“I do not exactly know what I have to tell you, but I do have the need”
Following the London premiere of Transverse Orientation at Sadler’s Wells in October, as part of Dance Umbrella Festival 2021, Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou spoke to Emma Gladstone OBE about creating the show, using Vivaldi’s music, twisting the fabric of time, how Yannis Tsarouchis, Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch have influenced him, and much more…
Watch now, with the full transcript available below.
EG = Emma Gladstone; DP = Dimitris Papaioannou
EG: Good evening, thank you for coming. My name’s Emma Gladstone, my pronouns are she/her and I’ve got the pleasure of hosting this talk this evening. It’s going to be about 20 minutes; I’ve left my phone in my bag, I’m going to ask someone down there to get their phone out. I’m quite strict about this so I’m going to rely on you to let that alarm go [off]. But before that clock starts ticking, I would just like to ask you to give a very warm welcome to Debbie Lawrence, here, our signer and to Dimitris Papaioannou, the man that just made the show you saw tonight.
DP: Thank you, thank you, thank you for staying.
EG: So Dimitris, welcome back, your second time here to Sadler’s Wells, your third time here to Dance Umbrella. We’re so happy to finally have this show here. We were trying to bring this show when I was still Artistic Director and we now have Freddie Opoku-Addaie who’s here in the audience, who’s our new Artistic Director, but we finally got the show here, so we’re really happy!
I’m just going to ask two questions and then I’m going to hand over. Both of mine are about process because my first one is about chaos and order and the fact that you devise these shows, yes? You’re working with your performers and at the beginning you’re going through exploration, playfulness, you don’t know where you’re going necessarily and there’s an element of travelling into the unknown, but the end result of what we get here is so, so carefully created, choreographed, directed, sound, light… So my question is, at what point do you start to shape it and edit it and mould it in that process, and how does it happen, and when do you start to make the choice to focus it down?
DP: It all [comes] down to practicality, I have a deadline and I know that I need at least one and a half months to kind of produce a show and I need something like four months to create it. So, one and a half months before the premiere, I start fighting with myself in admitting that what I have is probably the best I will get and if I don’t make something out of it now, I will not be able to make it somehow coherent. So, I do encourage chaotic play around some ideas, and some materials, and some accesses of energies, and we come out with stuff. But whatever I find slightly interesting, I store and then I start composing a mosaic and then I play with another way of composing, and another way of composing it, and then one and a half months appears and I have to wake up one day and admit that that’s what it’s going to be, and try then to make it presentable.
EG: I can’t remember who said it, but someone said, “To make a masterpiece, you need a good idea and not enough time”. So maybe, this is what you’re saying. But in that case… so some of the lighting is [what] you make happen. I mean, as in the performers move it [around the stage], but some of it is theatrical. And so, at what points dramaturgically do you bring lighting in?
DP: Oh very early on. I work… the last few years I worked with my collaborator Stephanos Droussiotis, who is here [in the theatre] and we have purchased some kind of equipment and we have it in the studio, actually from day one, without having definite ideas of what it’s going to be, but playing around. And also with costumes, I have to have some sketch costumes but they are always the same, as you know, exactly the same in every show, it’s the same question over and over again. So, I kind of have them from previous shows and I use them. So, because I have no other tools to play with as my… let’s say, “painter’s eye,” I have to have some kind of an image from the beginning.
EG: But then… so because you use sound also in a painterly way, for want of a better way of putting it, so then when does the sound come in?
DP: The sound comes later, yes, the sound comes later. In this particular show the decision for exploring the treasures of Vivaldi was long before I started the show. I don’t know why, but I was kind of fixated on Vivaldi. I started discovering the treasures and actually, Vivaldi moves me a lot because he’s an ancestor, a music ancestor of an icon that we have in Greece, Manos Hatzidakis. [Audience applause] His music has defined our modern sensitivity… I see there’s a Greek colony around here! [Laughs] And I knew that he was influenced by Vivaldi, but the more I dug into Vivaldi, the more I realised how a certain kind of sensitivity was stolen by him, in a way. So I’m trying to go to the origin of my origins in a way. So this was for some reason decided in advance, I don’t usually do that, and I stuck with this idea until the end.
