Assessing the Athens Festival

The Athens Festival – the main part of the annual Hellenic Festival, which also holds events at Epidaurus – has changed its image. Now that this year’s event, the second under director Giorgos Loukos, has ended, friends and critics agree that the Athens Festival is certainly no longer what it was in 2005. Everyone also agrees that the traditional flagship of the festival, the Herod Atticus Theater, is no longer the festival hub, as events have been spread out to other venues around the Greek capital, with the Pireos 206 spot proving the most popular. This new venue has also succeeded in creating a new generation of Athens Festival fans and this is nothing but good news. The event has not enjoyed such widespread popularity since the 1950s and 60s. Young again All this and more says a lot about Loukos’s abilities as a director, though there are, inevitably, those who say that the changes Loukos has introduced have compromised the character of and served a lethal blow to the institution. Of course, the dead cannot be killed and the character of the festival had been compromised long before Loukos stepped in. The fact is that, like it or not, the Athens Festival has not just been resurrected, but is becoming rejuvenated. There is new blood running through its veins, whether it be that of the administration or of the young people who flock to its shows and this is a great accomplishment. There are, naturally, some reservations, the most significant of which concerns the size of the festival and the barrage of shows (some of which also run way too long). Over the two-month course of the Athens Festival, it presented over 80 productions at 11 different theaters, making it impossible for those members of the public who like to make an eclectic choice of what to see to take it all in, while also undermining the festival’s objective of introducing important artists to as large a section of the public as possible. Like successive small tsunamis, the events roll in one over the other, without giving enough time in between for viewers to reflect upon the previous event. Loukos admits that there is some truth to this, but also adds that «this is mostly the case for people whose job it is to see everything, such as artists or journalists. The broader public makes a selection and attends between 5 or 20 percent of events. Though I have observed that the percentage of those who attend more than one or two events a season has risen quite significantly. A group of young men and women approached me at Pireos 260 one evening and admitted to having seen 47 performances this year alone. They also asked me to offer a reduction on ticket prices for people who want to attend over 25 performances.» The head of the festival has also noticed that the Athens Festival is not only acquiring a new audience, but that some organize their holidays around shows they want to see. «We did better this year than last, in terms of tickets and in more significant terms,» says Loukos. «We had an even bigger young audience than last year and Pireos 260 has become a hangout for artists.» Both stages of Pireos 260 were almost full or sold out for every performance, Greek and non-Greek. Ariane Mnouchkine’s performances at the Faliron Pavillion were also sold out, while most performances at the Herod Atticus and the Athens Concert Hall did very well too. The only performances that did not do as well were the Soul and Sufi music concert at the Herod Atticus and «Ramayana.» «We may not have advertised it as well as we could have, because in Paris and London these performances were a huge hit,» says Loukos. Rich dance events By genre, theater and music did the best, filling the theaters, while there was less interest in classical music, though that still did better this year than last. The dance offerings were especially rich, with a well-rounded tribute to William Forsythe and performances by Sylvie Guillem, Akram Khan and Jiri Kylian, giving audiences a hearty taste of the art. The Greek contribution to dance, however, was not as interesting as one would have hoped. The same can be said of the cycle «From the Page to the Stage,» several performances of which floundered on stage even though they had the support of exceptional texts. In general, Greek theatrical productions were poorer than expected. Most started out with high hopes – falling into the well-known trap of trying too hard to be original, though it was apparent that a lot of hard work and thought went into them. There was, however, at this year’s festival a strongly felt absence of ancient drama at the Herod Atticus Theater. It was a shame to see a festival that has an ancient theater at its disposal not taking advantage of it. According to Loukos, however, next year this void will be filled. Another project that will hopefully be put into use next year is the mobile stage, or Caravan, where Olia Lazaridou presented «Gelsomina.» «This is an extremely useful piece of infrastructure,» says Dio Kangelari, theater advisor and right hand to Loukos. «It will allow the festival to present performances on tour around Greece, such as popular theater. This year’s pilot program yielded very impressive results with performances in areas that do not have any theaters, such as at Kolonos and the Pedion to Areos. I think it could develop into a very useful tool.»