Articles from Ballet2000

Dimitris Papaioannou, depicting battles using the palette of dance

In the oeuvre of the star choreographer/director of the contemporary scene the frontiers between dance and theatre, choreography and direction, pure movement and vision, melt down under the Greek sun of his homeland. Heavily in demand by companies and theatres all over the world, one of Dimitris Papaioannou’s creations has even landed on the improbable shores of the Tanztheater Wuppertal where the myth of Pina Bausch is enshrined
Greek Dimitris Papaioannou is probably the most exciting director/choreographer around today on the international theatre and dance scene. In the course of recent theatre seasons, this swarthy, sullen man, endowed with a certain dark Mediterranean charm, has become a much sought-after artist, perhaps more acclaimed than any other author present in contemporary dance or theatre/dance circuits. Venues such as the Avignon Festival, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, the Holland Festival of Amsterdam, the Grec Festival of Barcelona, Dance Umbrella in London or the Watermill Center in New York directed by American Bob Wilson, a great encourager of new talent.
Whether you like him or not, find him disquieting or fabulous, whether he actually is a choreographer or “only” a visual artist who tends to fashion grand moving frescoes using the bodies of his dancers as if they were plastic or iconographic materials, it’s undeniable that Papaioannou is a phenomenon of note. Certainly, he is foreign to the ballet dimension and, rather than towards the honing of a choreographic idiom (a vocation he definitely doesn’t have), his interest is geared towards the development of a highly original visual code; bodies and gestures are the bedrock of his compositions that correspond to “paintings in movement”. His prevailing traits are a sense of the sacred, the cultural legacy of mythology, and a narrative thread that draws from the landscapes of his millennial civilization, with all its splendours and crises.

E. Liatsos, I. Michos, E. Randou: "The Great Tamer", c. Dimitris_Papaioannou (ph. Julian Mommert)

Driven by a poetic and visionary inspiration of considerable metaphorical force, Papaioannou, whose career has already spanned three decades, was born in Athens in 1964; he is an interdisciplinary artist whom it isn’t easy to classify. He loves dance and the theatre, naturally. But at the same time explores painting, sculpture, films and comics and his heterogeneous background testifies to these experiences. Papaioannou was introduced to painting by the legendary modern Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis, he attended the Fine Arts Academy in his home-city before becoming a performer on the Athenian underground scene and an experimental comedian. He threw himself into the study of dance only after his experiences in these fields (he declares himself to be totally devoid of academic training) and enthusiastically discovered the language of Butoh, the tragic late 20th-century Japanese dance (tragic insofar as it is twisted and tormented, rooted in post-atomic Japan’s funereal ideology). During this period, Dimitris turned a small Athenian theatre into a squat, staging his own performances there; his work was noticed by Ellen Stewart of the La MaMa Café, New York while she was travelling in Greece with Butoh dancer Min Tanaka. It was Stewart who invited Papaioannou to the USA where he studied the technique of Erick Hawkins and met the guru of avant-garde theatre, Bob Wilson, who hired him as his assistant for a while.
Upon returning to his native Greece, Papaioannou founded the Edafos Dance Theatre, with which he worked from 1986 to 2002, and it was above all during this phase that he elaborated his increasingly personal traits – intensity and vigour. He became the sole author of his shows, designing sets, costumes, make-up, movement and lights. A hallucinating, quick-changing painter, it’s as if he had decided to set down on stage, as opposed to on canvas, the riches of his phantasmagorical universe. The latter comes across as sombre, suggestive and dreamlike. It teems with references to classical mythology and, in that sense, to a remote past. But it is also very current, linked to art installations from the early years of this millennium and tuned in to the use of multimedia.
In 2004 this unusual choreographer won over an audience of 72,000 spectators thanks to his spectacular orchestration of the Athens Olympics opening and closing ceremonies; the débuts of his most significant works took place during the following years. 2 (which Papaioannou himself described as a “dissection of the male mind”) was premiered in 2006 and still appears influenced by the Bob Wilson aesthetic. 2 was followed by Still Life, inspired by the myth of Sisyphus, and by the graphic male duet Primal Matter with its fury and anatomical upheaval that reveals Papaioannou’s idea of the body: a battlefield, to be overrun and fragmented, manipulated and then put together again. The disturbing atmosphere wavers between violence and gentleness, tameness and dominance, loving fusion and destructiveness.
Lastly, The Great Tamer, a powerful piece on time (the eponymous “tamer” of all human actions), was presented last year at the Napoli Teatro Festival and Montpellier Danse and has been included in this year’s programme at the Torinodanza Festival (September). Here the dancers’ bodies become magical beings that blossom from the black boards of an accurately uneven stage, causing an astonishing flood of illusionism. In their relations with each other, a prospect of love breaks out in the sense of a cannibalistic hunger for each others’ bodies. Pictorial reference abound, from Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, reproduced as danced animation, to movement extracted from the paintings of El Greco, Goya and Botticelli with amazing pictographic taste. Moreover, there is an explicit tribute to Yannis Kounellis and his “arte povera”, in a continual intertwining of natural elements (branches, roots etc.). A polymorphic inclination is patent and suggests the animal transformism and disturbing cruelty that characterise the films of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, author of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Papaioannou’s latest creation is Seit sie which he has dedicated this year, as guest choreographer, to Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal company (see review in this issue). A tribute which clearly reflects how the bright and dark sides of the great German choreographer, who died in 2009, were fundamental in shaping the expressive development of the brilliant Dimitris. An artist who has nothing of the imitator but is firmly master of his world.
Leonetta Bentivoglio