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Review: TRANSVERSE ORIENTATION at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House

Review: TRANSVERSE ORIENTATION at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House

Visionary Greek Director Dimitris Papaioannou creates a living museum of myth and magic.

Athens arrived in Brooklyn and transported the myth and magic of ancient times, interwoven with timeless realities of the beauty and grotesqueness of humanity -- body, mind and soul.

Transverse Orientation, conceived and directed by Dimitris Papaioannou, played its US premiere at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from November 7-11. Free of dialogue and comprised of non-linear, non-narrative vignettes, the dynamic dance theater tableaus create a living museum, a veritable feast of sumptuous delights and constant metamorphosis. But one of the production's greatest assets is that it doesn't fall into the traps of pretentiousness. As clever and profound as Transverse Orientation is, Papaioannou's riveting work offers plenty of lightness and humor to offset the bottom-of-the-ocean depth and symbolism portrayed over a riveting and relentless hour forty-five-minute show. Human nature is endlessly amusing. A strong sense of slapstick, sarcasm, wittiness and clowning is present, right down to the oversized shoes.

The production begins with decidedly inhuman-looking characters dressed in black with short legs, sharply-pointed shoes, long arms, enormous necks and shoulders with spherical bobbleheads atop. They emerge through the door of a clinical-looking white wall illuminated by stark fluorescent light. The beings themselves illicit peals of laughter, somewhat restrained because the audience of the sold-out opera house was unsure what to make of these odd beings. Don't fret, folks; it only gets odder (and better). Working with ladders, lights, and walls, these alien entities create obstacles for themselves and then strive to overcome them. That statement could describe the whole show and the root reality of human nature.

Review: TRANSVERSE ORIENTATION at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House
Dimitris Papaioannou's Transverse Orientation at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The costumes, designed by Aggelos Mendis, combine slick European suits with some exaggerated elements, which look fresh from a menswear show. But the cast doesn't stay in these suits for long. Instead, they are constantly shedding their clothing like a snake disregards a layer of dead skin.

A note about the nudity: Transverse Orientation comes with a warning due to the constant nakedness of the company (including multiple instances of full frontal, male and female), but it feels sensual, not sexualized, and never exploitative or gratuitous. The bodies are portrayed as sculptural. Stephanos Droussiotis' luscious lighting glides their forms, manipulating shadow and light and making the dancers appear as Greek gods and goddesses coming off their pedestals or painted masterworks freed from their encasing of oil paints and gaudy frames. The whole production feels purposely painterly. The beautiful bodies appear to be Caravaggio canvases come alive. That's hardly surprising given Papaioannou's training as a traditional figurative painter under Yannis Tsarouchis and at the Athens School of Fine Arts. His painter's eye makes Transverse Orientation a mobile museum. Another intentional point of all the flesh is that Papaioannou seems to be making a statement with it. Confined by clothing, the characters face more struggles, but once they are liberated from their garments, they embody a sense of freedom, purity, and even innocence.

Chaos and order are pervasive themes, as is metamorphosis, the fluid state of shape-shifting and changing forms. That makes Transverse Orientation constantly surprising; watching the transformations unfold is thrilling. Strong symbolism and Greek myths inform the beings the performers embody and encounter. According to Papaioannou, it's as much art history as mythology and all a means of storytelling. Minotaurs and mermaids (or rather, a merman) have their moment in the spotlight. But, the most magnificent creation is a life-sized, lifelike puppet bull as strikingly realistic as anything the most world-renowned puppeteering companies have created (Nectarios Dionysatos is credited with sculptures and special constructions props).

Review: TRANSVERSE ORIENTATION at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House
Dimitris Papaioannou's Transverse Orientation at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Most of the six male cast members (Damiano Ottavio Bigi, Suka Horn, Jan Mollmer, Lukasz Przytarski, Christos Strinopoulos, and Michalis Theophanous) take turns controlling or interacting with the bull as it takes a village to animate. They disappear into the creature's corpus, becoming one with it as their actions cause a tail flick, a pound of a hoof or a headshake and snort. One of the two female dancers (the exquisite Breanna O'Mara) is birthed nude from the bull's center. She later rides atop it, like a daring Lady Godiva, and experiences multiple metamorphoses herself. She doubles with another dancer to become a Sphinx, then transforms into Aphrodite and Madonna with child.

In one of the most impactful moments, the other female performer (Tina Papanikolaou), an older, fuller-figured woman, strides purposefully across the stage, naked, assisted by walking sticks. When she reaches the door, it flips to reveal the lithe, youthful O'Mara and elicits gasps from attendees like an illusionist's sleight of hand. It's a card trick from Crone to Maiden, Botero to Botticelli.

There's a lot of action behind that door, for, in another one of the most unexpected and engaging scenes in Transverse Orientation, it seemed as if the entire Acropolis were being pushed through that small rectangular frame. As the styrofoam "ruins" were spilling onto the stage, the cast tried to organize them and create bridges, towers, and a city of stones. As with most ancient places, they came tumbling down, but the new ruins became something else as the (now sky-clad) performers rolled gleefully with the styro-stones across the stage and giggled joyously, evoking a Mediterranean seaside holiday. Only the one who kept his suit on stumbled laboriously.

Review: TRANSVERSE ORIENTATION at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House
Dimitris Papaioannou's Transverse Orientation at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Sound (composition and design by Coti K.) is another player. The music of Vivaldi provides a lofty, elegant air in fleeting moments, but it's not a score. Other soundscapes are peppered throughout to enhance the action, including synth, droning, and atmospheric noises from the performers' interactions with the props (squeaking styrofoam, pounding walls and floors). Sometimes the only thing you hear is deafening silence. Tina Tzoka & Loukas Bakas' white-walled set appears minimalistic but offers a malleable playground to create entire worlds and make myths manifest.

To those aware of her work, it is impossible not to feel glimmers of Pina Bausch throughout Transverse Orientation. This should be no surprise because Dimitris Papaioannou was the first outside artist to create a full-length work for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 2018 (called SINCE SHE). In his storied career, Papaioannou's live spectacles have ranged from intimate pieces he performs to the Opening and Closing ceremonies for the Olympic (Athens, 2004) and European (2015) Games. The creativity, courageousness, theatricality and playfulness of renowned dance theater innovators are evident in all his work. But Papaioannou is his own man, a brilliant director and visionary who's not afraid to be bold and take the bull by the horns.




From This Author - Cindy Sibilsky

Cindy Sibilsky is a Broadway, Off Broadway, U.S. and international Producer, Tour Producer, Marketing/PR Director and theatre, film, arts & culture and travel writer/reviewer specializing in gl... (read more about this author)


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