Aligning with archetypes. The universe of Dimitris Papaioannou.

Dimitris Papaioannou in conversation
with Dimitris Papanikolaou

Born in Athens in 1964, Dimitris Papaioannou is a celebrated choreographer, director, and visual artist known for his innovative contributions to dance, theatre, and performance art. He gained international acclaim, especially for directing the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. His latest work, “INK,” is currently on an international tour and has received enthusiastic responses from critics and audiences.

In 2024, the “INK” tour will continue in three additional cities. It will be in Kyoto at the ROHM Theatre from January 18th to 21st, in London at Sadler’s Wells from February 28th to March 2nd, and in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville from May 13th to 15th.

Professor Dimitris Papanikolaou, a distinguished academic at the University of Oxford, is renowned in Modern Greek Studies. His latest publication, “Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics” (Edinburgh University Press), is now available in paperback.

Having been friends for over 30 years, the two met to discuss Papaioannou’s career and the portfolio he created for DUST.

Saturday, 4th of November. In his house in Pangrati, Athens, Dimitris Papaioannou is preparing himself to get back on the road again, this time with his show, Ink. He is flying to Hong Kong tomorrow. He offers me tea, and I check out his fantastic view over the Acropolis from an apartment he says he was able to buy with the earnings from his first commercial success, Medea 2. Papers are scattered everywhere across his lounge area, which doubles as a working space. Notes, sketches, boxes of old paintings left open—some half-destroyed by moisture. He goes through them to arrange the illustrations for this Dust feature, pairing older sketches with photographs of himself during performances.

I have seen him like this before, leafing through his archive with such affective energy, crafting connections, obsessing over details and references, showing me how similar images return repeatedly, telling a story. “I start from images,” he tells me, “because they represent coffers of life… look at how they contain bodies and rhythms.”

There is not much to say about Dimitris Papaioannou. Thirty-five years ago, I was a gay boy in Athens who stumbled upon his underground comics—they spoke about desire, death, AIDS, partners who left and partners who stayed, the suffocating feeling brought about by the Greek family, and the self-confidence of bringing it all out. I thought they were talking directly to me and had been sent to remind me I would survive. Ever since I have never missed anything he’s done.

Throughout my life, I have been profoundly moved by Papaioannou and his work, whether it was pictorial or performative; I have also felt annoyed by it. I have thought I’d had enough of his stylisation, elusiveness, or escapism; then, I watch myself returning, persisting, growing mesmerised all over again. Celebrating his recent global fame—the sold-out shows worldwide, the name recognition—I realise that the layers of collective autobiography I still find in his work may be seen as too personal, too local, too dated. Watching him leafing through his papers again—you were there, right?—reminds me that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Papanikolaou – Have you ever considered moving away from Greece and establishing your company elsewhere? I mean… you have reached enough international recognition to allow you to do so.

Papaioannou – Well, maybe nowadays I could move to an island, but not to another country. Even though, of course, never say never. But I understand what you’re getting at, and yes, my identity as an Athenian and as a Greek consists of circumstantial things I’ve stumbled upon at times. When I look back at what I’ve created, in my comic sketches or in my early days at Edafos Dance Theatre—where I took my first steps in live theatre—I see Athenian and Greek identities always being present. These became even more obvious when, at the age of 50, I was discovered by the international scene and began travelling. So, my Greekness became even more evident when my work was presented outside of Greece, and I started interacting with other cultures and audiences.

Papanikolaou – You are now the darling of the international dance scene, but it took a long time for this to happen. Why do you think that is?

Papaioannou – There are several reasons that might be more practical than artistic: I had never worked with a manager and didn’t have a website until I was 49. Several things started happening at the same time: first, I started experimenting with editing my past works as I entered the world of social media and learned how to edit. I created some short films and posted them on the internet and, probably without realising it; they began to draw the attention of a more international crowd interested in live theatre and exciting performances. I wasn’t very aware of that at the time.

Then, the economic crisis hit Athens, and we became very appealing in the eyes of international curators. When there’s a war or a crisis, international curators look at these places and try to find artists to showcase in their exhibitions as a way to be considered socially sensitive, which is both interesting and strange.

So, when they were checking out to see whether something was happening in Athens or not, they realised that this guy had been working for all these years. It all started in Paris, with Claire Verlet from Théâtre de la Ville exhibiting my work; as soon as she included me in her program, everything exploded in an unprecedented way.

A third factor to consider is my meeting with Julian Mommert. Julian Mommert was a brilliant young man who was Bob Wilson’s assistant when I met him. Later, he joined me as a collaborator for a small tour I’d had in mind. He turned out to be a brilliant collaborator, allowing me to feel safe and plan more prominent and demanding tours. So, Claire Verlet, Julian, and the sudden enthusiasm generated by my posting excerpts from my work on the internet all contributed to my somewhat belated international success.

