This August, Greek theatre stage director, choreographer and visual artist Dimitris Papaioannou is set to return to Singapore with his latest work, Transverse Orientation, playing at the Esplanade Theatre from 26th to 27th August.
Known for his visually spectacular choreographies and theatrical design, it is hard to pin down exactly what Dimitris’ works are about, as he goes into them without a specific message he wants to impose on audience members. Instead, he leaves it primarily up to them to decide what meaning to make of it. In a similar vein, his mind is a mystery that cannot entirely be put into words, a universe of ideas and pictures that he attempts to convey to us in an interview over Zoom.
“My work can’t be pinned down to simple explanations or simple descriptions, because it is something that cannot be transposed through words,” says Dimitris. “But I do hope that I leave it open enough for people to make meaning out of it. Think of it like a garden, where people simply walk through and enjoy it, or when a chef prepares food. It is about being present, and not necessarily looking for a meaning behind things, and just letting your heart and background let you decide what it means to you.”
In Dimitris’ work, the line between theatre, choreography and live performance is often blurred, and it is hard to pin down or define the category his work falls in. Dance then, seems to be the most appropriate ‘box’ to place his work in, but even then, cannot entirely contain the breadth of his imagination and style of working. “My generation grew up watching Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes,” he says. “The moving image has always been a kind of choreography to me, and I like to call what I have ‘the painter’s eye’, which isn’t quite the same as the tableau vivant. This is my understanding of choreography, where I am insistent on finding the life of things in my creation process, where things morph and transform into one another. In my work, I start off from visual points, but then I go from images to movements and form a concept, before settling on a theme.”
A visual artist by training, Dimitris gained early recognition as a painter and comics artist. “”I trained as a painter, and experimented with comics a lot,” he explains. “That was so that I could reproduce my art in a cheap way and market it to my generation. I grew up as a poor man, and when it comes to inspiration, I am simply inspired by life and art itself. I see myself more of an art lover than an artist, and I think art inspires adoration for the mysteries of life itself.”
From comics, Dimitris began to transition into choreography, and took inspiration from the work of Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson. Coming to international prominence following his direction of the 2004 Olympic ceremonies in Athens, he later went on to create Since She (2018) for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, becoming the first artist to set a new full-length work for the company. ”When I was young, the first masterpiece I saw was Pina Bausch’s Cafe Muller, and it left me in tears,” he explains. “When I was in New York for the first time at 23 years old, I saw my first Robert Wilson work, hamletmachine, and was both shocked and intellectually intrigued that it was possible to create such a unique universe through live art, and went beyond anything I imagined theatre could be. I’m so happy I ended up developing a relationship with both Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson, to have chosen them as my first loves when it comes to art.”
All of this leads up to the point of creation for Transverse Orientation in 2021. Referencing the natural behaviour of moths to seek light, Transverse Orientation follows the human compulsion to find meaning on the journey of life. This however, might not be clear, with its central image being a mechanical bull that comes alive onstage, while dancers, often nude, perform various choreographies throughout the show, with fake babies waving to the audience and an optical illusion of entwined limbs. That’s not a criticism, but an expression of wonder and awe at the audacity of the image and sheer imagination, leading Lyndsey Winship to write how the work ‘crosses beauty with disgust, wonder and comedy’, in reviewing for The Guardian in the UK. Not to mention, the work was also nominated for Best New Dance Production at the 2022 Olivier Awards.
“I am struggling to find the ways to create a more dynamic atmosphere. I am also trying to be more ironic, cynical and little bit ridiculous, not for the sake of contradiction, but to remind people that theatre is a false construct,” says Dimitris, on how The Guardian review also described him as a ‘master of contradictions’. “It is through this obvious fakery that theatre opens up gateways to truth, and especially for someone like me, who tries so hard to create illusions, when you pull the carpet from under the audience’s feet, there is almost this sense of humour in it, through creating these multilayered realities onstage.”
While Dimitris often chooses not to incorporate established music into his work, for Transverse Orientation, it made sense for him to use the work of Vivaldi, combining chaos, reconstruction, metamorphosis and existentialism to the Venetian composer’s work. “Sometimes music feels a bit like cheating. When we use someone else’s composition, half the work is already done in filling the empty space of the theatre. In choosing the music to use, you are accepting the architectural structures present, as crafted by the composer,” says Dimitris. “But when I started this work, I was obsessed with Vivaldi, and I found him energetic and organised and sensitive. Diving into his work, I found things I never knew, and found that his music would be a good glue to stick all my ideas onto. His music lends a lightness, and even allows me to incorporate some humour into the work, as it takes form.”
