Dancer and choreographer Apollonia Holzer takes a moment to reflect on her original, evening-length work The White Ribbon with dancer Elizabeth Regan. Holzer premiered The White Ribbon alongside another original piece—The Woman I Am—in the spring of 2017. The two discuss Holzer’s journey from convent to dance studio, her holistic movement practice, and creative impetus.
Elizabeth Regan (Rail): Can you tell me a bit about your childhood growing up in Austria and how, if at all, this setting shaped your work?
Holzer: I am from St. Peter in der Au, a little town close to Linz. I grew up on a farm with seven siblings. We were poor, barely had any toys, but we were creative with our games, playing outside with all of nature’s elements. I loved to be barefooted and to climb trees. We all also had to help on the farm: milking the cows, working on the field, and in the woods in the winter. It was sometimes very hard. The farm shaped my life a lot. It taught me focus, hard work, humility, and gratitude. Moreover, the life and work in nature provided me with very important principles of movement. I noticed the momentum of a movement and the stillness: like the wind sweeping over the grass and resting with the trees. The nature is telling you a story and we are a part of it.
Rail: So what brought you to New York City?
Holzer: After fourteen years living in a convent as a nun I decided I wanted to start somewhere totally new and explore a different language and dance trainings.
Rail: Wow. How long have you been a dancer?
Holzer: Depends on what you define as “being a dancer.” Dance itself is an expression of movement in relationship to space and time—and the dynamic between them. We all use that daily in our life and our whole life is a dance, in this sense.
As a “dancer” you train your body on a professional level, which I started doing when I was twenty-nine years old. I first studied Rosalia Chladek technique in Austria before exploring different dance techniques in New York: Graham, Limon, Horton, Simonson. With my age, I had to work harder on techniques, but the musicality and contemporary movements were very organic to me.
Rail: Can you tell me about the first piece that you created?
Holzer: Yes, I called it Kindheit Adieu. That means “Childhood, Goodbye.” I became inspired by the way we see each other. Based on situations and experiences, we create a picture in our mind of those around us from our interactions. We look at someone and we think they are a certain way, but we do not understand that what we’re seeing is merely a picture that we take in the moment. The image we create is only a part of that person, a particular framing that we hold on to for years as the way we see them. What happens when we break out of this frame?
Rail: How did you conceive of the idea for The White Ribbon?
Holzer: In all my dance creations I get inspired by the way people in our society act and react to each other, where we come from and who we think we are.
For that piece I drew inspiration from the eponymous 2009 black-and-white German film, The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke. In the movie, the pastor guilts the children for misdeeds, and instructs them to wear white ribbons as a reminder of innocence and purity. Many secret, mysterious events happen in the little village. The story illustrates how much life and education impact history.
The white ribbon is a symbol that transcends the context of the film and follows us into the myriad avenues of contemporary urban life. New York City is an obstacle course of hardship, which we confront at any given moment with either compassion or indifference. What does it mean, today, to be in a place of innocence? What guides us to act and respond to each other with kindness, and what leads us astray? When we were children, what did we know when we knew very little? I wanted to explore through dance multiple confrontations among memory, self, and strangers, and where that can bring us.
Rail: Were there any points in the creative process when you felt that you’d run out of ideas—conceptual or physical?
Holzer: I would not call it so much to “run out of ideas,” more that the process felt blocked.
In those moments, I tried to go back and ask myself what moved me in the first place to create the piece, and then to trust that the next step will show up. That often happens when I sit in the subway or I walk, or have a conversation with my dancers.
Rail: This piece came at a particularly meaningful time in America’s political climate. Did that impact your creative process?
Holzer: I do not think so. Like the story of Cain and Abel, history repeats itself in different ways and with different dynamics. What do we learn from it? Nowadays we talk a lot of about consciousness and mindfulness. We can keep talking or we can embody it!
Rail: What advice do you have for artists to embody this mindfulness and create work in New York?
Holzer: Art is not what you create; it is what flows through you. The artist is the mediator and must facilitate expression through different forms and shapes. Each time, I feel very humble when a project is finished—the elements just seemingly come together from nowhere.
Rail: How do you involve the audiences in your performances?
Holzer: Pina Bausch once said, “I'm not interested in how people move, but what moves them.”
When I start a project, I sometimes carry the idea with me for years. There is always a connection to what is going on in this world, to life experiences, to what touches me. When I work with dancers, I want them to identify with the idea, to feel it in the movement and to be moved from it.
With this in mind, we create a space where—for me—there is no delineation with an audience there and a stage here. What moves the dancers hopefully resonates just as deeply with the audience, bringing our collective presence together in the same place, moving on life’s “stage.”
White Ribbon was performed at West Park Presbyterian Church.
ELIZABETH REGAN is a dancer living and working in New York.