An astronaut bounding across a moonscape, a disembodied leg crawling out of a hole, a hundred arrows sweeping the sky and piercing the floor – these are just some of the surreal scenes in Dmitris Papaioannou’s new dance theatre production The Great Tamer. The visual artist, who rose to international prominence after directing the opening of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, has long identified as more of composer than a choreographer, and indeed his latest work reads in many ways like a score, complete with strategic refrains and an enigmatic overture that introduces Papaioannou’s outlandish visions with a recurring gag involving a naked man and a white sheet. This abstract composition plays out against an artful arrangement of an all-time classical great: Strauss’ exultant The Blue Danube.
Inspired by a 2015 case of a missing Greek teenager, later discovered to be a victim of suicide, The Great Tamer sees ten performers grapple with reveries of life, death and the mysteries in between. Consumption is a prominent motif – eating, embracing, having – and imagery of excavation abounds: sheet-covered corpses, bones plucked from holes, bodies buried within the stage. In one memorable scene the performers don ruffs, grab surgical tools and extract a man’s guts in a chiaroscuro tableau straight out of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy’ series; a beat later, they transform the operating table into a sideboard and devour their findings. Compounding this danse macabre is another Old Master visual: a still-life at the front of the stage, crowned with dead fruit and a human skull.
The production teems with sleight of hand and minimalist feats that require little mechanical or digital assistance. The stage, crafted as a giant rippled wave, bolsters much of the trickery, its moveable floorboards invoked as shields, fans, escape routes and more. The performers handle the rest through physical stunts (circus-style balances and handstands) and optical illusions accomplished with canny black costuming. Their antics hit a distinctive stride when these components collide – four dancers uniting to create one elongated body, for example, assorted body parts strategically revealed and fused together like the gawky joints of a puppet.
Papaioannou gives his sober material surprisingly witty treatment, namely through nudity, which is used both comically – as with a topless woman mounted on ‘legs’ cobbled together by other performers – and absurdly (be warned: there’s some less-than-artful naked tussling at the end). For all its wit, however, The Great Tamer is sorely in need of trimming: after two-plus uninterrupted hours, even its sharpest bits are blunted. And the low-tech stagecraft, while resourceful, deserves a rethink in places, particularly where it requires the cast to waste stage time cleaning up their own messes.