Last night at Dimitris Papaioannou’s Transverse Orientation, presented at Sadlers Wells, there was a moment where the impossible struck me so suddenly and masterfully that I audibly gasped. I don’t know if I’ve ever involuntarily gasped. For a few brief seconds, before my mind had time to organize what I was seeing into a neat pile of stagecraft, there was real magic there and I was in full belief of the inconceivable thing in front of me. And then even after I understood what I was looking at, it became more complex and more beautiful and the maker gives us a good long while to just stare at it and take it in. I want to describe it to you, but I won’t…just in case you have the good fortune of sometime seeing this performance. I don’t want to be the one who robs you of this moment.
This is the second work I have seen of Dimitris Papaioannou, the first was his epic The Great Tamer at Brooklyn Academy of Music. A predominant feature of each was frequently naked, perfect human bodies, mostly men. I don’t doubt that part of the buzz that causes these sold out houses is this very aspect. There is something intensely liberating, as a viewer, to see these athletes who have crafted their selves into the best of themselves, unencumbered and unabashed, being a human and being naked.
It is so unexpected then, that the piece begins with the cast so covered that not only do we not see their faces, we don’t know where they are. The stark white stage quickly populates with a colony of cartoon, weirdly tall stick figures dressed in black suits, their coats pulled up over their heads and a new skull, made from an under-inflated black balloon, sits atop. They set about the work of fixing a broken fluorescent bulb and fiddling with the joints of ladders. The overall effect of their drama is so engaging and funny that I thought to myself that I hope they never take their clothes off. I had the feeling that once that happened, we would be so enrapt in our relationship to the nudity, that there would be no turning back.
But indeed, before long, the cast is eventually naked and even though it is frequent, it is never meaningless or tiresome.
This contrast between the clothed is at its most poignant in an exuberant section where the entire cast has shed their clothing and they do this wild stunt on giant foam blocks. In pairs, they kneel on top of the blocks and then use their body weight to tip them backwards. At the perfect moment, just as the blocks fall precariously to their next edge, the dancers launch themselves into the air and land again, slamming down on their knees on the new edge. They are whooping and hollering, taking turns on this giant toy. It’s a party…like going skinny dipping and jumping off a rock. I felt my body lunge and and push along with them as the very real risk and reward played out. Then as they finally all completed the task, slowly it was revealed a man in a black suit doing the same thing on a tiny block beginning at one side of the stage. Now it is painstaking as he fights and struggles to make his way all the way across the stage. There is no joy. He is forcing his life, wearing the costume of an adult; there is no joy.
It’s almost easier to call this performance a painting than a dance work. A live film perhaps. Each ‘frame’ is so thoughtfully crafted and meaningful. There aren’t discernible dance steps and in fact a good portion of the movement is necessarily functional and improvised because it is so dependent on gravity and reacting to it. And every idea is played to the bitter end. Nothing is abbreviated. There is such trust in the meaningfulness of these ideas, to not see them to their completion would be to ruin them.
One such section occurs when the single, thin door on stage begins vomiting the above mentioned foam blocks in all shapes and sizes. They look like stone sections of the Parthenon, but have the light insubstantiality of a camping cooler. Eventually, inexplicably, people begin also shooting out from the opening, mixed with the styrofoam. Each then gets to work, moving the sections piece by piece to the other side of stage, crawling atop the spontaneous bridges they’ve formed, passing them to their cohort. They are a colony of ants, building a tower on the far side of the stage. And then when the tower is finally at its peak, it unceremoniously topples to the ground and the workers continue their endless process of clearing the debris to the side.
This section is long. The fascinating improvised mini-dramas of moving pieces from one side of the stage to the other are performed with such clarity, belief, and confidence by these performers, that to cut it even a second short would be to miss the point. We are watching life itself play out. There is a tender celebration here in the long haul of being. There is a trust in something greater, and that there is a meaning in all of this. Somehow, Papaioannou has both spoken about and created the actual magic of life in this piece.
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