What a deeply strange – and strangely affecting – piece of work The Great Tamer is. You’d struggle to call it dance; Dimitris Papaioannou is intensely interested in bodies and how to move them, but this manifested itself in something quite different from sequences of steps. Drawing on his fine art background, the Greek choreographer instead presented a series of animated tableaux, by turns quirkily humorous, surreal and macabre, that incorporated stage magic, references to Old Master paintings and a lot of nudity as they explored ideas of life, death and resurrection.
If all that sounds like heavy going, well, in truth there were longueurs. Such is Papaioannou’s restless inventiveness, however, that you soon found yourself marvelling as some new, unexpected sight materialised. The ingenious undulating raked stage, covered with interleaved plywood boards, hid all manner of surprises: people vanished into yawning sinkholes, or were dug out; a shimmering pool appeared for a Narcissus figure to bathe in; a volley of arrows hurled at it turned into a shimmering field of wheat.
A fractured, woozy version of the Blue Danube accompanied the performers intermittently as they appeared in all manner of guises, from astronaut gear to a full-body plaster cast. Papaioannou knows how to deploy a circus showman’s flair – performers tottered on stilts, deployed sleight of hand and walked on their hands (when their boots sprouted roots). In one striking moment they produced ruffs and recreated Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, with strings of intestines chucked about gleefully; the scene switched suddenly to a raucous dinner party. Greek myth, Biblical scenes, vanitas paintings and Goya’s Saturn were also among the blizzard of references, which build into a sometimes bleak, sometimes gently accepting meditation on our ultimate demise.
Maybe most affecting was Papaioannou’s unsettling trick of reducing performers to one body part (the rest of them clothed in black), then assembling a group of them into strange creatures. It created a rather terrifying ending to Primal Matter when it was staged as part of Dance Umbrella in 2016 – here, we saw a woman with backwards legs picking her way across the stage in heels; a figure coming apart and lying spread across the stage like a broken statue. Cartoon-like, the segments scuttled off – creepiness was always undercut with a slightly wry humour.
The Great Tamer asked a lot of its audience – but offered rich rewards. It will be fascinating to see what Papaioannou has created for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch when the company brings its new work to Sadler’s Wells in February.