Papanikolaou – In the last decade or so—and perhaps for a combination of reasons similar to the ones you have just described—Greece has entered the international cultural market in ways we had not seen for years. Less so perhaps in literature, but certainly in cinema and performance…

Papaioannou – I agree. For instance, there’s the case of Yorgos Lanthimos, a good friend and artist I greatly admire. More specifically, in dance theatre, there’s my example, followed by Papadopoulos and the brilliant Laskaridis, both friends and former performers of mine. And now, we have the young Mario Banushi, whose autobiographical performances have been recently noted by international critics. It’s as if a door needed to be opened; some artists had to be acknowledged as significant new voices for the Greek scene to gain momentum as a whole. The country itself hasn’t been doing anything to promote us, even if this is slowly changing now.

Papanikolaou – Not that this sudden turn of the international eye on us does not have its drawbacks, of course. Greek writers have been uneasy with the terms ‘crisis literature’ or ‘austerity poetry’, thinkers are angry with the term ‘left melancholy’, and cinema and theatre directors have consistently been resisting the very term that gave them access to international festivals, the idea that they belong to a movement, the ‘Greek Weird Wave’. Everyone has welcomed the attention but hated the pigeonholing that came with it. I remember you giving an interview to a European TV channel once, and you were so visibly upset when the interviewer started the conversation by asking you whether you were the Greek Decouflé…

Papaioannou – Decouflé had done the Winter Olympics, so the interviewer assumed he was interviewing a star from the Summer Olympics, not a complex auteur. People found making sense of my situation awkward because it could be seen from two different angles. On the one hand, you could view it from the perspective of the Olympic ceremonies, which are often seen as mainstream, cheesy, and commercial, regardless of the quality of my creations in that frame. On the other hand, you could see it from the perspective of the underground, avant-garde theatre world, which is also true to my story. It’s challenging for people to reconcile these two aspects, and an easy way out would be for them to think that you’re primarily associated with either one or the other.

A fascinating story relates to when I was about to appear at the Théâtre de la Ville. I was just finishing the opening ceremony for the first European Games in Baku (2015) when I was asked to avoid mentioning this in interviews because it might have been deemed embarrassing. Of course, as soon as I published the director’s cut of the show, it was sent around for programmers to watch.

Papanikolaou – Embarrassing because it was seen as being too commercial, too much of a grand-scale show made for TV, or because the government of Azerbaijan financed it?

Papaioannou – I think for both reasons. First, a commercial sports event is never deemed as the work worthy of a serious artist. And secondly, it’s the controversy of having the first-ever European games in a country like Azerbaijan, where human rights were challenged.

Papanikolaou – Why did you do it, then?

Papaioannou – I just did it for the money. Yes, of course, that’s the reason why I did it. Also, I did the Athens 2004 Olympic ceremony for the money. To be sure, the challenge of creating something of this magnitude is enormous, and it can be an ambition for every artist to rise to it. I also did it with a lot of love towards the history of my country, but I didn’t do it out of love. I did it for the money, but with the greatest affection, I could have for the history of my motherland, which is grand, as I discovered searching within myself. I don’t see myself as a descendant of the ancient Greeks, which is ridiculous. However, the achievements of antiquity hold a significant place in my heart, as do the nature, light and proportions of the country where I was born.

Papanikolaou – Here is the irony of it all: even though both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics were very well received and, especially in the opening ceremony, you were preaching to international choirs by referencing a lot of preclassical and classical antiquity, your career still did not take off immediately after that.

Papaioannou – It’s pretty natural. Can you even name one single Olympic Ceremony’s artistic director off the top of your head? The Athens and Baku Opening Ceremonies had a profound impact on my life in many ways. For the Baku Games, the financial gain allowed me to sustain a group of my first international tours, showcasing works like Still Life and The Great Tamer. During the first tour, I didn’t receive any personal payment; I had to support it financially, and the money came from Baku. I wouldn’t be where I am today, and Dust wouldn’t even have heard of me if I hadn’t secured the financial means to support my independent group in its first steps on an international stage. As for the Athens Olympics, they provided me with results and success despite the pretty high risk of disaster. Moreover, it granted me financial freedom not to work for a few years, allowing me to gain distance from my most recent work. When I returned to my artistic pursuits and looked back, I realised I wasn’t too fond of what I had been doing. So, I gradually reconnected with my deeper artistic roots and the source of my creativity. This transformation took some years after the Olympics, but I believe it changed my art for the better. It gave me confidence and allowed producers to invest in me; it gave me everything I needed to follow my next steps. Until, of course, the crisis hit.

