What we (don’t) talk about when we talk about pain

A naked woman wearing red ballet shoes clambers over a motorcycle suspended from the ceiling: one of the promotion images for Tanz

On Tanz, by Florentina Holzinger, at Battersea Arts Centre, by Maddy Costa


1. I wasn’t taking notes and at one point I wasn’t even watching, I was squinting and had my face in my hands. So there’s a level of detail and accuracy missing from this text that feels dishonourable to the precision of Tanz, a precision belied by the mess made on stage (spilled cornflakes, discarded clothes, fake blood, real blood). What made me write this anyway was reading other reviews which – and apologies for how this comes across as snarky and disrespectful – did not feel adequate to the occasion.

2. To be fair, this text – somewhat sneeringly described as ‘lofty commentary’ in the Guardian – comes pretty close to what I wanted to read. On the other hand, what my heart is seeking is something like what Dave the Electrician wrote for the Theatre Bristol Writing Project in 2014 about a show by Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek: something that puts me right back into the exhilaration of watching, time spinning faster than you realise, brain spinning at the audacity and intelligence of what’s unfolding on stage. (The more of this I write, the more my heart is disappointed. Weeks pass. I keep trying.)

3. I am less knowledgeable about performance and live art than is sometimes assumed from my writing. I quote this distinction made by Selina Thompson often because it’s funny and feels true: ‘when I say “performance artists”, what comes to my head is Karen Finley covered in shit, screaming at the top of her voice, in a loft somewhere in New York. … Whereas when I say, “live art”, what I imagine is a white room, with a concrete floor and a white man in the middle of it doing something that’s stressing me out.’ People cutting themselves, piercing their skin, subjecting themselves to visible pain, stress me out and I avoid, I avoid hard. The first time I saw Veronica Thompson – part of the UK ensemble for Tanz – perform hair-hanging, in Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman (2016), I could hardly watch: I felt the prickle of each follicle in my own scalp. If I’d read the content warnings for Tanz before taking my seat, instead of just cooing over the photograph of a naked woman clambering on to a motorbike suspended in the air like a trapeze, I almost certainly wouldn’t have bought a ticket.

What we talk about when we talk about pain

Tanz starts with a ballet class. No it doesn’t. It starts with a naked woman ripping out her own intestines while a coven of witches circle her, silent, the naked woman shrieking, panting, cackling. And then the naked woman gets up and begins instructing the ballet class. First position. Fifth position. Jeté. The four students are learning how to govern their bodies; at each side of the stage is an electronic screen where the words How To Govern the Body appear in the red, dripping letters of a horror story. But what does it mean to govern the body? For whom is this control?

The body on display. The body stretched, poised, disciplined. The female body as consumed by the male gaze, critiqued by the female gaze.

Have you any idea what ballet dancers go through to train and perform? I found out in 2006 through an article in the Guardian. In no particular order: black nails, broken nails, blisters, bunions, bruised bunions, corns that become ulcers, inflammation, damaged tendons, twisted ankles. Wincing yet? ‘Peter Norman, one of the UK’s leading podiatrists, has seen it all in the 16 years he has been treating the the Royal Ballet. He is aware, too, that even more goes on unseen. “I know of dancers who have gone on pointe with broken bones and stress fractures,” says Norman. “The pressure on them to get parts, to guard their places in the companies, means they push themselves too far.”’

I love watching ballet. The artifice. The aura of elegance, of perfection. The invisibility of pain as the ballerinas rise on pointes and billow like a cloud of icing sugar across the confectionery surface of the stage.

When the ballet students in Tanz slip on their pointe shoes, so do the other women milling at the side of the stage. (I didn’t notice this myself, but apparently these women were, among other ablutions, pissing into buckets. As Holzinger has said in an interview: ‘If I’m training my body to pee on cue, then I’m exerting control over my body. It could be seen as a form of dance technique, even if it’s not a grand jeté or a tendu.’) Two of the women have large metal rings tied into their hair; each is clipped to a harness, to pull them up on pointe, and then a little further, so they’re suspended, not much, just enough to make the pain of the feet visible – empathetically felt – in the strain on the hair.

