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Sabrina Hölzer. Photo: © Wiebke Loeper

An interview with Sabrina Hölzer – Berlin based experimental stage director 0

 “In Japanese culture, niche space is so important for them because it is a space for shadow. Whereas their aesthetics work with less light, Western culture wants to illuminate everything.”

Interviewed by Ann Mirjam Vaikla

My first contact with Sabrina Hölzer’s work took place in Kanonhallen, Oslo, when I had an opportunity to experience her performance “Dark Was the Night”. Left with one of the most inspirational feelings of what a staged performance / concert can be, I was glad to meet her again, and this time personally, in the autumn of 2014 when she gave a workshop on creating experimental performances in the darkness, at the Norwegian Theatre Academy / Østfold University College (Fredrikstad, Norway). Staging music and soundscapes in the dark is what makes Sabrina Hölzer’s creations significant, as well as the way in which she makes the music become “theatre” through an acoustic process.

Into the Dark, 2010-2011. Filmstills von Markus Zucker © Sabrina Hölzer / Photos © Matthias Mramor, Hamburg, Photos © Adam Berry, Berlin

My main question with which I want to start is: What is the impulse that makes you do what you do – the creating of performances in the dark? Did you start because of a curiosity about darkness?

It started for several reasons. For example, for ten years I staged operas as a so-called classical stage director. I would be given a musically composed score (mostly from the 20th century), and then I would stage it. Of course, there were so many different kinds of performances written in the last century, and so many different ways to work with the actors and musicians, but in the end, it was all composed. Some composers had notations that offered gaps in which I could improvise, but mainly, it was about a score that had to be staged. After doing this for ten years, I was kind of frustrated with the aesthetics of opera staging. Also, in following the culture of Regietheater, and especially because music pieces were being interpreted very strongly through the concepts of the stage directors (in the context of Germany, that is), I got frustrated. It was either “the Robert Wilson way” of doing things in terms of beauty – very artificial in its language and staging, or you had a hyper-realistic and therefore, political (especially in Berlin), approach. Because of all of this, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Especially after having staged for ten years, I had become used to a certain way of staging, certain aesthetics; but then I started to realize how that was just repeating the same thing over and over again. So, what I’ve tried to do with working in the dark is to just switch off the light and start from the beginning, in a way. It became a sort of “reset button” for me.

The most important reason is that always when I perceive music, I have the feeling that it is somehow like architecture. And to me, if I listen to a very good conductor, he/she is able to build upon the music like an architectural form, and then I have the feeling that I want to enter it. This has been a way of how I listen to music. Following this idea, I thought it might be possible to put people/the audience in between the sound, in between the music, to get a more physical feeling from music, and not be just analyzing it by ear. I started with a string ensemble, and I began to work on the architecture of music.

What is darkness? And how can one distinguish between a light-less space and a dark space?

A space is dark when you find objects, but you are not able to recognize them easily. What I mean by a light-less space is that your eyes don’t have the ability to focus on anything.

Is darkness something artificial, or is it more of a natural thing?

Yes, that is an interesting subject. I am always asked about that. In my personal experience, it is absolutely artificial because you always have some sort of light source or reflecting surface. I’m not even talking about the city – in the city there is absolutely light, light, light; you can’t see the stars in the night because there is so much light. But when I’m far away from the city, even then I have stars, or the moon – or when the moon is covered, there is still some light around. You could, of course, find a natural light-less situation, but then you'd really have to search for it, and then it is already a kind of artificial situation.

Into the Dark, 2012-2013. Filmstills von Markus Zucker © Sabrina Hölzer / Photos © Ladislav Zajac

Is there any significant event from your childhood, or later in life, that has influenced your relationship with the dark?

No, not at all. It is just this very personal feeling that, in the darkness, I feel much less segregated from others, less divided somehow. In the light, I’m a subject and you are an object, and that will continue as we look at each other. Also, of course, in the darkness people start to sense acoustic reference points, and they feel the distance between each other; but in the beginning, you don’t have this feeling of being separated from the others. It is like dark space itself becomes one body, a body in which the people are inside of. It’s not that there are 13 individuals here and here, and everybody has their own space. Always, when I work with music, I’m searching for this intimacy with the music. To be very close to a sound and to kind of eliminate the feeling of segregation.

Tragödia, 2001. Photos © Iko Freese /

Tell me about your collaboration experiences and struggles with institutions.

I think it was in 2002, the first time I thought about that because I had to stage an opera. It was a female composer and she wanted to compose a theatre piece without actually using the theatre. That was her concept. So she composed a libretto, but a libretto didn’t appear. And even I, the stage director, was not allowed to read the libretto. She wanted to compose the theatre only on an acoustic level, to see if it is possible to create a space only with music, and  movement only with music, and light only with music – is it possible to replace the whole physical theatre, with all its patterns, with just music theatre? It was wonderful music – very sensual and very strong. I thought about how I could actually stage this concept. So what should I do? And for the first time, I worked with the grid of beds. It was a classical theatre and I placed people on the stage, each of them with his or her own bed. The audience and the surround system and the orchestra in the pit, but beyond the people, so they would feel the vibrations of the music. Then I wanted to turn off the lights, but it wasn’t possible as it was forbidden to turn the exit lights off (now I have much more freedom). The whole staging concept was done, but it didn’t work out because of the restrictions, so I started to think: What is darkness? Lying there with a little light turned on, my eyes were always looking at where the light was coming from, and therefore, creating the opposite effect. I got an idea with the light bulbs – we had just one cable with a single light bulb above each bed. They were not bright, just glowing a little. All together, it created a nice image of 90 light bulbs, and for each viewer it became a situation in which your eye was calmed, so you could really concentrate on what was happening acoustically. It was interesting to think what light is, or what darkness is, and what your eye needs in order to be liberated. After the performance, people started to discuss their experiences instead of analyzing the different artistic choices, and what they liked and didn’t like. There were also a lot of people from the older generations who had experienced the 2nd World War, and the music and the sound effects evoked these memories again.

What sense do you revere the most?

There is a phrase by Immanuel Kant that says something like: when you don’t see, then you are segregated from things and objects; but when you don’t hear, you are segregated from other humans.

Séraphin, 2003. Photos © Joachim Fieguth / Photos © Willi Kracher Zürich

What is the most important thing in life?

Haah! That question! I can’t answer that right away! Peace, harmony and love! No. You really want me to answer this question? I don’t have any idea what is the most important thing, but as I am here and now, then my suggestion is the relationship between humans – the relation. And that's why I love theatre because doing it is working on the relation to the moment in which you are right now. It’s just now. And everybody feels that it’s now. Although, sometimes I need to isolate myself quite a lot because I react so much and so directly. In a way, I am a person that, from time to time, needs to be cut free from this relation.