In the anthropocene, we go where the light leads us.
Dimitris Papaioannou choreographs like an artist – the scenes we bear witness to are all about the visuals, shifting between unconventional imagery and absurd situation, never easy to understand upon first look, but always striking, and capable of producing a visceral, emotional reaction. Every moment onstage is like witnessing a painting in motion, and rarely are there any moments that do not leave one in awe of the sheer imagination that goes into its construction and framing.
In a sense then, Transverse Orientation is a work that is perfectly titled. Just like how it references moths tending towards sources of light, we are left inexplicably transfixed and drawn into Papaioannou’s fantastical world, hard to pin down a specific meaning, yet caught up in this eternal, compulsive hunt for meaning as we unpack and puzzle over the rich imagery before us. Transverse Orientation in particular seems to home in on the idea of conflict and differences in a messy, chaotic world of contradictions, as the initially blank canvas metamorphoses over the course of the show, and dancers come onstage to depict a myriad of ideas that draw from classical art, mythology, futurism, science-fiction and horror.
The performance begins with a single flickering fluorescent light on the upper left hand side of a blank stage, save for a long white wall and a single door. Dark figures emerge from the door, alien and strange with literal balloons for heads, as they do all they can to get at the light, attempting to climb the wall or setting up odd ladders that extend and expand into wavelengths and stepladders. One imagines the vast majority of people as these ‘balloon heads’, blind and nondescript, as we find ourselves chasing down vague dreams, going where the crowd does in a life without meaning. In a sense, these ‘balloon heads’ have been disoriented and perhaps disillusioned, and are attempting to re-orient themselves again as they find some kind of guidance or goal to work towards.
One interpretation of Transverse Orientation could be taken from an almost apocalyptic, world-ending lens, as we see a need to step away from the conventional, corporatisation of life, further evoked when men in business suits come by to stop the flickering light and source of distraction. In other scenes, we see these same men struggling as they comically struggle to get out of camp bed frames that snap shut on them like mousetraps, or in one particularly mesmerising scene, make a futile attempt to prevent a flood of foam blocks that continually, absurdly flow out of the single door, as if the structures they once relied on are no longer viable. As they try to make the most of these blocks and build up a new metropolis, they fail, and with a collective gasp from the audience, a precarious tower painstakingly built from scratch collapses all around them.
What is it then that these businessmen are fighting against? It appears that it is nature and the natural world, wreaking some form of revenge in the anthropocene, as they fight back against the control that humanity has attempted to lay onto them. There are moments of stark cruelty – a diver is visibly suffering as a businessman pours an unknown substance onto him, writhing as he strips off his wetsuit, or a merman of some kind manages to stand on his own ‘tail’, comically and pathetically jumping on the spot while the spotlight is trained on him, before the businessmen violently drag him away. Elsewhere, a benign Minotaur-figure has his bull’s head forcibly cut off, while a newborn baby in the arms of its mother begins to melt into liquid form, waving at us while bits of its body drip onto the stage.
Throughout all this, we hear the music of Vivaldi, used sparingly but effectively, as it starkly punctuates every scene, encapsulating a range of emotions that bring to mind an ancient world, far removed the modern one. We feel this especially in scenes which tend towards a new order; awe-inspiring hermaphrodite, chimeric beasts that fuse two bodies into one showing off the dancers’ athleticism and poise as they walk across the stage on their hands, or a brief moment of pure, unbridled joy as the dancers strip, and in their naked forms, leap and vault over foam blocks, smiling and completely free.
Above all, it is scenes with a massive bull puppet that arrest us each time it appears, a wild beast that needs to be corralled by multiple dancers, realistic as it thrashes its head and whips its tail. There is an unhinged, untamed nature to it, that only seems to calm when a single dancer, naked and vulnerable, reaches out to quench the beast’s thirst with water, allowing it to lap from a bucket, and forge an unexpected bond.
In further scenes, the bull goes on to become a platform for dancers to recline atop it, resulting in sexually suggestive, yet classically beautiful poses, beckoning others to come hither as they stretch and pose. The allure of nature, a time gone by is far too attractive to resist, as much as modern man tries, exacting violence upon these beings but ultimately, giving in. There is a fascination to how the bull becomes a source of comfort, to not see it as a rival or affront to masculinity, but a facet to it, to calm the male urge to destroy or combat, and instead soothe it to find kinship between man and animal.
It is these opposing forces between man and nature, the old and the new, masculinity and emasculation, that characterise Transverse Orientation, offering up a way of seeing the world through such tensions. We live in a time where we are left weary from the constant conflict, yearn for a nostalgic return to simpler times, or dream of hopeful new futures where the world is irrevocably changed, where humans mutate and transform to adapt to the damage we have caused, drawing from primal nature and the classic pastoral to usher in a brand new age.
In its final scenes, Transverse Orientation shifts its attention to the imagery of femininity and water, with a woman becoming a literal fountain nourishing thirsty men, and an aged woman with sagging skin making her way across the stage, in search of lost youth. Water becomes a force for healing, and watching the lights shiver and reflect against the wall, there is a moment of calm before we see the true power of water – a force for change, whether in rejuvenation or complete destruction, and completely transforms the stage.
In its quiet closing, we are left to consider our very existence in a wetland, a wasteland. A single man tries in vain to clean up after the deluge, but we know it is impossible, and he has no choice but to accept the new reality he has been presented with. The door opens – and it becomes an exit from all this, in hopes of leading to a better place. In Transverse Orientation, it seems that we have lost the light and turned away from the things that make us human. Perhaps then, the act of watching this show is a means of re-orienting ourselves towards the light, with Papaioannou as our guide through the fever dream and avant garde vision he has painted. In experiencing all this humour and horror, the beautiful and the grotesque, we find ourselves less lost, more clear that the light we see on the horizon is the dawn of a new age, for better times ahead.
Photo Credit: Julian Mommert
Transverse Orientation played from 26th to 27th August 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre.
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