“In my creation process, there is this chaotic procedure of invention and playfulness, where anything can come into play, even the seemingly simplest, most ridiculous movement that has meaning and place in the work,” he adds. “There is no aesthetic prejudice as to what is valuable or not in the creation process, and I take full responsibility for how the work turns out after it is composed, and we work meticulously to be precise in curating the uncontrolled and unhinged creation process, and synthesising this anarchic material together.”
Coming back to Transverse Orientation, one of the major themes in the work is light, and a large portion of the work circles back to ideas of attraction, and the movement of shadows in relation to the light. One other feature is the massive bull puppet that plays a prominent role across the work, life-sized and realistic in its demeanour. “In designing the bull, we started with a more primitive idea of a skeleton and bolstering it with black pillows. But we took that idea to a sculptor friend and it became more realistic, and we realised we could move the bull while riding it,” Dimitris says, of the design process. “Our sound designer even installed sensors such that it would create electronic sounds when it moves.”
“We wanted this animal to seem real, to move as we try to exert control over it. There’s this relationship behind the animator and the receiver of the force you’re animating,” he adds. “Furthermore, the bull is a masculine archetype, and referencing the Minotaur, we think of this unhinged monstrosity we have inside us. And across the Mediterranean, the bull has played a very strong role in the collective consciousness as a symbol of masculine virility.”
Since premiering in June 2021, Transverse Orientation has toured to more than twenty cities in Europe and America. If anything, Dimitris has become a titan in the international dance scene, with his works evoking wonder and fascination everywhere they travel to. “From 2015, I started being discovered from outside the borders of Greece, and began travelling extensively,” he says. “For anyone viewing my work from outside of Greece, they would see it as very ‘Greek’, and consider me an artist who is very much about ‘Greek ideas’, perhaps from the nakedness I put in my work. But what I put out there is to communicate without words, through symbols, archetypes and stories. For the rest of world, my references tend to come back to Greek myths, because I go back to my heritage.”
The nakedness of his dancers, in particular, has been an interesting point of contention, and an aspect that Dimitris insists is an essential part of the art, even if controversial in certain countries. “It is not political, and I understand there are some places and cultures that do not accept works that do that,” he says. “But for me, nudity has a lot to do with the way humans are made, and in presenting people vulnerably nude and gloriously nude, it is like shining their own beauty back to the audience, and the nudity itself is a protective shield that allows us to gaze back at the human body. There is a sense of vulnerability, and a sense of sensuality, and these are important factors in the storytelling of my work.”
Nothing seems to faze Dimitris, a man whose ideas are so big, not even a global pandemic can bring his creativity to a pause. “Over COVID, I was lucky that I was not destroyed financially and didn’t lose anyone close to me, and that Transverse Orientation survived, with the original cast still reprising their roles after touring for such a long time,” says Dimitris. “For me, the COVID pause was extremely welcome and nurturing, and has allowed for more time in creation and thinking about creation. Back then, I was touring with the show in every city, where I wanted to connect with audience in the city. But over COVID, I took pause and learnt how to drive, painted, started meditation and even created a whole new work, INK, that hasn’t been toured yet.”
“It’s quite subtle, but the pandemic has changed the way Transverse Orientation works as well. I think it’s because it changed the way we approach time and space, and makes us want to find connection again, to try to discover something inside others,” he adds. “As an artist i don’t comment on our social issues as they stand in the present year, I do have very strong opinions on things, but I don’t like my art to impose opinions on people. It’s much more interesting for my art to create a deeper sense of mysteries of existence.”
“At the end of it all, I hope that there is this realisation that there is a need to control violence, and the need for connection and spirituality. We have to understand that there exists something more beyond material existence, and these archetypal images that come up in my work stir up the existential questions, and we hope to find some comfort in the knowledge that we are all in some kind of wonder about life, and that we all share some kind of comfort and joy in knowing we share these same agonies.”
Transverse Orientation plays from 26th to 27th August 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available here