The Great Tamer – An interview with Dimitris Papaioannou

On rare occasions, experimental theatre comes to the mainstream: Dimitris Papaioannou is one of the few names that have filtered from the art scene to pop culture. His name spread first in 2004, as the creator of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens as well as being the first artist to create a full-length work for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch after its creator. He has been touring since 2017 with his latest piece THE GREAT TAMER and we had the chance to sit down and discuss a few aspects of his creative process and work after the German premiere in Dresden. Taken from our last print issue!

Dimitris Papaioannou by Manuel Moncayo

The GREAT TAMER is a production that definitely speaks Dimitris’ unique language. He takes the role of the director and controls every aspect of it both on- and offstage, including the recording and documentation. He sees the finished product as a result of a collaboration with the performers and actors involved. The mosaic of ideas given by him as premises to shape the show only come to life as a cohesive piece after the rehearsal process.

KALTBLUT: When do you decide that a piece is ready to be shown to the public?
Dimitris Papaioannou: Within the format and time limitations that each piece has, I identify what is trying to be created and my role is to help it manifest in its best version. It is a game I play, trying to sense what is being created and serve it.

KALTBLUT: The stage plays an important role. When did this appear as a premise to build THE GREAT TAMER?
Dimitris Papaioannou: From the beginning of this play I had the desire to create a show that will explore digging things from underground, conceptually speaking: the archaeology of humanity, the search of a hidden pleasure and excavation of our own personal and collective memory. Which graphically meant you need to search for something that is “under” an elevated stage.
There are dry factors that define what you have to do, and I realised that what I would construct will need to come from already-made parts. So we took the standard parts of theatrical floors and we created a set in the form of a wave by changing the heights of four points. I am explaining this because the parameters are not very artistic. Artistry is how to tame all these parameters and to create some kind of poetry if possible. I wanted something under, so we needed to elevate the surface. I wanted people to see, so it needed to be inclined. I wanted something that looked twisted but I had to work with already-made parts, so these factors define the aesthetic morality of the result.

KALTBLUT: How many people were involved in the creation of THE GREAT TAMER?
Dimitris Papaioannou: I designed the set, an architect analysed my requirements and worked out how to achieve it. Other than her, I had several collaborators for a set, costume, props, lights, sound design, and of course the performers and actors.

KALTBLUT: Are these people your permanent team?
Dimitris: They are not a permanent team: I tend to be faithful and some collaborations last for years. So if I am happy with the collaboration, I take it to another state, until we feel like we do not evolve together or until the time comes to get some air. My basic team is a producer, stage manager, tour manager, technical director, and three or four performers that I work with. These are the people that will go with me from one project to another, and we attract different artists to complete each work. We are a house production, we started from various backgrounds and we have learned by doing.

THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert
THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert

KALTBLUT: Is the number of collaborators in a work a consequence of the previous work?
Dimitris: There is a direct relationship between the way each work is built and how it evolves into the next one. Right now THE GREAT TAMER is an extensive tour with a large group of collaborators, and therefore I am craving a smaller production for the next time, but I don’t know if this craving will prevail.
When I did INSIDE which is one of my favourite pieces, it was this big theatrical installation that needed 30 performers, it lasted 6 hours per day, and it happened in the middle of the Greek financial crisis so it was my biggest financial flop. Up to then, I had been blessed with years of being financially successful and selling tickets, considering that what I do is a bit “weird”. I believe part of this successor interest from the audience came because I did the opening and closing ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in 2004 so I became a kind of local star and people will come to see my work even when they would not understand or prefer it to something else.
But then INSIDE came and it was a big financial flop and the producers forgot about me because I was not the money maker anymore. I took a break for a year. At this time art had become political because of the crisis. I hated that because I found it narrow, on the other hand, I felt that what was happening around me was too intense not to take it into consideration. I tried to think of what my contribution would be and I made a bet with myself to create the next piece out of nothing: no resources, no money. So this meant no music, no lights, just recycled sets, the minimum props possible, to use nobody was not possible, so I used myself because I could afford to not get paid. But I could not do it alone, so I did a duet: a low budget duet. And my statement would be that even though I had been blessed with all the resources, it’s not really important whether you have them or not in order to create something interesting. So this is a decision, I tried to do something out of nothing.

KALTBLUT: So did the production costs define PRIMAL MATTER?
Dimitris: Not necessarily. I did have the resources to produce because the crisis did not fully affect me. It was more of an aesthetic and political choice to reduce the production to a minimum, as a statement to myself, to my colleagues and to my fellow citizens: Let’s not cry for lost money, let’s realise how little we need to create poetry or something else.

KALTBLUT: Is it also a statement to only use Greek people on your productions?
Dimitris: No, it is not a statement. Greek contemporary art scene took some time to explode around the world, is happening now for Yorgos Lanthimos, Papadopoulos, Euripides Laskaridis, Kat Válastur. For me it came late: I am 54 years old, working frantically since I am 23. Now that I have some recognition, and it happens to be that the people you see on stage are Greek, it becomes joy, because it means that in order to get going I did not have to collect talent from all around the world. Curators waited for the country to be destroyed in order to look at the amount of talent that exists here. We had to go through a crisis to become “trendy” and people look at us now and they discover that we had been there before. I am not a child of the crisis: I was here since much earlier, and now that you look at us and see the talented performers here, it makes me smile. But it never came as a conscious decision, in this case, we would only limit ourselves.
THE GREAT TAMER is my first international co-production, so I had considered propositions of performers from all over the world that was interested to come and work with me. I was not sure if I was ready to work in English, and probably on my next production, I will attempt it but trying to have a balance of proportions because the work can be extended to up two and a half years of travelling together. So it’s a major decision when it comes to the language.

