburg Ballet who has worked with John Cage. Cordua, who has Parkinson’s disease and sometimes moves onstage with the help of a motorized wheelchair, said in a phone interview that she was drawn to working with Holzinger because of her “ability to combine things that don’t usually fit together to form a fully new constellation,” and because of her willingness to go “very, very far.”
Holzinger said she was comfortable with the fact that the extreme elements of her works often led people to walk out of her performances. “If people come to me expecting an evening of abstract postmodern dance, I fully respect their decision to leave,” she said. “I’d rather be left with 10 people in the audience who find it cool.”
Ophelia’s Got Talent
Sept. 15 thought Oct. 25 at the Berlin Volksbühne; volksbuehne.berlin.