Papanikolaou – It’s interesting how we now refer to it as ‘the Crisis’, capital C. Hoping that this period of socio-economic instability in Greece has now ended for good (personally, I am not too sure), I still remember how much it pushed all of us into a mood of self-reflection. That decade starting from 2010, it was as if we were all undergoing collective analysis in Greece. What you also did during that period, turning back to reflect on your career and your need to change course, as it were, may not be that coincidental.

Papaioannou – Maybe, yes. I tend to think that I never took myself too seriously. But I took my art seriously as if it was worth saving. I have always kept sketches, videos, photographs, and publications.
I never throw these things away. And I’ve been carrying them from home to home. And then it eventually became an enormous archive.

Papanikolaou – Yes, when I visit you these days, there is always something from your archive that you have just unearthed or noticed and want to talk about. I see you as constantly being in an archive fever, and what you have assembled here for Dust is a perfect example. Excerpts from your earlier comics, photographs of performances from different periods, and paintings you have put together in assemblages that remind me of your earlier comics.

Papaioannou – I am 60 now, and already in great physical pain when I perform. I think this tour with Ink will be my last time on stage. For this issue of DUST, therefore, I thought I could look at my past performances on stage, sketches, and drawings to observe my younger self. As I looked at my young face and the things I had done, it was a mix of not entirely liking but simultaneously admiring myself. When you age, even the aspects of your previous self that you didn’t appreciate at the time become more acceptable. You might think: “I wasn’t that bad; why was I so dissatisfied?” Then, you go even further back in time and think: “That’s pretty good. Why was I so dissatisfied with it?” So, I see youth, a certain photogenic quality, and I notice that, for some reason, I was fearless.

There wasn’t any limit to the weirdness, the queerness, the grandness of the stakes. I mean, we were living in a squat, and we treated it like it was an opera. We had full body makeup and lights, even though I knew nothing about lights. We created sets with our own hands out of garbage and out of endless hours of unpaid labour. And we performed it as if it was in a grand opera. We had around 40 people crammed into an underground squat, and we treated it as art is supposed to be treated: a very serious thing.

Papanikolaou – Ah, I remember that period so well! The Edafos Dance Theatre, the artists’ squat you had turned into your home. Everything—from ticketing to dancing to printing extra copies of the programme notes—was done by the group in such a loving manner: crafted and crafting, subterranean, countercultural, antinormative, queer, ours. I somehow lost some of this at a later time when you stopped being ‘ours’ and started becoming ‘everyone’s’. Take the queer side of your work, for instance: in later performances, I felt like it was being ironed out, turned into diffuse homoeroticism, an aesthetic rather than social, sexual, and identity gesture.

Papaioannou – Absolutely! But in making this comment, you can only associate it with my early public openness about being gay. When I started, I was one of the very few public figures who were openly gay. This is the acknowledgement you should also be making. And then, after the Olympics, when everybody got to know my name in Greece, I felt like coming out again. It was actually my first interview after becoming a public figure. I chose to do it with a magazine called 10%. I was aware that all this sudden fame wouldn’t serve any purpose unless I could use it to help someone. In my case, that someone was the young men and women who, for once, could look up to a national hero who was openly gay. This magazine was the only platform where I could put this otherwise unnecessary fame to good use.

However, I’ve never been comfortable with journalists shaping the perception of my art as anything other than simply art, such as ‘gay art’. I resisted this because I didn’t intend to create exclusively for a specific audience. My aim has always been to stay true to my identity and be a genuine artist for anyone interested. That’s why I may hesitate when people try to define the meaning of my work, its symbols, or the myths it references, especially before anyone has seen the show.

Identity politics weren’t as dominant during that period. At the start of my career, while performing Sappho in a squat, I portrayed the ancient Greek poet Sappho—who gave her name to homosexual women. The unconventional production featured me in drag as Sappho; the music was by Giorgos Koumendakis and sung by countertenor Aris Christofellis. These elements contributed to the performance’s queerness and homosexual aesthetics. This artistic statement stands on its own, and I prefer not to label it as ‘gay art’ or any other categorisation, as such labels can be limiting.

Papanikolaou – You take centre stage in all the images you have assembled for DUST. In most of them, we can see your younger self, eyes wide open, staring back. The earliest photo is of yourself as a 29-year-old performing in Sappho. I look at your gazing eyes, those same eyes that can be seen ten years later in that iconic photograph from Forever with round glasses, once again those fixed eyes. Now that you see this man again, your younger self, can you figure out what he seems to be gazing at?