EG: And something like the bull, which is such a strong motif, was that there from the beginning?
DP: Yes, yes, from the beginning. I had envisioned how it was going to work and then I went to a Greek genius, Dimitris Korres, whom I had worked with for the 2004 Athens Olympics, and he designed the mechanism. And then another Greek genius designed the sculptural part of it, Nectarios Dionysatos, whom I have been working with for a long time and on the Olympics as well. We had from day one a sketch, and it was improved afterwards.
EG: But it started there from the beginning. I’m aware of time, so I’m just going to ask you one more question, which is… because of the precision of what we get to witness and see in the detail, that I feel is there in so many choices, and refinement, and editing, and very specific choreographic movement, although interestingly very few steps, but very carefully using time and space to create the images that you share with us…
DP: I don’t know how to do steps, that’s why, I’m sorry!
EG: Well, there’s a tap dance in the middle of [the show]!
DP: This was created by Breanna O’Mara herself, she just told me, “I can tap!” and then I told her, “Why don’t you try something on this music and see?” made this wonderful thing.
EG: So my question before we start to open out is just… do you ever… once a show has been made and then opened, do you… have you ever changed it because of audience reaction or a lack of an audience reaction?
DP: I have a very specific view on that. I have been asked that question [before]. When I am showing it to myself, just to be easy on myself, I just ignore the parts that are not working. When I’m showing it to people, friends, or a full theatre, I feel very awkward in the parts that are not working and that influences me in going back and trying to make them work, with the wish that one day in front of people I will be watching it and feeling smoothly until the end. So this is what influences me, whether people laugh like here [at Sadler’s Wells], which was the first audience that laughed from the beginning, or not, we didn’t change it in order to have some more laughs – we were just wishing for them and praying for them and tonight you gave them!
EG: Good, nice sophisticated London audience. Very good. [Laughter] Okay, right, if we could turn the lights down on us a little bit and up on the audience. I would like to hand over to you [the audience], to ask questions and because of time what I’ll do is pick three and then I’ll just repeat the question so people can hear and let me know if you if you can’t hear. Thank you, that’s nice. Okay, we’re going right to the back and then we’re having one down here.
Audience Question One: What is your process when working with objects and materials?
DP: I just collect things, stuff, and I put it in my in my studio. And I suggest it every now and then to just see how it sounds, how it moves, how in order to make it move it creates an interesting concentration and movement to the human body, and if that feels like it might be something interesting, then I keep it. I just collect stuff, whatever I see and I have it in the studio and we play.
Audience Question Two: How did you manage artists’ pain, because a lot of action [in the show] seems so painful.
DP: Well, I am the one who’s inflicting the pain, you should ask the artists that! [Laughter] I haven’t heard that there’s pain, but maybe you can ask them and maybe there’s something that I don’t know about. I don’t think it’s very painful but they will tell you.
Audience Question Three: You say you don’t work with steps, so how do you keep the dancers in unison when there are bodies on stage? How do they keep together?
DP: They keep themselves in shape alone, but we do work a lot because we are changing and refining things. Whatever has not worked, we usually talk or even rehearse a little bit before every show, so we don’t just need to perform. We are here some hours before [the show starts] and this by itself, I guess, creates some kind of connection, unity, I guess.
Audience Question Four: I’m interested in the messages you want the audience to take away from the performances. Is it a Sisyphean quest in terms of man’s search for meaning?
DP: I am not particularly fond of the word “message” in art. I mean, there are things that are communicated, ideas, and I’m trying not to have opinions to communicate. And whenever I think that something is too literal in a long time, I try to destroy it because I don’t really mean it. Because also the way that I am creating it has a great percentage of instinctive choices – not random, instinctive. So I am trying maybe to create something that I also do not fully understand.
I’m a little bit sceptical about messages and specific directions of meaning, because I wonder if that is necessary in art, since what’s happening with music exactly, with messages and meaning, bold abstract painting, is… why do we need to have art and not just talk to each other and talk about ideas? So I am trying to navigate myself in that territory that I do not exactly know what I have to tell you, but I do have the need and I judge that as a cook that this might be an interesting taste for you to have, and whatever you make of it is something that we can discuss about, or you can discuss with your friends. I’m still not very clear about it, but I have this suspicion that a perfect understanding in the communication with art is a little bit less interesting than a full communication that is a bit more mysterious. But I’m still trying to figure this out.
