dimitris papaioannou : spatial and human relationships
SPATIAL AND HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Continuing the conversation with Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, this second part concentrates on his post olympic work as MEDEA2 and the influences of butoh and his native Athens in his work.
RENÉ HABERMACHER: Over the years your journey has brought your work to ever-larger audiences. Recently, with your play MEDEA2, you revisited the past. How was that experience?
DIMITRIS PAPAIOANNOU: It challenged me for a number of reasons. If you follow my journey, I was violently exposed to the general public with the success of the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games. In order to recover from the experience, I had to take a two-year break.
The first thing I chose to do after this pause was a show called 2. 2 was actually an attempt to pick up where I had left off before the ceremony, to return to my roots and re-evaluate my work. I constructed a very personal show on a large scale because I was offered the opportunity to do so, and I tried to restart my interrupted line of development in an unusual way.
After this experience many question marks arose, and I realised that I was still exposed to a much larger public than I was used to. I had the feeling that there was a new kind of communication being created that was both charming and dangerous. I needed more time before taking my next step.
Many people were suddenly exposed to my work through the Olympics, but of those who had a real interest, many were too young to have experienced MEDEA. So I returned to MEDEA, attracted by the idea of presenting it again with an all new cast, and approaching it with a new idea: to take the passion out. I wanted to reconstruct it, refine it, clear it out, strip it of anything unnecessary, drain the blood from the performance and deliver it in the cleanest form I could manage. That was my intention with MEDEA2.
Having done that, I could continue with new work, first NOWHERE and now INSIDE. This is a completely new phase, where I am tending to create shows with no protagonists and no characters. The crowd is the element I’m focusing on now, using it in a more open structure in order to create images involving spatial and human relationships.
Excerpts of MEDEA 2 accompanied by interview with Dimitris Papaioannou.
I had the impression that MEDEA2 was influenced by the Butoh school of expression, which I thought was a very interesting element incorporated into an ancient Greek drama.
Butoh formed part of my intense training in New York [with Maureen Fleming at LaMama studio] when I was 18 years old, and it was the first technique that was compatible with my body. And because it suited me, I discovered true sensations of human emotions through it.
When I started out with my group in the squat, most of my work was linked to Butoh. It was a mixture many things: of my Butoh experiences,
of traditional Greek aesthetics, of questioning this perception of beauty, and of the concept that a human statue is a vehicle for ideas throughout the ages. So MEDEA2 was this hybrid created to draw from the energy of Butoh, but it also questions this beauty, and the idea that the body is the vehicle of it over the centuries. This play is like a visit to the Greek National Museum, to its sculpture galleries. We bathed the set in light to look like a day at a museum. The story is being told by figures who somehow vogue a series of poses taken from ancient Greek sculpture.
Do you think this cultural connection is limited to the aesthetics of Butoh and the ancient Greek plays, or are there some more general parallels between ancient Greek and ancient Japanese culture? Such as the stripping away of the unnecessary to achieve purity, which is something that I also see in your work.
It’s drama. It’s drama and tragedy. The tragic element is very evident in the expressionist dance of Butoh. Archetypes of conflict come very close to the archetypal animalistic body energy that Butoh requires. That’s why I think they are deeply connected. My connection is more illustrative, it’s more like looking through a picture book: the only thing that I use from the true core of Butoh is the way in which energy is released from the body while remaining constrained. I would say that that is the true influence. At the beginning of the classical Greek period, before realism, simplicity of form was like a manifestation of beauty. From this aesthetic point of view, I can see a connection.
To me, your MEDEA became something very timeless and universal in its final form. Is that something you seek to achieve?
I have no complaints about MEDEA. It was my biggest hit! [100,000 tickets were sold.] Perhaps for the wrong reasons, but I am sure that for at least a portion of audiences, for the right reasons. I think the power of MEDEA lies in the structure of the storytelling, the simplicity of it. But I guess it’s not for me to say.
Anyway, MEDEA is sad. I think it’s a sad play. Because it’s trying to achieve as much beauty as it can. But beauty in the simplest sense. For this reason I think it’s sad, it’s melancholic. Again, I think it evokes the sort of feeling you get when you gaze at a statue: there is a melancholic feeling that comes over you. This connection you get to a manifestation of a human being who once was. The thought of a human being standing there in time. I think MEDEA has some of this emotional impact.
Well, I think it’s very zen in that regard. Your work draws heavily from Greek heritage and reflects upon it. How important is Greece, and in particular Athens to you as the backdrop to your work?
What is important is that I grew up in a city with this particular kind of life. I was walking on the ruins of another civilisation, an ancient one. I was permanently exposed to the images of nude, or semi-nude carved marble bodies. In that sense, whether I like it or not, it was very influential for me.
Theatrical trailer for "2" by Dimitris Papaioannou. Directed and produced by Athina Tsagari. Re-edited by Dimitris Siammas.
“2″ has many aspects that reflect on contemporary Greek life.
Definitely, and this contemporary Athenian life of course has its particularities. But then it is also a manifestation of global city life set in the Mediterranean. You could call it a semi-developed city. [laughs]
I would say it’s a little Middle Eastern, actually. Speaking of the contemporary, I’ve noticed that you work with the element of camp, for example in “2”.
In MEDEA too. I think MEDEA is also quite camp. Yes, I use the element as much as I can, and the more I use it the better it seems to become. It amuses me.
So how do you use camp as a mechanism?
When something is too much of a gesture, too reminiscent of silent movies and postcards, when something embraces the banality of beauty and at the same time tries to place it in an environment that ridicules it yet at the same time re-creates it on the other side of ridicule. Camp is very useful when you can’t say something directly, because it’s worn out and forces you have to find another way of phrasing it. I think that’s where camp is useful, at least for my work.
This is another element you share with Tsarouchis.
And with many Greeks. Especially homosexual Greeks, male homosexual Greek artists. We have had a long line of men like that here, who have somehow shaped the cultural identity of contemporary Greece, as you know.
I know it very well! I’ve seen many of your rehearsals, for MEDEA2 as well as for INSIDE last week. It seems you draw a great deal from your communication with your collaborators.
The older I get, the closer I come to a universal truth: “if you have a group, work with it”.
I wasn’t that wise in the past. But, you know, many artists have been much wiser than me at a much younger age. It takes me a long time to evolve. Yes, of course I want my collaborators to be creative, and I want there to be a friendly atmosphere at rehearsals. I try to inspire this as much as I can.
Is this environment also something that keeps you in Athens?
No. What keeps me in Athens is that I have a job here and I have my friends here. And I am used to the weather. These are the things that keep me in Athens. If I were to experiment with living somewhere else, which I might do, I’d have to start from scratch. I flirt with this idea a lot.
I used the opportunity that the Fulbright Artist’s Scholarship gave me to spend some time in New York and I think I will experiment with some other cities. Not for a chance to work, but for the chance to live in a more unpredictable way than I do here in Athens. If in the end I transform myself into somebody who makes only videos or movies, maybe I can just carry my material with me and live wherever I want.