Dimitris Papaioannou is perhaps best known for directing the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. His current work for Perth Festival, The Great Tamer, is described as a display of “living paintings” that combines circus, dance and choreography into feats of visual spectacle and athleticism.
The show transformed the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre into an uplifted, angled and shifting floor that seemed as alive as the performers on it. The set design by Tina Tzoka was incredible. Large charcoaled tiles were pushed around, crawled out of, torn up and flipped over to reveal bodies, pieces of bodies, pot plants, running water, and bones. The aesthetic of the show was macabre and surreal, both frightening and beautiful.
In opening the piece, an unassuming lone performer methodically stared at the audience and dressed and undressed out of dark clothes, before becoming totally naked on stage. What followed was a motif of the performer, joined by two others, laying down and having a sheet blown off him repetitively, covering and uncovering his nude body. The initial humour of the act was lost as the process was repeated countless times, ad nauseum. Such acts of repetition characterised the show – many of the props were used cyclically and choreographic motifs expanded on, amplified, maximised. This introduced a new layer to the concept of memory that the show focused on, as the old became new again, disparate scenes became connected, meaning was revealed, then abandoned, then re-revealed.
The scenes created by the performers too used a kind of repetition, taking familiar cultural elements and making them strange and unfamiliar. Papaioannou was trained as a painter, and this is abruptly evident in the many visual references to Old Masters he works into the show. The humorous recreation of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp soon descended into cannibalism as the performers ate the corpse’s intestines; the sombreness of a Christ’s entombment scene was disrupted by the inclusion of a spaceman, who turned out to be a woman. There were countless references to Greek mythology – Atlas, Orpheus, Persephone – which gave the work’s narrative, if it had one, a sense of universality. The score was an intricate adaptation of Johan Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube Waltz” combined with the noises of breathing, scraping, cracking, clinking and peeling of the props, performers and floor. The ten performers were all fluid, deliberate and strong in their movements; they weren’t quite dancing, but certainly weren’t pedestrian.
The work was cautious in its unfolding, graceful and ominous; its pace was stretched, almost painfully slow. The titular, poignant revelation occurred at the end of the piece, with the amalgamation of leftover props from various scenes into a kind of still life at the bottom front of the stage. The still life gave the seemingly disparate occurrences, narrative threads, and scenes from the show a haunting unity. Instead of the narrative concluding in death, there was life – and after all had ended, art remained.
The Great Tamer runs for one more night at the State Theatre Centre.
Words by Aimee Dodds, Arts Editor