Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou burst fully-formed as a choreographer and director onto the international stage with his stunning triumph directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics in 2004. He has been popular ever since, yet his work consistently retains an avant-garde edge with his experimental stage productions. He’ll bring one of his most recent works, “The Great Tamer,” to Japan later this month.
It’s the first time for Papaioannou to perform in Japan, although he has special connections to Japanese theater.
In 1986 in New York, Papaioannou was greatly inspired by butoh dance after working with the free-spirited dancer and choreographer, Min Tanaka, on a butoh-inspired version of “Oedipus Rex.”
“I was part of the chorus in the production, and it was my introduction to butoh,” he says. “I worked with butoh teachers intensively, and I met and performed with Min Tanaka. I was also trained by one of his disciples. It really changed my life, as it changed the way I see the body and movement.”
Papaioannou has crafted a successful career by compelling audiences to see body and movement in different ways, and “The Great Tamer” triumphs as a tour de force of modern theater. Across a vast, bleak stage of charcoal gray panels, 10 dancers unravel a series of two-dimensional images which morph into three-dimensional, surreal reality.
Visual moments in Western culture are referenced, as dancers evoke and then subvert such famous paintings as Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation of Christ” or Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” Dancers reimagine the Apollo 11 astronauts’ iconic moonwalk or invert the mythical Atlas’ punishment by precariously balancing on a plastic globe. Simple props like shoes, stilts, sculptures and fragments of paper give off wry symbolism or morph into something else entirely.
Gradually forging connections between the disparate visual vignettes, Papaioannou covers and uncovers the essentials of humanity: birth, life, death and renewal. Bones and body parts are reconfigured before a female dancer recalls Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and agriculture, by releasing golden arrows and transforming the gray stage into a molten sea of symbolic fertility and renewal.
Disorienting and disturbing, playful yet full of pathos, it’s 95 minutes of visually searing theater. Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” waltz is fractured and reworked by Stephanos Droussiotis for a musical accompaniment that parallels the jigsawed visual moments that Papaioannou reconstructs, forcing the audience to reconsider our iconic cultural history with humorous resignation.
Papaioannou admits the creative process for him is deliberately disorienting.
“Every time I approach a new work, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “In fact, I try not to know what I’ll do, try not to anticipate a conclusion. It’s this insecurity that brings a kind of uncomfortable energy, but I end up with something that I usually like more than by knowing what I want to do beforehand.”
“The Great Tamer” was first inspired by the unexplained death of a young boy in Greece who was reportedly a victim of bullying.
“There was a beautiful portrait and tribute trending on social media, and society kind of fell in love with the boy,” Papaioannou says. “So, within the tragedy, there was a duality of friendship and of being bullied, of strangers loving the victim. It triggered an emotion inside me with the way the story evolved, even though these types of stories are endlessly surrounding us, every day.”
It was within this “emotional space” that Papaioannou created “The Great Tamer,” the title is a reference to an ancient Greek idea on time as the “all-tamer.”
For Papaioannou, such fundamental truths touch on the essence of his creativity. As he explains, “every new work is a struggle to reach a kind of complex simplicity that resonates with a wider audience, as comics or silent films do.”
It’s an appropriate Papaioannou reference, considering his own early success in art and illustration. As a young man, Papaioannou excelled in painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts. He turned his talents to comics before settling into experimental theater fusing the visual with the physical.
Papaioannou acknowledges that visual storytelling very much informs his stage work.
“My comic background, and comics for me, was the first vehicle to move away from painting as a young man, and to actually use painting to communicate stories to my own generation,” he says. “My comics were being published, they were cheap, and they could circulate. Comics allowed me to communicate with a wide audience, so I learned from comics a certain kind of storytelling that moves from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional easily. A way to both stylize and to liberate from stylization freely from storyboard to storyboard.
“I think this is kept in my stagework. From my early comics, you can identify some images that are even now in my theater. You can see the traces. I see them myself and am surprised, as I never think about it consciously.”
Visual, abstract storytelling has become a Papaioannou trademark, and audiences will now finally get the chance to experience his work in Japan. Like Athena, the patron goddess of his birthplace, Papaioannou encompasses both the wisdom and conflict of humanity with enigmatic stagings that defy classification, crossing genres and challenging conventions across multiple disciplines of art and movement.
“I’m curious to see how my universe will communicate in Japan,” Papaioannou says. “I have enormous respect for the Japanese aesthetic, and I wonder if my aesthetic will resonate with Japanese audiences. I hope I have some free time to walk around, as I would love to simply experience as much as I can of the spirit of Japan while I am there. ”
“The Great Tamer” will be performed from June 28 to 30 at the Saitama Arts Theater in Saitama, then on July 5 and 6 at the Rohm Theatre in Kyoto. For more information, visit www.saf.or.jp/en/stages/detail/6420.