Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer at BAM

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An image from Dimitris Papaioannou's The Great Tamer at BAM. Photo: Max Gordon /Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

BROOKLYN – In his Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) debut, director/choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou impressed the audience with The Great Tamer which ran November 14-16. The world tour of his award-winning creation concludes with two performances at the Megaron Athens Concert Hall.

In the gray and relatively dark set, designed in collaboration with Tina Tzoka, the New York audience at BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building was presented with one of the powerful, sometimes provocative, scenes of Papaioannou's iconography. A naked male body, at first one might assume he was dead, lying in the middle of the stage with one man covering him with a sheet and another using a piece of the set to fan and uncover him. This image, which was repeated several times, was the first of many to follow which referred to the most basic of the archetypal motifs that dominated Papaioannou's two-hour creation, death.

The Great Tamer is not explicit at first glance, but the program sought, apparently consciously, to give the viewer some hint of what was to come. Any unity should be sought in the deep artistic vision of Papaioannou who creates these images.

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A scene from Dimitris Papaioannou's The Great Tamer at BAM. Photo: Max Gordon /Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Yet another kind of unity of these multiple worlds, however, is the repeated repetition, both on stage and in Papaioannou's work, of dealing with basic themes of human existence, such as death, love, the subject's relationship with his body, the sexes, the perpetual alternation of nature, the relation of man to the earth, time ("pandamator" i.e. “the all taming” in ancient times) the basic primordial and eternal material elements of existence, the soil, the stones, the water. Escape, the vulnerability of human existence, love, the fruits of the earth are also illustrated. The naked, sometimes raw and violent, sometimes sensual, sometimes provocative, dominates. All this is contrasted with the rather neutral, dark costumes.

There is always, with the motif of death and that of the finality and the "fragility" of human existence always dominating, one would say, the "indigenous obsession" in memento mori, with the literal meaning of the word indigenous. Everything comes out of the earth and returns to it. This is also why the shoes have roots on the bottom.

The bodies, the parts of the bodies, emerge on their own or are attracted to others, surfacing, painfully landing on the ground, moving and intertwining with other bodies in motion to their strength’s limit, typical of Papaioannou's scenes (as in “Primal Matter” which was performed a few years ago at Town Hall) that seems to come out of his very personal creation and his “dialogue” with the past within the art of dance, emerging at times from an inner, dream-like world, a world of dreams, from perhaps obsessive associations and fantasies, and at times from his contact with the other arts.

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A scene from Dimitris Papaioannou's The Great Tamer at BAM. Photo: Max Gordon /Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

References to other works of art are sometimes confessional and sometimes explicit. As in the example of the scene of an operation or autopsy on a surgical table.

Where the viewer tries to identify the well-known scene inspired by Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson, the scene changes abruptly with the participants seated at the table and beginning to eat the body parts and organs in a highly detestable way and a grotesque scene, which is slightly watered down, as elsewhere with a dose of humor. In general, humor and irony, as well as disillusion, next to ritual, appear to be key elements of Papaioannou's particular universe, and the crowd at BAM did laugh several times during the performance.

The main source of these images seems to be ancient tragedy, or perhaps because of the fragmentary nature of the scenes, the Dionysian ritual events that allegedly led to the birth of the tragedy. Many of the scenes could be from directing some of the most archetypal ancient dramas, such as Antigone for the original body scene covered and revealed. The eternal and very visceral, painful quest for identity that some other scenes brought to our attention brought Oedipus to mind.

And while many of the scenes seemed to come out of ancient tragedy, the way in which some of Papaioannou's imagery refers to Hellenistic period sculpture, intense and muscular (cf. "Hellenistic Baroque"), “carved” we would say, although they are not bas-reliefs, they form complex clusters (i.e. Laocoon), while the sexes are "mixed" (i.e. Hermaphroditus). Some of the images, and the bodies, refer to this as "officially" by the creator, in the work of Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco). Other scenes and "placements" of dancers and objects on stage resembled paintings, which cannot be a coincidence since Papaioannou is a painter, a pupil of Yiannis Tsarouchis and of the Athens School of Fine Arts.

Also clear is the reference to the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. At first one and later a second astronaut in a very convincing outfit (costumes by Aggelos Mendis) convey weightlessness on stage in the dance and as they start pulling stones out of the ground, Later on, one of the astronauts embraces a naked young man.

Cosmic in some way and at the same time existent the scene with a young man trying, in vain as it turns out, in the end to balance on a large globe.

Some characters look fragile and delicate, some strong and violent. A scene of violence and struggle plays out in front of a white wall that creates the raised panels of the scene with the body-to-body battle scene appearing also as a shadow.

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A scene from Dimitris Papaioannou's The Great Tamer at BAM. Photo: Max Gordon /Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

The music, apart from some additional sound effects, was Johann Strauss II's well-known waltz: The Beautiful Blue Danube, adapted by Stephanos Droussiotis, slowed or accelerated, more or less slowly, expressively or not, it sounded sometimes cheerful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes dramatic or even grotesque.

One of the most beautiful and dramatic images is that of a young naked man trying to find refuge beneath the earth, with many arrows falling all around but the arrows are golden and stand upright on the ground around him, from the violent image a second idyllic picture emerges, of a golden beneficial rain that fertilizes the earth and turns it into a beautiful field of grain ready for the harvest.

At another point, a naked body falls on the darts/arrows, perhaps a reference to the iconography of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

The original scene of the body being covered and uncovered returned some time towards the end of the nearly two-hour dance, perhaps to close the circle, but it was not the last, the show closed with two even more intense and more vivid images of death.

In the first, two of the main characters in the show unearth an ancient skeleton which is gradually raised with its pieces rolling up to the first rows of the audience and when the upright position and skull approach the first rows with the Blue Danube transformed into a funeral march. In the end, the last of the dancers left on stage descends or is devoured by the earth in a slow ritual.

The Great Tamer was originally produced in Athens by the Onassis Cultural Center and co-produced by CultureScapes Greece 2017 (Switzerland), Dansens Hus Sweden (Sweden), EdM Productions, Festival d’Avignon (France), Fondazione Campania dei Festival – Napoli Teatro Festival Italia (Italy), Les The?a?tres de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg), National Performing Arts Center/National Theater & Concert Hall NPAC-NTCH (Taiwan), Seoul Performing Arts Festival (Korea), The?a?tre de la Ville – Paris / La Villette – Paris (France).

Following two and a half years of a world tour with stops, among many others, from Australia to Asia, including Los Angeles, the Avignon Festival, and Rome where it received the Special Prize of the 16th European Theater Awards, The Great Tamer returns to Athens, this time to the Megaron Athens Concert Hall, November 29 and 30, for two performances only.

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Fotios Kaliampakos is a Greek historian. Having studied and lived in Athens, Vienna, Florence, and New York, he now resides in Manhattan and writes about culture for various outlets. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna and a member of the Music Critic’s Association of North America. A Greek version of this article was published in his column on the Greek website: