Michael Cacoyannis taught me to dance

Michael Cacoyannis taught me to dance

By Stelana Kliris *

?Teach me to dance, will you??

?Dance! Did you say dance? Come on my boy!?

With that, Anthony Quinn throws off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and snaps his fingers to the quintessentially Greek melody of ?Zorba the Greek.?

As a birthday treat in 2005, I went to see the play ?Lysistrata? at the Athens Concert Hall. The director was Mihalis Kakogiannis (or Michael Cacoyannis, as he is known internationally) and my goal for the evening was to shake his hand.

With the tempo rising and the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea behind him, Zorba takes Basil by the arm and slides to the left with a kind of rapture washing over his face.

As a young filmmaker, I have discovered that film is a near-impossible industry to break into, but if it is your passion, then you can do nothing but pursue it; it?s like breathing. That is why you rely on the encouragement and inspiration of mentors and icons such as Cacoyannis.

Here was a man who brought Greek tragedies to the big screen, who declined directing Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in favor of his own local fare, a man who clearly cared about his art and not the accolades that accompanied it.

Zorba laughs freely as he leads his student step by step and encourages him with the words ?Yiasou Leventi!?

I now live in Cacoyannis?s birthplace: Limassol, Cyprus. My parents left the country during the 1974 invasion (the theme of Cacoyannis?s documentary ?Attila ?74?) and moved to South Africa only to encounter the apartheid regime. We recently moved back to our roots, brimming with stories to tell. The challenge is to tell these stories and have the world care about them, much in the same way that Cacoyannis did.

My first attempt was a short called ?The Fiddler,? a story set and shot in Cyprus but with a universal theme. This, I think, was Cacoyannis?s strength; it didn?t matter that his stories were Greek, everyone could relate to them. He brought out raw humanity and dressed it with the culture he knew and loved. It was authentic and accessible. He once said, ?Arts, there was never a recipe for success, nor will there ever be,? but I think this was his way; and it is something that I aspire to as well. If I am able to continue a little further in his footsteps, then I would consider myself a success.

In today?s globalized market, the stories you choose to tell can be influenced by what sells, rather than what is real to you. So what I love about Cacoyannis is that he remained true to himself and told the stories he wanted to tell. What made Greece love him is that the stories he wanted to tell were her stories, both ancient and modern; and what made the world love him was that he shared these stories.

The dance dissolves into laughter as Basil finally adopts the Greek spirit that Zorba embodies.

So I managed to shake Cacoyannis?s hand at the end of the play. It was a brief and hurried moment and if I?d had the chance, I would have thanked him for teaching me how to ?dance.?

* Stelana Kliris is a South African Cypriot filmmaker currently living in Limassol, Cyprus. She has produced and directed two short documentaries and her first narrative short, «The Fiddler» (www.thefiddlermovie.com), based on her grandfather’s life. «The Fiddler» has been well received at festivals from San Francisco to Zanzibar and will appear next at the Drama Short Film Festival in Greece. Kliris is now developing a feature film to be shot in Cyprus.