I don’t wish to sound like a wet blanket by dampening the mythological enthusiasm that is clinging to Dimitris Papaioannou’s extraordinary and mesmerizing latest work. The fact that in his previous works (e.g. The Great Tamer and Still Life) this (now) extremely famous Greek artist has demonstrated his sound grounding in the myths and culture of his country, does not imply that we should read his latest, powerful work for eight performers along the same lines as those on account of the reiteration of clichés. This would belittle his renown as a tireless seeker, one who certainly does not rest on his laurels.
Transverse Orientation debuted in Lyon last June and was seen in Italy only at “Napoli Teatro Festival”, “TorinoDanza”, and the “Aperto” festival in Reggio Emilia. It is currently touring until May 2022 – with hopes that it may come to Rome in January. What we know about it is that its long drawn-out gestation was a solitary one. The Covid-19 pandemic and closing-down of theatres caused Papaioannou to spend summer 2020 on the small island of Anafi, one of the Cyclades, where he gave vent to his lust for creation by producing a series of pencil drawings, especially of nudes, and of paintings. This is an art in which he already excelled as a child prodigy of three and, later on, as a pupil of Yannis Tsarouchis (a great artist who made his definitive breakthrough at “Documenta 14” in Kassel, 2017), before attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens. Furthermore, Dimitris, who was later attracted to dance, becoming a performer, director and choreographer, declared that he was interested in moths (which resemble hairy butterflies and, according to popular superstition, bring bad luck) and to their fatal attraction to artificial light sources (phototaxis). Period. The rest induces us to begin our personal critical investigation from the title itself, as William Forsythe has taught us to do.
And so the white backdrop with a door to the right (looking at the stage from the audience’s perspective) and a couple of steps leading up to the stage, immediately reminds us of Papaioannou’s 2012 minimalist duet, the astounding Primal Matter. After an absence of ten years, Dimitris himself reappeared in that show, in the classic all-black suit worn by sirtaki dancers, trying to insinuate himself into the sacred and naked body of his partner Michael Theophanos using all sorts of strategies, also thanks to his (by now) well-oiled Body Mechanic System: a physical, though non-psychological, practice derived from Butō, designed to deform the human limbs and fit them together painlessly. The analogy with that duet from long ago could end with the horizontal pace of the two works (which is necessary at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza where Primal Matter debuted in 2015) and with the way both make an ultra-basic use of props (especially so if compared to the elaborateness of Seit Sie/Since She or The Great Tamer): by contrast, Transverse Orientation features narrow, metal ladders, convertible chairs that unfold with difficulty, a microphone, a hoop, a tin bucket, a small neon light high up on the left-hand side which fizzles and flickers unpredictably. Except that whereas the Laban-inspired Raum (space) is quite clear and shared by both works, the energy element - Kraft (as well as Effort) - differs greatly, not only from Primal Matter, but also from all other Papaioannou creations that have been seen in Italy, with the exception of the Ink duet where there are analogies, though of a different kind.
Transverse Orientation proceeds at a calm pace which induces contemplation, although there are moments of frantic fighting too; basically, we are on the Greek island of Ananfi, and this is especially clear if we pay attention to the admirable and perfect way the reflected lights change on the backdrop, which goes from white to crimson, then grey, orange, blue and pinkish-red, like a gentle, nostalgic sunset, with an interplay of cuts and rounds and a final reverberation of calm sea waves, which move the lights themselves, turning them into pure design - such refinement should be weighed up in its own right. Also thanks to his collaboration with Stephanos Droussiotis in Transverse Orientation, Dimitris has created a dramaturgy which is able to stand on its own or - if you will - a genuine choreography of lights which is also self-sufficient: it entrances and envelops us like a double track into which he gradually inserts his eight protagonists (who have been hand-picked around the world - including Italian dancer Damiano Ottavio Bigi) and Vivaldi’s music. The latter is also meticulously dosed, with each piece lasting no more than three minutes; the selected excerpts are from the Cello Concerto in D major (RV 407 Largo), the Concerto for “double choir” in B flat major (RV 583 Andante) and, almost as the finale, the Bassoon Concerto in G Minor, masterfully performed by L’Aura Soave ensemble from Cremona.
When the pièce begins we see seven extremely tall characters with tiny heads and elongated (thanks to hidden prostheses) arms: these faceless creatures, hidden inside male burkas, cannot fail to remind us that one of Papaioannou’s early creative loves was for cartoons. Their only aim in Transverse Orientation seems to be that climbing a skinny ladder in order to reach a neon light, located out of reach, which now and again makes a series of sharp, crackling noises. Five of them keep trying, then give up. Only a cartoonish man remains on stage with a rotund, caracoling dwarfish creature who has his back to us and bashes his head against the backdrop – maybe because he too is imprisoned inside a burka. It takes some effort to get him to leave the stage when, almost simultaneously another character enters, dragging a floodlight on the ground which emits a blinding light (as in his Sisyphus/Trans/Form installation at the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy). We cease to have the slightest doubt: this work is a concentrate of fragments from Papaioannou’s own history of artistic creation which here, however, acquire different flavours and aromas. So different that when one looks closely at the men (no longer cartoon-like characters) who come on stage in unassuming jackets and trousers, one notices that their clothing no longer resembles the classical garb worn by sirtaki dancers: the shirts are pale blue, the suits are closer to dark grey than to black. Are these pointless details? No. Here everything is of special importance.
