‘What is wrong with the theatre?’ This is the question Dimitris Papaioannou directly addresses to his audience – but we’ll get to that later. We’re gathered here in the spacious hall of the first Max Mara fashion factory in Reggio Emilia, Italy, after a performance of Papaioannou’s Sisyphus/Trans/Form. Commissioned by Festival Aperto and Collezione Maramotti, this is his first site-specific piece for a contemporary art gallery – the Collezione Maramotti, an eclectic collection originally started by Max Mara founder Achille Maramotti. As we converse with the Greek art creator – who became world famous for directing the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony in Athens (another, impressively gigantic in situ performance), we are enchanted by his ability to unveil new facets of human imagination and reality.
Collezione Maramotti’s coordinator, Sara Piccinini, gives us some background history. Their first ever dance performance, in 2009, was Trisha Brown’s Early Works. It initiated something of a ‘contemporary tradition’: many choreographers have since accepted the invitation to create for the Collezione’s original facilities, contributing to a history of high-level performing arts programming by Max Mara and Reggio Emilia’s Fondazione I Teatri. The site-specific dance repertoire has been enriched with new works by Shen Wei, Wayne McGregor, Hofesh Shechter and Saburo Teshigawara. And for Papaioannou, Sisyphus/Trans/Form was just an arrivederci, as the performance will be touring and his new creation (due to premiere in Athens on 6 May 2020) will return to different Italian cities over the next seasons.
Mixing some stage elements from Papaioannou’s previous work Still Life (2014), Sisyphus/Trans/Form is a 40-minute event on the second floor of the concrete building of Collezione Maramotti. Inspired by the ancient myth of Sisyphus, whose destiny is to repeatedly roll a rock uphill only for it to roll down again, the piece displays an itinerant structure combining different elements – visual, corporeal, material. Once upstairs, the landscape is dominated visually by concrete and acoustically by silence – interrupted only by the sounds of the surrounding audience, and by the performance itself, now and then amplified by a microphone held in the choreographer’s hands.
In fact it is Papaioannou himself who, as master of ceremonies, magnetically drives the action around by pointing a warm light towards its main focus: a crackling stony wall (that audiences may already have seen from Still Life), carried by the performers in turn on their shoulders. We feel their breath as their bodies struggle with weight, effort and resistance. Around them, the gallery artworks are covered with milky sheets of light plastic, impeding interaction with the performance in favour of a mute co-presence.