Making an epic visual impact with minimal means

Making an epic visual impact with minimal means

NEW YORK – A naked man mounts a bull. A bull gives birth to a naked woman. A woman, ensconced in a sort of translucent vulva costume, gives birth to a silicone baby. These are just a few of the surreal and primal images that populate Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Transverse Orientation,” a nearly two-hour wordless spectacle – somewhere between dance, theater, circus arts and visual installation – that had its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday.

Papaioannou, who began his career as a painter and comics artist, knows how to work on a large scale, having choreographed opening ceremonies for the 2004 Olympic Games in his home city, Athens, and for the 2015 European Games. The most intriguing aspects of “Transverse Orientation,” his second Brooklyn Academy presentation (after “The Great Tamer” in 2019), arise from a tension between grandeur and simplicity. Against the backdrop of a white wall – blank except for a door and a flickering fluorescent light – the opera house stage feels particularly vast. Minimal materials and colors (and clothing) make epic visual imprints.

The eight performers, a daring and versatile cast, do a lot of the scenic manipulation themselves, like operating the central figure of the bull, a towering puppet that charges, stalks and drinks from a metal bucket (one dancer’s hand serves as its lapping tongue). The show is most impressive as a feat of stagecraft and collaboration. But for all its stripping down and peeling back, little soul comes to the surface.

Set to Vivaldi with some electronic interventions – the buzzing of the light, the rumbling of the bull – the work unfolds in short overlapping episodes, linked by motifs but no obvious story. In this mode of assembly, the influence of Pina Bausch is clear: Papaioannou has described her “Café Müller” as his “first shock in live theater,” and he created the first new full-length work for Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, after her death.

Some of the episodes are lighthearted, woven with slapstick and absurdist humor. In the opening scene, a group of faceless, pinheaded figures tries to fix the fluorescent light. (It will keep on breaking.) Later, an avalanche of foam blocks comes toppling through the doorway, along with several human bodies, which are then tasked with clearing and stacking the bulky obstructions. The wall they erect, of course, also topples. Other moments are more sinister or grotesque, as when a dancer appears to have his testicles ripped off – two rubber balls, which the aggressor then sniffs and throws at the wall. (There was some humor here, too.)

Overarching themes emerge, of human (especially man) versus animal, technology versus nature, masculine versus feminine energies. More than once, a performer walks straight into the back wall – and does that again and again – as if to make a point about the human condition.

I wondered about Papaioannou’s choice to include just one woman in the core cast, the charismatic Breanna O’Mara. (Another woman, Tina Papanikolaou, who is also credited as the creative-executive producer and assistant director, makes an authoritative cameo.) Posing as a fountain statue – from which the men fill champagne glasses – and birthing a child from an oozing orb, O’Mara seems to bear more archetypal responsibility than her peers.

She also helps to create one of the work’s most striking images, pouring water onto a reflective surface to cast amoebalike forms behind her – while she sinks into the ground. As revealed in the final scene, an alternate world lies beneath the floorboards of the stage, another beautiful sight to behold. Yet an emotional dimension remains untapped, maybe buried even deeper.

“Transverse Orientation”

Through Friday at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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