The puppeteer of senses: recently characterized by La Republicca as the most influential European choreographer of our times. Before the worldwide recognition with performances in more than 30 countries, Dimitris Papaioanou began his career as a painter and comics artist in underground magazines. Working striking on a large scale, he went on choreographing the opening ceremonies for the 2004 Olympic Games in his home city, Athens. Later he was honored with the European Theater Award (2017), had two nominations for Emmys (2016) and two nominations for the Olivier Awards (2019, 2022). An artist with many faces, a clear vision and endless creativity.
After making his debut in Athens in January 2023, Papaioannou was introduced to the Italian audience, at the sixth edition of FOG, with his latest work INK. During the play, the viewer realizes that the most intriguing aspects of a meaningful performance arise from a tension between grandeur and simplicity. The two sold-out performances at Trienalle and the final long-lasting applause from the audience spoke on his behalf. As a creator, he is known for constructing unique, surrealistic universes by playing with the dimensions of darkness and fantasy. Water has always been present in his work as a fundamental element, a symbol of adaptation and rebirth, especially from a mental and emotional standpoint. Ink is a two-man show full of metaphors, raw sensuality, and agony. An internal battle of control of primer instincts in an unreal setting. A magnetic world, full of surprises mixed with Sci-fi and horror features. After 60 mins in a dream state, it’s difficult to find the exit to the real world. Papaioannou has composed a collage of iconic cultural references and transformed them on stage into something unique. In a duet that soon shades into a duel, the creator, accompanied by the fascinating dancer Šuka Horn, performed in front of the audience in a deeply personal approach assembling in an impossible blending of Murnau’s Nosferatu with 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott’s Alien and the iconic painting of Chronus devouring his son. However, in the universe of Papaioannou, the unexpected becomes expected.
We had the chance to meet the talented experimental stage director, choreographer and visual artist, Dimitri Papaioannou, before continuing with his world tour. The interview took place in Milan, at Palazzo Segretti, the day after the final play of INK hosted by Trienalle on 11-12 February.
How are you feeling today? First impressions from yesterday’s show and the Italian audience? I observed many interesting young faces attending the play.
I feel relieved! This is the start of our international tour, so there still are a lot of bumpy spots to figure out and avoid. As a first venue, the theater of Triennale was challenging, but overall we managed it. They were some technical issues that we had to resolve, but overall it was a really nice experience. Playing in front of a young audience is always a pleasure!
Did you have high expectations from INK when you complete its composition?
I had in my hands a work that I loved very much. I knew that the 20% was not what I wanted to be, but I am in a much better place now. It takes many cities and many performances until we realize after watching a lot of videos what a work is exactly and what a work needs to meet each complete self. I believe this version of INK is the closest to the final result. Having a long round in Athens, we already managed to make some changes and now in traveling, we have something in mind to change so… “If I had high expectations?”. My ambition is to be at the limit of my talent every time. What I offer you is the best that I can do.
Are you a collector? Which objects attract you the most?
I am more of a collector of sensations and impressions. I am interested in major currents which direct human life and tiny little details that are expressed through them. By collecting those impressions, I create a kind of library in my head, every time I need to create something new, I go there and I am extracting knowledge.
Theater and performances are giving the power to the creator to build worlds under his own terms, so practically he acts as a god. Are you consider yourself a manipulator of senses? Do you think that there is a level of arrogance behind this?
It could be a level of arrogance…there is always that danger! My job as a major alchemist is to transform materials in front of the audience’s eyes and thus manipulate a sense of agony or emotions. However, manipulation hides a negative aspect as a word. We can say that I act as a puppeteer of emotions. In any case, the artist suggests… if you go along, if you dive into it, if you are charmed and you embarked on a journey, everything is believable. But it is art…it’s fake and you can jump out of the illusion at any moment…so what kind of manipulation is that? I think we meet in the middle: Me trying to arrange a landscape of emotions and the audience member wanting to be charmed. If neither happens…we both fail!
Is your art a form of esoteric catharsis, is it works as a therapeutic tool for you?