Their ballet shoes are red, the bright ruby colour of fresh blood.

Pain at the root of beauty

The women in the ballet class are initially clothed in ordinary leisurewear but gradually remove each layer at the instigation of their instructor, actual ballerina Claire Philippart, veteran of, among others, the Dutch National Ballet. I notice that their bodies are softer than Philippart’s, whose limbs are lean and taut beneath age-creased skin. I notice that they all have the same trimmed rectangle of pubic hair; later I learn from an article in Cosmopolitan that this is a French wax with a landing strip design although you’d have to get pretty close and personal to know for certain if it were truly French or actually Brazilian. There is in fact a general invitation to get close and personal when Philippart conducts a vaginal inspection, but the camera projecting images on to the title screens is more focused on the hairline of the head than of the vulva. I notice as I write that I didn’t bother checking how their eyebrows were groomed. My own eyebrows bristle, hairs sprouting towards eyelids and across the bridge of my nose, because every time I try tweezing them, pain shoots through my sinuses, stings my eyes, makes me cry, and I give up. This information, in this context, gets you surprisingly close and personal to my fully clothed body.

In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino dedicates an essay to the beauty industry (in the expansive sense including exercise and fashion) that expects women in particular to undertake ‘expensive hard work for a high-functioning, maximally attractive consumer existence’. One of the ways in which Tolentino herself conforms to this systemic expectation is through barre class: a form of exercise ‘only vaguely connected to ballet’, less concerned with aesthetics than fine-tuning a body to ‘function more efficiently within an exhausting system’. A body disciplined to work harder, faster, longer: this, Tolentino says, with a flinch of self-disgust, is a body worth paying and experiencing pain for.

‘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,’ Holzinger told a New York Times journalist. (Tolentino’s essay is called ‘Always Be Optimizing’.) The women on stage reduce themselves to an essentialised femininity – each is naked but for a waistband supporting their microphone; each displays her vulva – and at the same time refuse to be reduced to an identikit optimised streamlined figure of womanhood. One lounges in an armchair casually smoking. Two others clamber over, swing from, suspended motorcycles. Philippart – well, I have a difference of opinion here: everyone else thinks she gave birth to a rat; I thought her clitoris was being pleasured by the rat; likely I’m wrong but I share the image anyway for, to semi-quote Philippart in the show, maximum corruptibility.

Another woman scuttles about the stage, a trickster figure, with blackened teeth and unkempt hair. She’s the capitalist witch, and the the time will come when the other women tear her limb from limb.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet

In the same week Tanz played at Battersea Arts Centre, a triple bill of short works choreographed by Crystal Pite was performed at the Royal Opera House by the Royal Ballet. Pite is a choreographer of lapidary attention: she articulates not just limbs but individual muscles, one by one the discs in the spine. The first work in the triple bill, Flight Pattern, is exquisite: the stage is full of dancers (36 of them), moving in waves and intersecting lines, in hope and heavy sorrow. Dressed in midnight blue, they are the lost, the wandering, refugees in the twilight edges of society, shunted from here to there, taking makeshift rest where they can, grieving, soothing each other, shut out. It’s so elegant, so beautiful it enraptures, and therein the discomfort: what does it mean to sit in such ostentatious surroundings and indulge in compassion for the “““poor migrant people””” being represented on stage? What pain is being displayed here? What complexity is being transmuted, reduced, into beauty?