Papaioannou – I believe this young man, who I now recognise as I look back, had a deep desire to align himself with enormous archetypes. When I look at my interpretation of Sappho and how we created the makeup and lighting for the performance, I can see my admiration for movies and paintings that embody these larger-than-life archetypes. I wasn’t ashamed to place my bet there; it was my own, and it was by no means humble.

I was exposing myself to the audience, taking a gamble, and wondering whether I would succeed or fail. But there was an almost innate boldness in just going for it. Also, there was a sense of humour, a touch of absurdity, a feeling of rituality, and an intense yearning for beauty. Many elements were at play, but what stands out to me the most is that an unhinged arrow aimed at that.

Papanikolaou – What is also impressive is how much your very early work, the sketches, and the comics you published in countercultural magazines like Vavel or underground samizdats like Kontrosol all contained glimpses of performances that came at a much later stage… It is almost as if you were constantly trying to sketch, to map out, the future.

Papaioannou – I think what you’re tapping into is something that holds true. I always told stories about the strangeness and doomness of a personality that I instinctively knew would be the personality of the passionate creator I ended up being. It’s about roughness, loneliness, the impossibility of achievement, and the journey leading up to the creative spark. It’s also about the profound struggle against the things you truly love. When you finally receive the love you’ve craved for so long, a part of you simply destroys it, turns it into a spectacle, or consumes it whole, among other reactions. The forces of darkness and light within us transcend cultural boundaries and specific identities. For us artists, this is our gateway to reaching everyone’s soul if we align ourselves with it. Of course, this also requires an audience that is open to look into its own internal mirror.

Papanikolaou – Very often, there is a dark side to your stories.

Papaioannou – It is a bizarre world because I’m unsure whether it’s fear or a wide-eyed embracing of darkness. I think I’m always staring into this open gap of human darkness, and, of course, I’m afraid of it—but fear is a more limited way of expressing it. I’d rather focus on awareness or connection, but I have to say that the least credited person who can talk about me is myself.

Papanikolaou – I assume audiences from different countries interact differently with these aspects of your work, right?

Papaioannou – Yes. For instance, I have a strong connection to Japan, particularly through butoh dance, an expressive Japanese form I trained in when I was young. In my shows, I embrace silence, stillness, and exploring life’s darkness alongside beauty and harmony. These aspects deeply resonate with Japanese audiences. Additionally, my themes of perversion and acceptance of it also strike a chord with them. Audiences in Asia, Spain, America, and Italy are usually enthusiastic. Paris applauds with rhythmic foot-stamping, but Greeks are less inclined to give standing ovations. We often receive standing ovations around the world, including from the British, who are pretty disciplined, but the Greeks, no, they don’t like standing up.

Papanikolaou – What about the ‘neoclassical’ side of your work?

Papaioannou – Italians, for instance, are enthusiastic about my fascination with antiquity. They have a strong connection to that aspect of my work and genuinely enjoy it. They appreciate the references to elements from their own culture because, as we know, Rome was very influenced by the culture of ancient Greece. On the other hand, the Spanish are the only ones after the Greeks that make shows sell out minutes after the tickets are put on sale. My audience is very young in Spain and highly fanatic. I don’t know precisely what they connect to. I know what it’s about for the Italians and Japanese, but I don’t know what fascinates Spanish people so much. The audiences are generally very kind to us but very different. Even coughing and restlessness differ from country to country.

Papanikolaou – What I have also witnessed in your last shows, especially in The Great Tamer and later ones, is the development of a comic aspect, sometimes linked to dark humour…

Papaioannou – Well, I disagree with you because I believe that my attempts at humour have occurred much earlier in my work. However, they never quite resonated with Greek audiences because I’ve come to understand that they cannot simultaneously perceive the sacred and the ridiculous. They prefer humour to be irreverent, to stand against the sacred. So, they get it but in a different way. But when we toured with The Great Tamer, our first performances outside of Athens took place in Amsterdam. The audience there would laugh and applaud in the middle of the show every time a stunt was performed, and it would happen at all the right moments—like when the Rembrandt image appeared or when the woman with two male feet put on high heels and was able to walk. We were pretty pleased because The Great Tamer was designed to be somewhat of a bizarre circus. This was repeated in other cities. International audiences are more adept at appreciating my sense of humour than Greeks. Greeks tend to be a bit more serious.

