I have admired the work of Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou from afar for well over a decade. In spite of the recognition his work has received in his home country as well as internationally, American presenters puzzlingly looked the other way—until earlier this year. When I discovered, in excitement, that his work was coming to UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance this past January, I traveled to Los Angeles to see Papaioannou’s masterpiece, The Great Tamer, and I interviewed the charismatic choreographer on the occasion of his American debut.
Later this month, New York audiences will finally have the opportunity to discover Papaioannou’s work—and just in time too: after two and a half years of touring around the world, the upcoming performances of The Great Tamer, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival as part of incoming Artistic Director David Binder’s inaugural season, will be the show’s last.
I recently caught up with Papaioannou over Skype to discuss the final performances of this work, his New York homecoming, and his upcoming endeavors.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Since the last time we spoke, you have had your American debut in Los Angeles and then in Ann Arbor. What are your impressions about sharing your work for the first time with American audiences?
Dimitris Papaioannou: I think it was cool because, thank God, the audiences were not afraid to laugh, which happens in some cities. There are many visual jokes in the show and they are meant to lighten up the atmosphere. It was really nice to see that it was received this way.
Rail: Do you feel like there is a difference in terms of how the work has been received in Europe versus how the American audiences reacted to it?
Papaioannou: I am not convinced that I can have a valid evaluation of that. I have strong feelings about why it has been the case in the last decade that American audiences don't get to see many of the artists that we see in Europe. I have toured around the world with this work, and on occasion had particular responses, but they do not differ much. The problem sometimes is that the work is perceived as "visual art" that is precious, which I hope it is, but the way that one encounters it should be more liberated.
Rail: I feel that your work comes through as a universal language that crosses the barriers of cultures and spoken word; both visually and physically, it is rich with images that I would describe as dream-like. Can you tell me a bit about your own process, and the process with your collaborators, when it comes to inventing this visual language?
Papaioannou: Well, the visual language is a result of my understanding of the world, having been trained as a painter and having learned to experience my life through the painter's eye. Working with my collaborators, we are not always looking at visual qualities. Sometimes we're looking for sound, or a situation, and sometimes we are looking for an abstract emotion. The way that I perceive things, I think about the connection of shapes, diagonals, curves—it's the only way I know how to select what's interesting and to include it in the show.
Rail: The last time we spoke about The Great Tamer, the piece that will be presented in Brooklyn in November, you had mentioned that the seed of the idea came from a real-life event. Since the New York audiences are about to experience your work for the first time, could you provide a bit of context for them in terms of your source material?
Papaioannou: There was an emotion that was created inside of me as I was following a tragedy that happened some years ago in Greece. It was a bullying incident involving a missing boy, who was eventually discovered buried in the mud of a river bank. This tragic event created some kind of turbulence in the online community as well, drawing a great deal of sympathy for this young boy, but also a lot of haters. When I was commissioned to create my next work, I circulated around this emotion. As I was searching for images and themes, and I was engaging in a deeply instinctive creation that we had made, I realized that it was not only the emotion but also the story that started to manifest itself. [The Great Tamer] is not a show about that incident. But I think that the spark that was created inside me from that event was stronger than I thought.
I, however, mention this story with care and concern as well, because when art is commenting on a real-life tragedy it becomes arrogant. It has become fashionable, so to speak, to comment artistically on issues that concern us as a society—bullying being one of them, of course. I try to be very careful because I would like my work to be perceived through a wider lens. This issue makes up only a small percentage of the ingredients that this meal that I have cooked for you is made of.
Rail: Earlier this summer, I saw an advertisement for auditions, seeking performers for your next work. Can you tell us about what might be coming next for you?
Papaioannou: The only thing that I can say is that it will be the first time that in my personal work, I will have an international cast. I was extremely flattered that people flew from Canada, the United States, Korea—not only from Europe—to participate in my audition and I am excited for this new phase. I have been isolated working in Athens for many, many years before any curator was interested in my work; it has only happened over the last three years or so.
I can also tell you that this is a second international co-production of my work and it involves a very impressive and honorable group of theaters and festivals around the globe. And also that the premiere will happen in Athens on the 6th of May next year, in the Onassis Foundation's Center and we are going to start with a month-long line-up of performances. So when we start the international tour, which will last for two years, we will be in really great shape.