I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but

In another quirk of timing, Tanz was performed in the same week that Arts Council England announced the winners and losers in the game of NPO. On the one hand, such language is crass and facetious; on the other, capitalism is a system of competition that requires many to have not, more effectively to enable others to have. The present Tory government requires artists to have not, and the Royal Opera House was not alone in experiencing a huge cut in its funding in this NPO announcement: 9% – and that’s before you factor in inflation/real-term cuts – reducing its annual funding from £24,471,000 to £22,268,584. Yes, you read that right: 5% of the entire NPO budget is given to a single venue, the one with perhaps most consistent access to corporate sponsorship and individual philanthropy, the one whose cleaners and porters – many of whom are people from global majority and migrant backgrounds – had to strike earlier this autumn in protest at pay and working conditions. Pain, concealed.

What is valued, how is it valued, who participates in the valuing? These questions prickle through Tanz, a constant provocation. Work of this scale, to this level of physical and dramaturgical rigour, requires time, and it’s not possible to buy that amount of time on the kind of money the Treasury is willing to allot to the Arts Council to then hand on to a venue like Battersea Arts Centre, let alone the independent artists who might actually make the work.

The capitalist witch prowls the auditorium at BAC, looking for someone who will give Holzinger a handful of cash: to be specific, enough money to create a frisson, to generate a sense of risk. The witch takes it from one person and gives it to another, and then Holzinger, who has her back turned throughout this transaction, has to try and guess, using her magical intuition, where the money is. Is it a trick? Yes – in so many ways. The woman who handed over £50 in hard cash (as opposed to what, soft cash?) wasn’t forewarned that Holzinger would confiscate the money, as proceeds towards a forest that was planted when Tanz was first performed in 2019, a gesture against climate catastrophe. Gesture sounds laden with judgement, doesn’t it? Dismissive, as though this planting of a forest were a pointless act. But humans need trees and the earth needs trees and maybe this woman really needs that £50 and maybe she doesn’t but there’s a tremor of pain in her voice as she realises she’s been duped. Come talk to me at the end, says Holzinger, with dazzling insouciance, you can tell me if you think the show was worth that money, we can negotiate. The ethics of this moment sizzle, electricity through water; Holzinger’s refusal, her confidence, providing the shock.

And so ends the interlude between the real world, the world as it is, and the forest, where all hell breaks loose.

Shock tactics

The romantic ballet La Sylphide – one of the two-act works, beginning in an ordinary village and ending in a fairy-tale forest, that Holzinger names as a structural inspiration for Tanz – was created to showcase the skills of ballerina Marie Taglioni. To make her pointe work more visible, Taglioni shortened her tulle skirts above her ankles, causing a scandal (so says wiki) among 19th-century audiences.

What does it take for a female performer to shock now? It’s a red herring of a wrong question.

We’re in the forest where the witches live. At the back of the stage there’s a woman who has, from the start of the show, been lolling about on a white-sheeted table doing nothing. (What does it mean, to do? How is it valued?) Casual smoker – professional piercing artist Suzn Pasyon – approaches her, cleans her back, rubs it down with what I hope was an industrial strength anaesthetic, and with tender deliberation inserts four metal hooks in a neat row across the lolling woman’s shoulder blades.

There’s a line in John Berger’s G, a book I refuse to read on the basis of its synopsis (‘G. is a Don Juan or Casanova-like lover of women’ – yep, I’m out of here), in which the lothario wonders: ‘Why do I end at my skin?’ It’s possible what he’s seeking is a kind of porosity, being entered through his pores, but given his gender, and Berger’s, I’m going to assume what he’s desiring here are more ways to penetrate. Lolling woman – Lydia Darling at the performance I watched; Lucifire the night before: it’s such a relief to realise this act isn’t repeated, even if it is – lolling woman is female, and therefore penetrated. Once the hooks are in place they are clipped to ropes and she is suspended in the air, with the tug on her skin visible and blood trickling down her back in jagged rivulets.

