The Great Tamer, #1 2018

Dimitris Papaioannou tames the crisis with absurd circus, torn bodies and contemporary mythology. 

The festivals of this world have been waiting for someone like him for a long time. Dimitris Papaioannou rises like Phoenix. Not from the ashes, but from Greece, the supposed no man’s land of the contemporary stage. The founder of the Edafos Dance Theatre and great stage director of the Olympic ceremonies in Athens in 2004 is a visual philosopher who, as an existentialist, deals with the fundamental questions of life, existence and humanity. The surrealist sketches images that confuse our senses in absolute conciseness and with which he creates as many “aha” experiences in a single piece as other choreographers in a decade. One who dissects things – and the bodies – in order to recompile them like Picasso, and turns them upside down simply because it’s more honest. The imagination of the illusion artist Papaioannou seems to have no limits. He can make arms, legs and trunk jump separately from the stage or create a person when several actors each contribute arm, leg or trunk. This heralds a complete oeuvre, a handwriting as authentic and personal as it is surprising and yet immediately understandable, since it confronts the origins of European philosophy with today’s attitude to life. Papaioannou combines the truthfulness and widescreen format of Pina Bausch with Josef Nadj’s never-ending exploration of the absurd. In “The Great Tamer”, they are joined by an invisible machinery for special effects from the underground and perspective shifts that open the view to the abysses of the subconscious. Papaioannou draws many of his ideas directly from the roots of his own culture and from his studies in contemporary dance and Butoh. 

Show skating for the sky 

Papaioannou has been doing theatre since 1986. There he studied at the Art Academy of Athens and also frequented squatter circles. His first collective was founded in a squat near the academy. “But it’s a misunderstanding that I would have lived there too. In the meantime I was a squatter, but in a different place. It’s true that my artistic roots lie in the no-budget culture. With our bare hands we built the ground floor into a small theatre. We didn’t care about money, we just wanted to do our thing. But little by little, we also appeared in more official theatres and at some point we even received subsidies.” Edafos Dance Theater was the name of the troupe, named after Earth. There are also material reasons why he wasn’t seen outside his homeland before. “Previously, my productions and stage designs were simply too elaborate to go on tour.” 

Drawing instead of writing 

Of course, he aroused curiosity when he staged the opening ceremony and closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. But he dissolved his company Edafos and disappeared from the scene for years to devote himself solely to the ceremonies with their eight thousand performers. Their choreographies had nothing in common with his own stage work, because Papaioannou doesn’t like mass scenes. For them he engaged other choreographers. He himself was responsible for the overall concept, and that was perfectly in keeping with his way of working. His concepts emerge on a purely visual level. Instead of written notes, he constantly makes drawings. From the improvisations with the actors*, which he selects according to gut feeling, he creates new sketches, which he implements on stage and slowly joins together to form a large whole. At the earliest one month before the premiere, he was in a position to make statements about the content, theme, title or duration of a new piece, he explained. Just like here: “The Great Tamer is not an ancient hero or a new Great Dictator . la Chaplin, but man as such, in the storm of his own energies and instincts. 

The crux of the Olympics 

His beginnings as an artist lie in drawing, and to this day he paints and photographs alongside his stage work. However, the atmosphere in Athens in the 1980s was particularly free. Papaioannou illustrated magazines of the gay scene. And today? He doesn’t reveal everything. “What I show people is only part of my creativity. The visual composition is vital for me to survive.” But his representation of the male body on stage is extremely sensitive and characterized by ancient sculpture and Renaissance painting. There are many deities in play and motifs from Rembrandt to Botticelli, from El Greco to Magritte. He dedicated the Olympic opening ceremony of 2004 to Apollo, the closing ceremony of Dionysus. His work today draws striking inspiration from the research on this mega-work, despite critical reflections on its backgrounds. “Of course, I was very lucky to be able to sum up what my country means to me in this way. It was like a liberation. “Olympia, that was the moment from which things started to go downhill with Hellas, with his finance and his economic performance, followed by a clear cut in the cultural budget? “The games seemed like the trigger for the crisis, but the roots lie much deeper, in corruption and the poor functioning of politics and state organisation. Greece had to borrow more and more money. Finally a chain reaction took place. Olympia was a last illusionary effect and a great egobooster for the country. But it is a ridiculous idea that a small country could organize such expensive games. Let’s put the spotlight back on sport at the Olympics”. With this in mind, Papaioannou wanted to consciously set an example with his technically simpler stage designs in the face of the crisis. 

Absurd Circus 

The stage set of “The Great Tamer” is a grey-black moon desert made of rigid wooden and flexible rubber plates. Eleven people cross on and below them, whose bodies seem to be made of steel and rubber at the same time. One of them looks like his alter ego, a kind of leading figure who remains motionless in the prologue, like a statue, and has the audience in his sights. Then the man takes off his clothes in peace and turns over a dark plate that now serves as a beach towel. But the sunbathing becomes a funeral, under a shroud, so light that the breeze of a falling plate blows it away effortlessly. They play through the scene again and again, like in a ritual, like a picture that traumatically follows you. This motif and many others recur throughout the piece: two men lying on top of each other dancing a horizontal waltz to Johann Strauss. Later, the piece plays with our fear that holes in the ground could swallow those who run away. Papaioannou calls his pieces, in all their tragic reach, absurd circus or the dream of it. The starting point of the fantasies and nightmares in “The Great Tamer” was the suicide of a teenager. Pursued by his (Facebook?) friends*, he dug himself into the earth. The paradoxical, disturbing and surreal compositions are like distorting mirrors of this trauma. They may also, just as in “Still Life,” contain a metaphor of the current situation in Greece. But that only pleases him to a limited extent: “The so-called political art is reduced art. I don’t like that. But it’s inevitable that art related to its time will also work on the political level. There is a It is inevitable that these questions will affect my country in terms of its present and its history. These are not comments, but a reflection of the atmosphere in which we have lived in recent years.”

Thomas Hahn

The original version of the article appeared in the magazine tanz, Issue 10/2017. 

Fri/Sat, 05./06.10.2018, 8 pm 
The Great Tamer
Dimitris Papaioannou (GR)
German premiere 

+ Inside video installation

Dimitris Papaioannou studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens and today develops great works of art for the stage as a director, choreographer, performer, stage and costume designer and painter. As an independent artist, he founded his company Edafos Dance Theatre in 1986, with which he realised important stage productions. In 2004 Dimitris Papaioannou first appeared worldwide as artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens. In 2017 he was awarded the special prize of the European Theatre Prize. The guest performance is supported by the Förderverein Hellerau e.V.