An interview with Dimitris Papaioannou about “Transverse Orientation”, his new masterpiece

On occasion of the 39th Festival de Otoño, Dimitris Papaioannou (Athens, 1964), the renowned Greek stage director’s company visited Madrid with its amazing and coveted new performance: “Transverse Orientation”. A journey for the senses, full of beauty, art, poetry and deep reflections about the essence of humankind, a fusion of visual arts, theatre and dance.

We recently had the pleasure of being able to speak to him and this is what he told us. He’s one of a kind.

Dimitris Papaioannou is nowadays considered a genius of the Greek stage and his productions, both those that are intimist and those on a larger scale, travel the world and are acclaimed by critics and the public alike. It’s not surprising. To experience one of his performances implies surrendering your body and soul, abandoning any preconceived ideas and allowing it to carry you away…

What were you like as a child and what did you want to be when you grew up?

My parents told me that I was not very social in my early years. I liked to play by myself a lot with my plasticine and my Magic Markers, sitting under the dining table. I was an introvert, but this does not mean that I had problems relating to others. In fact, when I was 11 or even a little younger, I discovered the neighbourhood and the other children that lived there and after that, I was always outside…

“As a child, I wanted to be a painter because I could draw very well. I also wanted to be a movie star and a ballet dancer.”

How was the journey to become who you are today?

Well, I’m 57 so the journey has been long, but the truth is that it has been fluid and both expected and unexpected. In a way, it could seem that everything has been locked in, but the truth is that there have been many surprises in my life. Firstly, at 18 I had to run away from home in order to become an artist and from that moment I supported myself in every aspect; I paid for my own studies and I was financially independent. Then, even though I had achieved a good financial situation as a painter, after some time I decided to change and I tried dance in the most underground scene in Athens. In fact, we entered a building illegally that we transformed into a theatre and it was there, together with a group of friends, where I began to direct my first choreographies, perform my first art directions. It was very anarchic and very punk but also an enormous bourgeois success representing totally underground functions.

After that, more and more projects appeared, in increasingly bigger theatres, as well as more challenging projects such as the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympic Games. And suddenly, seven years ago, when I was fifty years old, some international curators discovered me and I have being touring the world with my creations ever since.

“I’m very grateful to see that there are people who are truly interested in what I do.”

You began your career as a quite successful painter and a comic artist. How do you feel about that stage of your life? Do you miss drawing?

I painted very intensively during my holidays last summer. After almost thirty years, I had my sketch book with me and, at the nudist beaches I go to, I would quickly sketch the bathers. I love to paint and draw and it’s something that reminds me of my youth. I think it is a skill that you have to keep practicing.

“It gives me great pleasure to see how my hands reproduce what my eyes see without thinking about possible interpretations, simply letting yourself go.”

It also makes me feel good to do things nobody is expecting from me. The good thing about success is that if you want to do something, people want you to do it and they find the resources for you, but they also expect something. What I miss are my early days as a comic artist because I was innocent and because I realized that, if you wish, your work can be very personal yet, at the same time, connect with other people.

What is art to you?

It’s a very difficult question but I will say that the history of humankind has demonstrated that art is a necessary medium to try to understand the mysteries of existence, as well as a way for humans to communicate.

“Art allows us to share our inner universe in order to try to understand and make sense of things and to try to decode our fears and emotions.”

How would you define your art?

“Through metamorphosis, I try to take matter and transform it into something else.”

Similar to a kind of therapy?

It makes sense. In fact, in Ancient Greece, the theatre was next to a therapeutic centre, as part of a complex, a kind of psychotherapy for society. It’s interesting that the Greeks had just achieved an enormous empire in spite of being such a small minority group. The work they produced in the theatre was from the perspective of those who had lost. It was an attempt to process loss and existence.

What is your creative process like and how do you approach a new project?

I have a chaotic approach and I always face the same chaos. I tend to come to the studio with some ideas related to the use of possible materials, the sounds they make… or with ideas on how to, for example, have five people animating one bull puppet. And sometimes I have some abstract feelings that create some problems or issues for the people we are going to play with. We are like crazy people and, if you observe the process, we are like a madhouse. And the best thing is that these challenges and “uncomfortable” situations always result in something interesting.

“So, I take these tiny fragments that arise, and I am faced with a puzzle of which I don’t know the final image, but I have all the pieces in front of me. From there, I compose and decompose and start again.”

You were a pupil of the iconic Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis. What would you remark about your time with him?

I remember him very well. I recall that one fine day, at the age of seventeen, I knocked on his front door and presented him with photos of my paintings. Luckily, he opened the door and saw me. He was very famous, and I didn’t think he would talk to me or let me into his home, but he did. I showed him the photos of my paintings, he didn’t say anything and I very shyly managed to tell him that my school had organized an exhibition for me and invited him to the opening. Then I left and the best thing was that, to my surprise, he came! The next day he called me, he told me he liked what I was doing very much and that I could visit him whenever I wanted. And that’s how he became my teacher.

“At that moment, I was a combination of a very shy and a very daring person. When I look back, I think I had a strong instinct and I was very lucky.”