Audience Question Five: When you’re working with your performers and your artists, are there any principles or ideas that you want to try and instil in them? The “Dimitris Walk” – does that come from the way that you’re working with and training them or is it something specific you planned?
DP: Not that I have thought of it, but now that you’re asking me that, there are somethings that I am fixated with. I am… in all my life I’m trying to achieve some kind of quality slow motion so that an ever developing, an internally developing image in front of your eyes, a food that is cooked in front of your eyes before you even taste it, does not have the necessity of natural speed or fast speed, but it can also have some kind of a more… sleepwalking quality to it, at the risk of course of the audience sleeping as well! So this is something that we do work with and also, I do have this kind of fixation of the figure of men of Magritte, or of the silent movies, and I am trying… to the people that this kind of… what I think is elegance, they’re not accustomed to it, I’m trying to inspire them or impose it on them to get it. For some other people, it comes more naturally. But there is something there that I am searching for, something that I like but I tend to insist, and this probably consists of what you’re talking about. But there’s no system, everything is completely chaotic and it has to do with constant choices that come from a certain taste that is not only about ideas but it’s also about memory and feeling. This creates a kind of taste and with this taste there are choices being made throughout the years that consist of some kind of a style, but I’m not aiming for anything like that, it’s just the natural thing.
EG: But you also play with time a lot. I think that gives [your work] a particular quality.
DP: I am very interested in creating, in twisting the fabric of time in the perception of the audience and in what’s happening in the theatre, but that doesn’t mean that I’m achieving it. But I am really trying to manipulate the sense of time, the perception of time so that sometimes we feel that it has stopped in front of us and that we have maybe entered another kind of… we are communicating with a level of consciousness that we are aware of in our dream state and in our personal contemplation and in our personal time, so that maybe we will communicate with this kind of quality. But this is what I’m aiming for, so I’m trying…
EG: It does give a particular quality. I think for me it’s one of the things in your work I repeatedly see, that you stretch [time].
Audience Question Six: Which theatre practitioners and choreographers have influenced your practise?
DP: Well Federico Fellini, the way he moves his stages around, his images, the way he creates them and the way he just builds up magic from nowhere. And of course, Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch, the two opposite poles, the totally non-psychological theatre and the absolute expressionistic theatre. Those completely opposite poles have charmed me for a long time. But I am also a Walt Disney child. I grew up with silly symphonies and the way that they arranged… the way that they trip and they embark on hallucinatory imaginations, probably from LSD using or something! I think it has shaped my understanding about what’s interesting in art. And then of course… maybe I should stop there. There’s an enormous list of artists that have influenced me so let’s not go to the painters at all.
EG: You as a student, many Greek visual artists influenced you too.
DP: Well, I have my… the one who defined me is Yannis Tsarouchis, an enormous Greek icon [cheers from the crowd] and amazing contemporary painter that kind of combined Western and Eastern iconography with just a magic twist and of course, he introduced a very specific Greek homoeroticism to mainstream, which was enormous what he had done. And of course, the one that the Italians claimed, but he was born in Greece, Jannis Kounellis, the icon of Arte Povera, whose work you have here in the Tate Modern. Well, both of them have been extremely important for me.
EG: Thank you. It’s time, I heard that bell, sorry peeps. I do want to say a huge thank you to this amazing artist.
[Huge audience applause]
DP: Thank you, thank you very much.
EG: I also do want to thank his amazing performers and collaborators.
[Rapturous applause continues]
It’s such, such a pleasure to have you all here, to have you up there too. Thank you so much for coming. Just to say, Dance Umbrella runs until Sunday [24th October 2021]. If you haven’t got a Digital Pass*, you should get one straight away because all the digital stuff that’s also been happening, both live and otherwise, is just on until this Sunday. Good, have a good evening.
DP: Bye, bye. Thank you!
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