Papanikolaou – Hence, they adored your last show, Ink, perhaps your darkest work. Where did this black hole come from? I certainly did not expect it…

Papaioannou – Believe me, I have no idea. You know, works do not come out of me exactly as I want them to, and, at a certain point, I have to accept them as they are. So, for what concerns Ink: I made it in a very happy period of my life, yet you are right; it is one of the darkest works I have ever made. There was no space for humour to exist even though, of course, I love being ridiculous and making people laugh. Humour is like a shortcut to communication. Unfortunately, Ink doesn’t allow for a lot of that. I have to accept what the works are. I cannot impose myself on them. They come from me, but I cannot impose my opinions on the results so much. I have to accept what they are and deliver them as clearly as possible for what they are.

Papanikolaou – Since the first performances last January, I have heard as many theories about this title, Ink, as the people I spoke to.

Papaioannou – But I think we’re attributing more intellectual connections than it holds. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Ink is a title given by my brilliant friend Angelos Mentis, who gives titles to my works. It holds a profound spiritual connection because the name defines the work and transforms and guides it towards its realisation. Ever since Primal Matter, he has been naming my works. He came up with Ink because of the octopus’ ink—which is actually its black sperm—and can be used for writing or painting, allowing the carnal to be transformed into a spiritual essence through a gesture of alchemy. So, I immediately agreed to it.

Papanikolaou – In recent years, one of your activities that has sometimes puzzled me is your presence on social media. You post constantly about your shows and upload original works, photographs, sketches, and paintings. And you engage directly with your followers by even taking the time to reply to negative or outrightly homophobic comments.

Papaioannou – I do it because there is always a surplus; many things appeal to me, but they are not all significant enough to include in a show. Since I was young, I’ve craved an immediate connection to my generation. And now, of course, this is a window to younger and younger generations. It’s a desire I’ve managed to satisfy between the ages of 19 and 30 through my comics. Every month, I would have a sketch in those great fanzines and magazines circulating in the Athenian underground. This served as my connection to my generation because these guys did not typically visit galleries. Also, comics are a form of working-class art that is affordable and accessible. People in my circle would read my stories—my Athenian blues—which were openly homosexual and featured cityscapes and melancholia. They served as a type of diary for me, a process that balanced my soul and addressed my inherent loneliness. It consistently brought me joy. To engage with younger generations, I utilise social media as a primary platform for sharing my work, sketches, paintings or parts of my life. This reduces my dependency on traditional media and journalists to communicate my ideas. It allows me to have an open conversation with an unknown mass of people I meet as part of my audience during my travels. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy.

Papanikolaou – One of the things that you often upload online is sketches of people you meet, and I have seen you doing this in real life: meeting people and asking them to pose for you immediately. I was amazed recently, though, watching how many come to greet you to pose for you, knowing that you will probably also post their image online. Why do you think they go for it?

Papaioannou – I don’t know. I think it’s part of the kind of love that people have for my work. It feels natural. Now, sketching from life is the most old-fashioned and seemingly useless form of art, which nobody really does anymore—painting from life, drawing from life—I do it as a personal exercise. Yet, there’s a genuine affection from the audience for this aspect of my work, something that curators may often overlook. Then, I witness young people filling theatres worldwide for the most peculiar type of shows—what is it? It’s not dance. Not theatre. What on earth is that about? I find myself in a situation where I feel deeply honoured by the people around me.

I don’t understand why they want to be sketched by me or why they appreciate what I do. I hope my work is meaningful to them and provides a connection. I hope it encourages a relationship with beauty and opens a window to the transcendental. I’m very grateful that this is happening, and since social media helps facilitate this communication, it also enables me to understand how it impacts everyone. It makes me feel less alone and more relevant, so I enjoy engaging in it.

Papanikolaou – You have recently sent me some brilliant sketches and photographs, some of which are, it seems, taken just post-sex, on the same bed, next to the body of desire… One can never fuck with Dimitris without stumbling upon Papaioannou at some point, right?

Papaioannou – Listen, I appreciate the beauty of life from a painter’s perspective, and I understand sensations from the perspective of someone who feels deeply through touch. This is how I connect with life. I don’t find it a burden; I mostly find it a blessing. So, part of my happiness when encountering the beauty of life is being able to look at it and decode it with the eyes of a painter. So, capturing images through photography or sketching from the beauty of life is not something that can ever end, or, how should I say, that ever deprives me of experiencing the moment. There is no way to sleep with me without sleeping with the artist. I don’t mean sleeping with the artist who has a career, but the artist in a more profound sense.

Papanikolaou – If I were your lover, I would have been heartbroken hearing that…

Papaioannou – That’s just how artists live. There’s no way around it. It’s like there’s no way for a musician with a perfect pitch ear to not discern the actual pitch of the moans while also fucking.

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Dimitris Papaioannou in conversation
with Dimitris Papanikolaou