KALTBLUT: What were the visual references that you had for THE GREAT TAMER?
Dimitris: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” by Rembrandt came in the middle of the making as a key. It created irony, a secret contract with the audience in the storytelling because violence is very difficult on stage. How do you have people kill somebody on stage? If you want to create an emotion you have to make it intense; the more intense you make it the more ridiculous it becomes because it is fake. So you need “something” and the way that I used and twisted the image and tried to make it into a “freak show” helped me because it creates a smile, and at the same time gets the point though, and for some people it also becomes a little bit realistic and a little bit disgusting. In a way, it carries the emotion of those people destroying and eating a person.

THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert
THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert

KALTBLUT: Do you have any visual references that you would like to work within the future?
Dimitris: I never see a painting and say: “Oh, I would like to make a work about it.” There are more basic decisions that come first. My biggest problem when embarking on a play in the background. Theatres are black; if you don’t want to create an enormous set and you don’t want to have a white screen “à la” Robert Wilson you have to work in black, your visual references are immediately defined by “chiaroscuro”. These are the defining visual factors, so in PRIMAL MATTER I was liberated cause I decided to stage it against a wall. But the premise never starts with saying: Let’s do a Botticelli. You work with premises and you identify how they look, and you either call it in, or you try to forget them if they’re not useful.

KALTBLUT: Are the new pieces trying to take ideas from your past work further?
Dimitris: A bit further or a bit backwards (laughs). I film and personally edit my work, creating short films, promos or summaries: trying to recreate an edited product that will go free on the internet and that it will be the only thing that survives after we are gone. I am trying to understand what I am doing and make its best-edited version. Going through this procedure, I realised that there are some fixed ideas and themes that come back, some evolve and some just repeat, so possibly in the future, a researcher could find a thread in my work but is not my job to comment on this. I discovered that there are similar images that go deeper than style, they have to do with something that I am looking for, something I am obsessed with and I can not do anything about it. Is already hard enough to find something interesting enough to accept to let the audience see.

KALTBLUT: Is there a specific idea or message that you want people to perceive with your work?
Dimitris: I do have ideas that I see on my work, not while I am working on it but when I am done with a piece and repeating it. Touring with a piece is a way for me to understand what it is about and to try to make it more clear to be articulated on what it is about. But there is no message, I don’t even like this word when talking about art, I am a little bit conservative that way. Sometimes a big blue painting is the best message.

THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert
THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert

KALTBLUT: What is the relationship you have with the actors or performers, in order to understand the freedom they have as contributors?
Dimitris: As an analogy with music, I select performers that take my score as a chance to express themselves, and that in order do so do not neglect the score. They follow it and with creativity make it better, better in a way that I was not able to think on my own. The performer’s job is to solve this equation by following the form I give, and so comes freedom. It is not a very popular idea: we live in a period where we crave a kind of tolerance or safe space for everybody, and we try to place our sensitivity as such an important factor that we tend to forget what our human responsibilities are. Is the same with freedom, we tend to forget how many parameters of discipline we need to have among us in order to be free. We tend to believe that freedom is just an image or is a “whatever”.

KALTBLUT: Do you think as an artist you have a responsibility towards spectators?
Dimitris: I do think that my personal responsibility is to exhaust every amount of talent that I was given until I die. And it would have been the same if I was a father, researcher, or anything else. Personally, there is a morality attached to it: I would like to exhaust my talent in a territory of human expression that is encouraging a positive vibration in humanity. I would like to invest in the bank of free expression, as opposed to using my talent for my personal ambitions. When it came to the time of doing the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics, I had to make the distinction about the fact that there are some jobs that need artists to do them, but the result is not art because morally you are not free to express what you want. You can not be bitter and negative about it, you have to be positive, and if you have to be something then it’s not art. Of course, this is a long conversation because we have great artists who, within the limits of the Christian tradition – that they obviously wanted to break – found a way within their limitations to break it but accepting the format of the commission. Another aspect of this conversation is that after years of having seen performances by Pina Bausch, every time I would leave the theatre besides the admiration I would feel for the work, I realised that something had changed inside me, I would feel more human. I loved humans more, and this is the most powerful political statement.

THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert
THE GREAT TAMER photograph by Julian Mommert

KALTBLUT: What do you work on besides what you show to the audience?
Dimitris: I paint, photograph and film. I always do something if I am not in rehearsal. I don’t know how to live without making things. Sometimes all of these creates a library of ideas to work with but also it creates a confirmation that I am made to create out of desire. When you start having a career you go from one project to another one and suddenly you know what you are going to be doing in two and a half years, so it can be that I miss the “need” for creation. It’s important for me since I don’t like to be chained in an automatic reaction of something like a career, or building a name or having a job, to bounce back to my real connection to why I am doing things. It is important not to lose the joy, you need to be reminded that this is your choice. Since I was a child, I got oppressed really easily if I had to do things, so I would not want to do them. I want to be reminded of how much I need for my life to be creative.

Interview by Manuel Moncayo and Nicolas Simoneau

Instagram: @papaioannou_d