Nowadays, I am a still a little similar to that boy: I lose my confidence when my computer doesn’t work or when I can’t lock my bicycle, but at the same time I can lead a large group of people, like in the opening of the Olympic games. So, we can say that I am a mix of a very awkward and dyslexic child and someone who can suddenly become a leader. Maybe we could ask a psychologist along to analyse me.

In 2004, you directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens. Did you achieve international recognition? How did it feel to pull off something so incredible and of those dimensions?

Believe it or not, I never really got that recognition. No one knows the directors of these types of ceremonies, and also the art world is too snobbish to validate the artists that carry out these projects. In my country, I was a national hero but abroad, nobody knew me. In fact, I think that although they didn’t show an interest in what I did, the truth was that they hadn’t actually seen it either.

After a few years, when I was discovered by Claire Verlet from The Théâtre de la Ville, the curators of Festival d’Avignon and other institutions began to show an interest in me, because Claire Verlet is a pioneer in selecting artists and The Théâtre de la Ville  is very prestigious. So , they realized that there was an artist that had been making art in a particular way, and at the age of fifty, my work began to be very successful. Then they saw everything I had been doing, like the opening and closing ceremony at the Olympic Games, and they appreciated it very much. So now I can say that this project had a very positive legacy, even though at the time not only did it not have a great international impact but it had in fact a negative one; it was considered that “real artists” don’t accept those kinds of assignments.

What are your main influences?

There are many… Jacques TatiBuster Keaton, Federico Fellini, Jannis Kounellis, Yannis TsarouchisPina BauschRobert WilsonSamuel BeckettYalal ad-Din Muhammad RumiLaurie AndersonAnne CarsonMagritte, Bauhaus

“I have admired Pedro Almodóvar’s work since I was young. Four years ago, I met him at Matadero in Madrid, and I will never forget that day.”

Last Sunday, we went to see your last show “Transverse Orientation” in Madrid, and it was truly amazing, fascinating and captivating. Congratulations! How long did it take to create this wonder?

Thank you very much! In this case, we took longer than usual due to the pandemic.  We rehearsed for two months with the team, although previously, together with Christos Strinopoulos, one of the performers and a long-time collaborator of mine, we had researched, analysed and discovered very interesting things. This is something we tend to do and in fact, this time we discovered for example the balloon heads on the characters that appear at the beginning of the function, as well as the elements with which he represents a mermaid.

After these two months, the lockdown came, and we had to stop. Four or five months after the state of emergency, as I couldn’t stop working, I created a duet function called “Ink”. This is a project created together with one of the dancers, the young Suka Horn, with whom I have become friends. Together we wanted to explore this collaboration and we decided to create this performance together and we performed it in Italy, where the theatres were still open.

After this, I resumed “Transverse Orientation” and we rehearsed for two more months. We had dress rehearsals in the theatre for two more weeks, but lockdown returned forcing us to stop again. So, we waited for the theatres to open in France and there we spent another ten days rehearsing before we were finally able to present it to the public. So, all in all, we took four and a half months to develop it due to the pandemic.

“I am the last of the dinosaurs remaining that insists on longer rehearsal periods even if that costs a lot more money. They are essential for the final result.”

What role does music and sound play in “Transverse Orientation” and in all your work?

Music is the art of the arts and it very much defines the emotional landscape of a scene. That’s why I try not to use it, although I cannot not use it because when I manage to, I am very proud but it becomes insufferable. In this case, in “Transverse Orientation”, I instinctively thought of Vivaldi and although I initially didn’t know why, I later dived into his music and discovered things I never thought would be so charming.

One example is that I discovered that Vivaldi was a predecessor of Mános Hatzidákis, who is also of the same generation as Yannis Tsarouchis, my painting teacher. They had collaborated together, and the truth is that Mános Hatzidákismusic defines the sensitivity of many generations. So, at this point, I realized that I had gone to the source of the source, and Vivaldi survived into the show, because many of the ideas that I have never make it to the end.

With regards to the sound, it is a vital part of what we do. And in “Transverse Orientation”, the sound for example is a parallel design created by a great collaborator of mine called Coti K. He created the sound design around Vivaldi’s music, and he amplified the sounds created by the performers, the objects and the different materials. It’s a dialogue between them.

In “Transverse Orientation”, the staging is apparently simple but it gives the impression that there was a lot of technology behind it. What can you tell us about that?

The technology we use is simple. What isn’t simple is the combination of all these elements, nor the overlapping of one element over another until you reach the perfect assembly.

I have a technical team that helps me to technically reproduce my ideas. Except for the processing of sound, which is done by computer, the rest is analogue. In fact, in order to achieve the effect of the flickering neon light, we had to use an old dimmer switch.

We were captivated by the details and the perfection between the objects and the different interpretations of the performers. Do you have to be obsessed by detail in order to carry out a spectacle as amazing, demanding and pristine as this?

Yes, the performers learn to be puppeteers of themselves and of the objects. It’s true that puppets are a very important part of my work. That’s why, the way in which we make things move and the way in which we make things work is more important than our own movements themselves. It is an important process in my creations.

In this work, you dissect the origin of humanity and its future, and subsequently that of society. How do you see society in the future: is it headed for chaos and self-destruction or is there hope?

I have hope, although I have no logical justification to defend that position. I always see, both in myself and others, a constant struggle between order and chaos, between night and day, between darkness and light. I constantly see how human stupidity takes over and then human bravery takes over, I see it in myself and I see it around me. As I have the capacity to make decisions and I have the capacity to love, I have hope.

“I am an optimist, although I am always struggling with my light and my shadows.”

Do you know Giorgos Lanthimos? There is a certain connection in your aesthetics.

He is my friend, and I am glad you said this. I know Giorgos Lanthimos since before he made his films. He is ten years younger than I am and I feel very proud to be his friend. He is one of the artists that I am seeing explode and the truth is that I am extremely proud of him, and I love that the new generations like him so much. It is fantastic. Giorgos gets better with success, the same as Almodóvar. That is something that does not happen to everyone.

What are you working on right now?

I have some proposals for future projects and I am also thinking about a possible extension of the “Transverse Orientation” tour in America. We are going to go to Japan and to Hong Kong too, but America is still pending. We will be in Europe in six more months, until the end of July. So, we are in the middle of negotiations to extend the “Transverse Orientation” tour or to begin the tour with “Ink”.

In which part of the world would you like to reproduce your work?

In Havana. I would love to…

What is happiness to you?

“Happiness is having the feeling that, out of the whole universe, I am in exactly the right place.”

About “Transverse Orientation”

The staging of this absolute masterpiece is utterly unconventional yet at the same time absolutely beautiful. In fact, words fall short when describing this wonder. Throughout its 105 minutes, different evocative situations take place led by eight artists who, with Vivaldi playing in the background, weave a number of images that invite us to reflect on the origin of humankind, on our existence and possible fate, on our constant metamorphosis, on the relationships between men and women as well as our relationships with our ancestors… All under the influence of the Myth of the Minotaur.

“According to Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, the offspring of Pasiphae, the spouse of King Minos, and an animal following a conflict between the gods.”

“Transverse Orientation is birth and death. It is pain and glory. A compendium of images that move you and nest in your cortex forever more.”

Art sheet:

Conceived – Visualized + Directed by Dimitris Papaioannou.
With Damiano Ottavio Bigi, Suka Horn, Jan Möllmer, Breanna O’Mara, Tina Papanikolaou, Lukasz Przytarski, Christos Strinopoulos, Michalis Theophanous.
Music: Antonio Vivaldi. · Music Supervisor: Stephanos Droussiotis.
Set Design: Tina Tzoka & Loukas Bakas · Sound Composition + Design: Coti K · Costume Design: Aggelos Mendis · Collaborative Lighting Designer: Stephanos Droussiotis · Sculptures + Special Constructions – Props: Nectarios Dionysatos · Mechanical Inventions: Dimitris Korres · Creative – Executive Producer + Assistant Director: Tina Papanikolaou · Assistant Directors + Rehearsal Directors: Pavlina Andriopoulou & Drossos Skotis · Assistant to the Set Designers: Tzela Christopoulou · Assistant to the Sound Composer: Martha Kapazoglou · Assistant to the Costume Designer: Aella Tsilikopoulou · Special Constructions – Props Assistant: Eva Tsambasi · Photography + Cinematography: Julian Mommert · Technical Director: Manolis Vitsaxakis · Assistant to the Technical Director: Marios Karaolis · Stage Manager – Sound Engineer + Props Constructions: David Blouin · Props Master: Tzela Christopoulou · Lighting: Programmer: Stephanos Droussiotis · Set adaptation: Evangelos Xenodochidis · Costumes Construction: Litsa Moumouri, Efi Karantasiou, Islam Kazi · Stage Technicians: Kostas Kakoulidis, Evgenios Anastopoulos, Panos Koutsoumanis · Lighting Constructions: Miltos Athanasiou · Silicone Baby made by Joanna Bobrzynska-Gomes · Props Team: Natalia Fragkathoula, Marilena Kalaitzantonaki, Timothy Laskaratos, Anastasis Meletis, Antonis Vassilakis · Executive Production: 2WORKS in collaboration with POLYPLANITY Productions · Executive Production Associate: Vicky Strataki · Executive Production Assistant: Kali Kavvatha · Props Production Manager: Pavlina Andriopoulou · International Relations + Communications Manager: Julian Mommert.
A production of ONASSIS STEGI. Created to be premiered at ONASSIS STEGI (2021).
Co-Produced by: Festival d’Avignon, Biennale de la danse de Lyon 2021, Dance Umbrella / Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Fondazione Campania dei Festival – Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, Grec Festival de Barcelona, Holland Festival (Amsterdam), Luminato (Toronto) / TO Live, New Vision Arts Festival (Hong Kong), Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Saitama Arts Theatre / ROHM Theatre Kyoto, Stanford Live / Stanford University, Teatro Municipal do Porto, Théâtre de la Ville – Paris / Théatre du Châtelet, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

(*) Photos: Julian Mommert.



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