Residing in the same Athenian neighborhood as choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, I had often spotted him at our local supermarket, where I would surreptitiously glance at him as he walked around invariably carrying a half-empty basket with only the bare essentials. Clad in jeans and sneakers, he always maintained his signature low profile. Papaioannou displayed the same demeanor when he arrived for our interview a few days prior to the premiere of his new work, “Still Life,” at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens. Dressed in a kind of NYC nonchalance and genuinely well-mannered, he rolled a cigarette for later on, admitting, “Dancers tend to be smokers.”
You’re turning 50. What’s it like?
It’s nice. Age comes bearing gifts and if you concentrate on them you get this very sweet feeling. It also brings loss; certain things are gone forever. Loss of vigor is scary, for instance. Stamina, of course, has to do with psychosomatic factors and so it doesn’t necessarily go down given that it stems from elsewhere. The biological dimension is the tough side of reality, but that’s the way it is and you need to accept it.
Ten years after the 2004 Athens Olympics [for which Papaioannou was the artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies], where do we stand as a country and where do you yourself stand?
As far as the country goes, this decade provided the necessary time for the real picture to emerge. What we have witnessed – although merciless for a large portion of Greeks – is a good thing. We need to develop a kind of self-confidence based on reality, while keeping the imaginary solely as fuel for excess. These 10 years were the most serious years as far as I’m concerned; I tried to balance and concentrate on all that was important. I focused on what I wanted to do when I get older, what kind of old man I’d like to be.
Could you describe this man?
I cannot put the image into words. The art of life is growing older gracefully and in a dignified manner. How we reach maturity is based on the work we all have to carry out, individually. I feel I have left plenty of things behind. My energy used to be consumed by hanging on to relationships that had already come to an end, a childish need to be loved by everyone and going in search of pleasure and vanity in a neurotic manner. To a great extent my ambition was also fulfilled via a necessary process of humiliation before eventually being channeled into a more useful path, without losing its ability to provide fuel for the day after. Nowadays my ambition goes hand in hand with accepting the insignificance of the self and how vain everything is. It’s tough but quite liberating.
The country reached a peak in 2004, before subsequently sliding down to rock bottom. Can the country recover its footing?
By way of a process of major collateral damage, what we’re experiencing right now is the separation of the wheat from the chaff. You don’t need much to be creative. I don’t see a reason for the country’s youth not to be able to recover its footing as well as combine its exodus from the country with being reinstated a few years later. Allow me to explain my thinking: If a youngster wishes to develop genuine professional proficiency based on merit and working opportunities, he or she needs to spend a few years gaining experience in foreign countries. Why do we view the issue of the young generation’s migration through an emotional prism, while failing to realize that what matters most is not the fact that they are leaving, but for the them to learn before returning in order a build a new reality based on their energy, strength and knowledge? The hardest thing for today’s creative youth, however, is that they need to construct the platform that will showcase their work themselves. In other words, it is no longer sufficient for someone to excel in their own field, they also need to be able to develop the right conditions for their creativity to stand upon. In any case this has always been the case in Greece. When Omada Edafous [Papaioannou’s dance troupe from 1986-2002] first appeared on the local scene there was plenty of confusion regarding what contemporary dance stood for.
How would you describe the very young generation with which you’re working with?
Let me start by saying that I’m deeply flattered that young people are choosing to work with me. Now allow me to whine a bit: What I see is that very few have realized the true value of working with the physical world and how crucial it is to give this natural, primary material your time and devotion. This process is pivotal as it fills you with ideas. Lack of contact with the physical world is a result of being overly attached to technology as well as living in a readymade urban environment, which is increasingly isolated from nature. The physical world is sensual – which is not to say that the virtual cannot be equally sensual. I’m not suspicious in terms of the direction the world is taking, but I do witness children with a lower ability to be attentive nowadays as well as the disappearance of craftsmen. An artist is also a craftsman. I was taught by [Greek painter Yannis] Tsarouchis, and this is something I know very well. The alchemy of art is knowing how to transform matter into something else, something which is open to poetry. End of story.
The element of surprise permeates your work. Audiences never know what to expect in a new production. Is this necessary?
It’s important not to get carried away by words beforehand. The words that one puts to images must be their own. I realize that sometimes you have to reassure audiences with regard to what they are about to see; it has to do with our need to understand and what appears to be contemporary art’s hostility vis a vis broad audiences. As far as I’m concerned, I have not found a way to speak about what I do before I actually do it. At the same time I speak clearly about shows that have been viewed extensively by the public as what I have done in these has been revealed to me too.
Has your work over the last few years taken a new direction?
Since working with the Greek National Theater I have found myself in search of primary things: What is a performance, a circus, magic, an optical illusion? The way in which I want to transform things has to do with this research. I would like to come up with a sort of “molecular cuisine” in my works, where I can extract essential oils from raw materials and suggest flavors in novel ways, recombining familiar ingredients to form a surprise.
What’s your relationship to technology?
I consider it as a new spirituality. I try to bypass all the trash and focus on the dynamics and the sense of the immaterial, of ideas. I’m learning through the use of the never-ending Internet library. I use Facebook to communicate my work. “Primal Matter” was promoted on this platform and it proved to be a success.
Are you worried that there are young people among your audiences who are not used to watching long performances? This is the video clip generation, after all. As an artist, is this a concern for you?
I believe that my work has always acted therapeutically in relation to speed. I try to create the right conditions that will, on the one hand, capture the undivided attention of viewers, while at the same time capturing time. Let me tell you, however, what the technological explosion has brought about in my work: In the last few years I have been working extensively with video, images which are not primary images. I know that my work is not solely experienced by those who come to see the performances, but by many online viewers as well. I want what audiences watch from their own homes to be photogenic. My perception has changed as far as this is concerned, but not in other terms. I’m still able to do my job exclusively with what stirs my emotions.
“Still Life” at the Onassis Cultural Center, May 23 – June 8. For more information, visit www.sgt.gr.