Dimitris Papaioannou interview

‘Beauty should not be pompous but light as perfume’

by Evelien Lindeboom


Dimitris Papaioannou portret

The Greek director and visual artist Dimitris Papaioannou (1964) is bringing his new work Transverse Orientation to the Holland Festival. The festival hosted his successful piece The Great Tamer and his installation Inside in 2017. This was followed in 2018 by the piece Since She, which he made for Pina Bausch’ Tanztheater Wuppertal. His work touches on existential questions in a light and humorous manner. He feels the audience should not feel obliged to analyse or understand everything: ‘My work is a kind of free fall of associations and fantasies that touch on existential questions in a light-hearted way. You can choose to meditate on them, but it’s by no means necessary. I always hope they are enjoyable in a sensual way’.


What inspired you for this piece?
‘It all started with the figure of the bull. The bull symbolises unbrideled masculinity - a certain kind of archaic, powerful and violent masculinity. A monument that is – rightly – coming down at present. I say ‘rightly’ because society needs to move on. But the bull archetype has been among the forces that kept human civilisation together. Myths are ancient symbols which had their use and persisted throughout the years. When it comes to great themes – like masculinity and femininity and the sun, moon and earth – they still play a major role and reveal a relationship to the truth. At the same time, they are symbols that have proven to be oppressive and dangerous in their nature. So I saw this bull before me and had mixed feelings looking at it. A bit like how the mythical Theseus would have looked at the Minotaur right before killing it: with compassion and tenderness’. 

The title, Transverse Orientation, refers to the behaviour of moths: the way they keep a fixed angle in relation to a distant light source to orient themselves. Why this title? 
‘Transverse orientation is indeed a kind of GPS for moths. In the piece, this is reflected in the flashing, moving lights that can be reached with a ladder. You could say this is about spirituality: the light you can follow. Like the metaphor of the moth and the flame, a Sufi parable in which the moth that is consumed in the flame is the only one who truly knows the truth (of the light)’. 

Your work can be placed somewhere between choreography and theatre, and you often work with a combination of dancers and actors. Is that the case again? 
‘For this piece, I worked exclusively with dancers. I’d worked with an international cast before, when I made Since She with Pina Bausch’ Tanztheater Wuppertal, but this is the first time I selected an international cast myself. The roles are played by six men and one woman, and there is also one more female performer in a guest appearance. My new piece is a male universe, that the female presence defines, re-orientates, and floods.

I can see the world, naturally, from my own perspective – my gender, my ethnicity and my age. If I am a good poet, my poetry will expand my point of view to everyone. Being a man, I understand men, I dissect men. I ridicule and adore them. Women are figured more as symbols in my work. For this production, I had the honour of working with Breanna O’Mara: she’s mythology herself. It’s amazing how she can change and be elevated to a symbol, a myth.

You don’t have a part in the piece yourself?
‘I’d originally planned to play a part in the piece myself but decided not to at the last moment. The piece lost a central narrative as a result. And that is positive, I think. It’s more prismatic now. 

In a way, I’m all those men myself as well. My generation saw lots of changes. I’m with the group that wants to move forward. I want to dismantle all clichés, but I’m appreciative of the past at the same time. I love art history and myths and archetypes, even if they’ve currently fallen out of favour. So I’m both the Minotaur and Theseus who kills it. I’m also reminded of my relationship with my own father... And I realise that in this moment, I’m the one to be replaced by the next generation of ideas. 

Could you tell me about how you approach your work?
‘When I have an idea, or when I see an image like that bull, a free association process starts. I never know exactly what I’m doing, really, but I trust I’ll know if it’s interesting or not. I get a lot of help from my friend Aggelos Mendis with this. He came up with the titles of my five latest creations: Primal Matter, Still Life, Since She, The Great Tamer, Ink and now Transverse Orientation. I wait for him to see the work and explain what it’s about to me. In this work, for example, there’s a scene in which a man with a follow spot on him is lifted up against a wall. Suddenly, this image makes sense because of the title: the man is moving towards the centre of the light, like an insect. 

I have a close working relationship with the dancers as well. They give me ideas, but they also make suggestions and help each other. There’s a lot of room for improvisation. It’s a bit of a nuthouse during repetitions usually. There’s plenty of room for silliness and humour. Of course, you always risk looking ridiculous, but I like to push things to the point where meaning and humour come together’. 

Your work is about beauty and art, but humour plays a major part as well. How do you strike a balance between serious beauty on the one hand and light, playful humour on the other? 
‘What do you mean with ‘serious beauty’? Oh no, I think it’s a shame when beauty is seen like this. I take my work quite seriously, but the result should be delightful before all else. Beauty shouldn’t be pompous but light as perfume, like the smell of roses in spring: subtle and profound. Humour brings us this kind of beauty because it clears away the misconception that beauty should necessarily be heavy. I look at the kitsch of beauty with irony to find its true beauty inside’. 

‘My work is taken very seriously in Greece. Audiences are hesitant to react to the humour. The Netherlands was the first country where there was laughter and applause during The Great Tamer. That was tremendously liberating for my company. Humour is a wonderful way to bring people together, to create a conspiracy about how ridiculous things in human life actually are’. 

You started your career as a painter and describe the way you work as ‘making a composition’ rather than a choreography. In your recent works, you referred to ‘chiaroscuro’ - paintings like Rembrandt’s Anatomy lesson. Why did you choose to have a light background for this piece rather than a dark one like in recent pieces? 
‘I’m from a country with a lot of light, where all art and life is bathed in light. And this art influenced the whole of Europe. This is how we understand all human creations. But theatre is black! A white background in theatre usually means a backdrop, a screen, and that is connected with a look I do not prefer for my creations. So I accepted this darkness by making chiaroscuro images: spotlighted figures in front of a dark background, like in Italian paintings. But I wanted to return to my own nature, like how I’d worked with a white background in Primal Matter. So I decided to make a white wall as a background. This presents its own challenges. As well as the possibility to use colour. It’s brutal, everything is exposed from the way a performer walks to the shape of his toes. But it’s delightful when it works. 

Did the current pandemic and the postponement of the piece influence the piece itself? 
‘It had little effect on the piece itself. My work is never about the news. But it affected the way I experience it. I had to let go of the work at a moment when I had to bring all the results from the experimental phase together; the moment when I have to accept that this is it. That it won’t be getting any better. I have to recognise that. At this point in the process, I hate myself and everyone around me. But now the pandemic forced us to pause, in the middle of this dissatisfaction. There was much time, an unexpected project was created in-between, and then a restart. When I came back to it, I found myself looking at it in a different way. I found it sweet. It turned into a sweet piece, despite the melancholy and bitterness that are always present in my pieces - as I always realize when I look back at them from the distance. But, until we share it with the public, we do not really know what it is.

Transverse Orientation
24 - 26 June, Carré
information & tickets