LondonPhysical TheatreReview

TANZ – Battersea Arts Centre, London.

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Concept/Performance/Choreography: Florentina Holzinger

Six dancers stand at the barre while a ballet mistress leads them through a series of exercises. As the exercises progress, the dancers remove items of clothing until they are naked. The ballet mistress starts off naked apart from the bag for her radio mic’s transmitter. A seventh dancer gets up late for class, spills her cornflakes all over the stage, buzzes round cleaning up with a vacuum cleaner, rides a broom in a sort of witchy way, and is naughtily disruptive. The ballet mistress leads the dancers into more and more self-revelatory positions and situations, the performers get more and more transgressive, and that’s the opening quarter of TANZ, playing at the BAC.

There are a lot of situations –there’s a witchy theme involving cauldrons and giving birth to rats and being toothless, though it would be wildly overstating to call that a narrative: there are two flying motorbikes that provide the framework for trapeze work: there is a wince-inducing sequence of extreme flying: there is a wild Sabbat with a piñata. It is a very busy show and there’s always a lot going on, and it goes on with performers who are naked, and a lot of it involves liberal quantities of ‘blood’. The trigger warnings outside the venue mention blood, but it is mostly Kensington Gore rather than the performers’ own, for which the audience is probably grateful.

The commitment of the performers to Florentina Holzinger’s concept is truly impressive; terrifying, but impressive. The women who embody her ideas put themselves in harm’s way, expose themselves physically and emotionally, and undergo a lot of challenging and frightening situations, which they manage with grace and humour. However…

There are two fairly straightforward problems with this sort of shocking show. The first is that it is very easy to get accustomed to transgression. By standing unclothed, the performers present a physical expression of the self-revelations to come. However, after registering a stage full of naked actors, and registering that they aren’t going away and they aren’t getting dressed, it ceases to be remarkable. Maybe that’s intentional, but it happens quite quickly. It is similarly easy to get used to scenes of mutilation and blood-letting.

The second is that, by engaging in high risk activity as part of the presentation, due care has to be taken to ensure that the pain and trauma doesn’t exceed the limits the performers are prepared to tolerate, unusually generous though those limits may be. This means that setting up the routines is a very, very long process. Things on stage grind to a halt for periods that would be called agonising if agony was not such an intrinsic element of the performance. While there are passages of intense, frenetic activity, there are also long periods when nothing much happens.

Any piece of performance art, or Live Theatre, or whatever genre TANZbelongs to, is designed to challenge the medium it is using. Why are they doing the things they do? What does it mean? The performers ask these questions explicitly, though they don’t provide any answers. And also, why is the audience watching, and if the performers are doing bad things to themselves, is the audience complicit in those activities? Has it commissioned torture? There really isn’t a narrative beyond a sort of Halloweeny fairy tale, and the consequence of the transgressive performing remains fairly obscure even at the end. The questions raised about the nature and purpose of performance remain unanswered.

New York’s Living Theatre probably gave significant value to audience members who could say ‘I saw the Living Theatre’. The main legacy of TANZ may be to enable the audiences at Battersea Arts Centre to say ‘TANZ? I saw that.’

Runs until 3 November 2022

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