NO I COULD NOT WATCH THIS. For 24 hours afterwards I felt nauseous; several weeks later thinking about this scene still makes me gag. Not only is she suspended: she spins, and then she grabs a broomstick and screeches with ecstasy. This isn’t the limp orgasmic ecstasy that sculptor Bernini carved into the face and body of Saint Teresa, pierced – penetrated – by an angel’s spear. It’s a wild, maniacal, dangerous ecstasy, of a woman reclaiming the knowledge of witches: a knowledge from which men were excluded, a knowledge that men – as scientists, as doctors, as philosophers – waged a campaign of violence, a continent-spanning witch-hunt, to claim.

The penetration of Lydia Darling is not (just) a shock tactic, or a boundary-breaking circus act, and the point is not (just) to endure pain. This is political. And it’s been going on for centuries.

The unbearable lightness of being

In La Sylphide, a man is tricked by witches but it’s the woman he loves who dies. In Giselle – another of the romantic ballets Holzinger names as a (negative) influence – a woman is tricked by a lothario and dies, and a group of witches attempt to take revenge, but the dead woman protects the lothario so he survives. In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes, written just a few years after these ballets were first performed, a woman is punished by a soldier for dancing too much, for refusing to conform, be constricted. If John Berger had been a woman, perhaps he might have phrased the question: why must I be trapped by this skin?

In another essay in Trick Mirror, ‘We Come From Old Virginia’, Tolentino unpicks the reporting of a campus rape at her own alma mater, a story that was ultimately unravelled as a hoax but in the telling of a lie approached fundamental truths. (Which is a lot like how theatre works.) One of those truths is that, for decades, Tolentino’s college ‘expelled students for plagiarism while refusing to consider rape a serious offence’. Another is that ‘most people still find false accusation much more abhorrent than rape’. But the one that really rips at my insides is this: ‘Rape is an inescapable function of a world that has been designed to give men a maximal amount of lawless freedom.’

This line is synthesised from another essay, by Elizabeth Schambelan, ‘League of Men’, a study of myth and anthropological readings of older societies ‘who understood how grossly contemptible it is to make decisions, as a society, and then assiduously deny the consequences of those decisions’. Decisions integral to the functioning of patriarchy: men must lead, must demonstrate their power over other men, must control difference, using whatever means necessary. Shock and awe.

What is the danger that lurks in the woods? In La Sylphide and Giselle – both choreographed by men – it is the witch; for Little Red Riding Hood, it is the wolf or, in Schambelan’s rendering, the man-boy dressed as a wolf.

We’re in the forest where the witches live, because to gain or reach knowledge you have to penetrate something: again the blood-red writing on the screens. Penetrate the darkness. Penetrate the skin. Penetrate the woman? I feel so aware of how simplistic the gender binaries are here; Holzinger dances with and against them, laughs in the face of them, because these binaries prevail, still govern lives: and note, trans women are more subject to their violence than anyone. I called this section after Milan Kundera’s novel because a few months ago my teenage daughter was reading it and – having not read it myself since university – I happened to open it at the page where Sabina muses: ‘There are things that can be accomplished only by violence. Physical love is unthinkable without violence.’ Readers, I nearly dropped it in the toilet.

Women enduring pain is not the point of Tanz. Making an audience see that pain, and see where they don’t see pain: that is (part of) the point. Tanz opens with a woman ripping out her intestines, but it closes with those women acting like men: the forest becomes a war zone, the women shooting and stabbing each other in a replica of blockbuster cinema glorification of masculine carnage, or a video game in which human life is a currency no more or less meaningful than drugs, guns or dollar bills. Tolentino’s essay builds up to ‘a much larger and deeper story’: ‘Violence against women is fundamentally connected to other systems of violence.’ The violence of racism, for starters.

Before they were killed as witches, women worked together as gossips, and earlier this year one of my protector gossips gifted me this mantra from Toni Cade Bambara: ‘what are you pretending not to know today?’ To reach knowledge you have to penetrate your mind’s self-protection, expose yourself to the ungovernable. In its fierce intelligence, Tanz is an invitation to the audience’s intelligence: not a horror show for Halloween (even if that’s when it was programmed at BAC) but a dismemberment of the myths by which human beings live.

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