For me definitely! I think for all artists it is. Every human being must find a way to live life, creating and sharing things, embarging in a never-ending journey to capture something that has never been perfect enough, is a wonderful way of constructing life. Other people are doing the same process through religion…so like religion, art is asking something from you, art is asking for a kind of discipline, a kind of devotion, a kind of mania, a kind of obsession, a kind of humbleness, a kind of impermanent intimidation and impermanent flirting with the arrogance of the faithful. There are many things that art is asking from you and in return is offering you a meaningful life.
This is a type of catharsis and therapeutic procedure for the creator I guess….but the same therapeutic procedure is applied to the audience. Mainly I stand as an art lover more than an artist and when I communicate with a work of art that I like, I find life more meaningful and I meet my better self.
Let’s change the topic a little bit… What kind of relationship do you have with social media?
When I was growing up as a young artist, the internet and social media didn’t exist. I remember the time when I was studying painting and I used to share my work in a gallery, people that had money were buying my paintings and it was a way for me to gain money and survive.
However, this form of art wasn’t communicating directly with my class when I was a poor, young man but also with my generation. So I started developing another way of interaction… I started to create comics! During the 80s it was a massive explosion of comics and graphic novels, I started publishing my work in two underground but very successful magazines that they were publishing many Italian and French comic artists such as Liberatore and Milo Manara back then. I tried to open a dialogue inexpensively. Today, social media are replacing that need for communication that I always had. As you know, I take my work very seriously but sometimes, I like to feel childish and playful in my work. There is a light creative, foolish side inside me and the need to be a little bit more…
Direct. Like I used to do with comics. I was transforming my personal stories into an art form. Social media work for me in a similar way, they give me a space for personal expression that I used to have when I was creating every month a graphic novel. Also, they help me a lot in communicating and promoting images of my work. When I was 50 years old, very late in my career pathway, I was discovered by international curators and I start traveling the world. I think it was because of social media. Works that I had published on social media when I went to Chile, Brazil and Spain attracted many young people. In a way, my work traveled faster than I did through social media and arrived in places from all around the world before my physical presence. Mainly those are the aspects that make them pleasurable for me even if I do not belong to the generation that grew up with them.
How do you define the sense of beauty and elegance in physical and in mental terms?
Well, I consider beauty as a spiritual thing. It has to do with the appreciation of beauty as a spiritual thing. The discovery of beauty is not a very difficult thing…is everywhere around us. But I don’t know how specifically answer this question. It is an instinct!
You have the eye of a painter, which means that you can see things in a Hype-realistic way! The colors, the shapes, the shadows…is this skill helpful for your work? And if yes in which way?
I have a small disagreement about the word Hyper-realistic. Being able to see as a painter could be defined better if you think about being able to look at things in a non-psychological or logical way; Meaning that if you know that the chair that you are looking at is just a chair, you fail to see your knowledge and you personal experiences that form what this chair is for you. It leads to a failure to see tones, colors and the surprising reality of the eye that some of the colors of the chair blend with the background without them having an outline. When you are a painter you can disconnect from logic and emotion and see the colors as they are. This is the most accurate definition of what you can see as a painter for me. As in theater, when there is an actor or a dancer on stage and we know that there is a face, most people are not paying attention to the light and what it shows or it doesn’t show but when you are a painter you look and you know that there is a face, you observe that is not clear and you are asking where is the face? let me change the light to have the face and the desired result. For most people, the fact that you know that something is there is enough… but for the painter is not enough. The painter’s eye is the only honest artistic tool that I have…my general sensitivity as a human being and my ability to look at things and understand the relationships of shapes, tones and colors. Those are my tools.
Which is your favorite season of the year?
Summertime and springtime I believe.
Can you share a secret with us?
I have a birthmark! and you have to search for it…!
‘’Dear Soul, if you were not friends with the vast nothing inside, why would you always be casting your net into it, and waiting so patiently?”Jalal al-Din Rumi, transl. Coleman Barks
Dimitris Papaioannou / INK
Artist: Dimitris Papaioannou / @papaioannou_d
Interview: Iro Bournazou / @irwb
Assistant: Alisia Marcacci / @miabrowe
Created by: Dimitris Papaioannou
With: Šuka Horn & Dimitris Papaioannou
Set + Costume Design: Dimitris Papaioannou
Light Design: Dimitris Papaioannou + Stephanos Droussiotis
Sound Design: David Blouin
Video & Photos: Julian Mommert