Even the entrance of a gigantic bull, to which all the male performers cling as if they are trying to tame it, can indeed be traced back to mythology, but certainly not to the myth of Theseus. The bull is broken-in quite quickly: a naked man climbs onto it and cries out triumphantly, overpowering the Vivaldi music which was already playing very softly. The person who really does tame the bull is a boy (Šuka Horn, I believe), initially bare-chested and then totally naked. Holding a bucket and a microphone, he waters the animal so that the public can actually hear it lapping up the water. Suddenly we realise that there is a naked person under the bull and she is revealed to be a magnificent girl dancer (Breanna O’Mara) with a sweet and wistful face. She positions herself on top of her naked colleague and then gets up and, also naked, walks around holding his penis. The nudity is erotic, which is nothing new and certainly doesn’t upset anyone here. While the naked Šuka leads the bull to the side of the stage with a hoop, a big commotion is going on, involving a ladder that folds into an “L” shape on which a man places his raincoat, as well as endless attempts to fix the faulty neon light. Not to mention the fuss over a metal chair which is similar to a folding bed/deckchair: after many an attempt to unfold it, even the lovely damsel ends up trapped inside the contraption, as if in an iron barrel.
In another scene, that smacks of pop, we see a short male dance: all the men, in line, dance a few steps of a jolly Vivaldi tap dance, and then charge towards the backdrop in an attempt to climb up it like spiders. It’s one of the show’s many unexpected moments, the most significant being the apparition of the alluring, naked girl astride the bull. Here the citation is (maybe) of the myth of Europa although the girl’s face is peaceful and serene without any sign of tension for having been raped. The human/divine/animal relationship is innocent, candid, natural and pure. Even when the bull defecates and sullies the face of young Šuka who has calmed it down - afterwards, as if to confirm it has been appeased, the bull licks him with its gigantic tongue. Moreover, one can smell the sea air. The woman riding the bull has a sea-urchin in the place of her vagina: it is cut in two and given to the naked young man who puts it in his bucket, into which he also then plonks his head. The sea, virtually present behind the backdrop at this stage in the performance, is presumably in turmoil: from the only door on the stage the men rush to save boulders of polyester, as if they were pieces of houses, as well as those everyday items that we’ve seen in so many tornado scenes on TV. The sea, especially if it’s an ocean, can be very cruel. Thank goodness that this stormy scene was preceded by another of those cartoon-style sketches: a naked man, initially a scuba diver with fins, reaches centrestage and leaps up and down gleefully - his feet close together like those of a penguin - while gold sparkle shimmers down all over his head and his impressive 'number'.
If, thanks to his Body Mechanical System, we’ve become accustomed to admiring Dimitris’ body-interlocking manoeuvres, then we won’t be disappointed. Here the woman interlocks with one of the other performers, but also the contrary takes place. Further on, the men squeeze in-between planks ending up against the backdrop. There are other citations which are disproved by a novelty: the delectable female figure turns into a fountain that appears out of nowhere and from which lots of water spurts. Is she a wet version of Botticelli ‘s Venus? Why not? The important thing is to notice that after having appeared in the triumph of her Venus-like beauty, she disappears underground. That is to say, underwater. It goes without saying that there follow other short struggles with the bull, pulled by ropes until, suddenly, it gets disassembled into a thousand segments (was it not, after all, an oversize toy?). The men don bulls’ heads in an attempt to emulate it, with the ever-naked Šuka wielding his sword against them. As for Šuka, he will get his guts torn out during one of those inevitable moments of violence with which the work is veined. Nevertheless, as we proceed towards the finale, everything calms down again, a contemplative calm with a woman enclosed in a real, ornate shell carried onstage without the slightest warning.
A large quantity of liquid, similar to milk, drips from her body, which is not completely covered in white, and in fact her womb gives birth to a baby (another reference to Ink). She strokes this round-headed baby and is taken away in her shell. The playing of Vivaldi has stopped and an old, fat, naked woman enters to the sound of silence, with a walking stick that noisily accompanies her steps. She dips her stick in the milk that is still there where the maternal shell was initially, and leaves. Does she represent death, in contrast with the life-giving we have just seen? Who knows? Certainly, the neon light wobbles as she departs and a bell rings. What is going on?
The door opens yet again and the gorgeous dancer re-enters wearing pale pink, and pours more water out of a bucket. She is sitting down but suddenly stands up and pours more clear liquid, this time onto a big, shiny, black slab. There are special light effects and this water muse (Thetis?) disappears once again underground. Just as well, because there is still a lot going on underwater. Six well-dressed men scramble, shaking and raising the floorboards, thus saving themselves from the impact of the water which is invading that part of the stage. But this time the sea has almost become calm; we admire the reflections of the waves as part of the visual choreography described earlier. And we see the young naked Šuka sitting completely still on one of the raised floorboards: he is looking out at the sea, we suppose, while a man vigorously starts to clean the wet floor with a mop.
Conclusion: in Transverse Orientation, in addition to what we have already pointed out especially about the lights and music and the intrinsic minimalism of the set, we are faced with the pure and simple creation of landscapes. The mind-body is the protagonist of dreams and electromagnetic obsessions: we know how fascinated Papaioannou is by the research work of Serbian physicist Nikola Tesla. In an unsettling collage of fragments from his past as a creator, and free of any overt mythological intentions, Transverse Orientation takes on the form of memory, happiness and nostalgia for the driving force of the sea, which is the source of both destruction and salvation. The public can fantasise to their heart's content, or wallow in this Heidegger-esque Dasein which is of rare visual and pictorial beauty.
(Translation by Simonetta Allder)