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From left: Still Life by Dimitris Papaioannou, In the Mood For Frankie by Trajal Harrell and A Letter/Singapore by Bill T Jones.

Bill T Jones's lecture performance will be at 8pm on Sept 14 at 72-13, Theatreworks, Mohamed Sultan Road.

The Return of La Argentina is Harrell's research and production of dance pieces related to Hijikata.

Thoughts in motion

Three choreographer-directors share their creative processes at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) - and hold up the mirror to socio-political issues that they grapple with.
Aug 26, 2016 5:50 AM

Triggering a state of semi-dreaming


Still Life

THE first image that inspired theatre director Dimitris Papaioannou in Still Life becomes the final image in the production which explores "apocalyptic beauty" - where crises and death are juxtaposed with birth and strange new worlds.

"It was at the funeral of an important Greek theatre director, Lefteris Voyatzis, where young actors were carrying his coffin to the grave. I had this vision of a table full of food, carried on top of their heads, and that's when I thought of doing something with this image," says Papaioannou.

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He then experimented with a lot of people, and elements, for about six months, until this production took shape. "It's a twisted image because it reminded me of the celebration of Easter - where we carry the symbolic 'coffin' of Christ on Good Friday, decorated with flowers, around the city. But at the same time, it's a table full of food - as eating together is something that's part of the Greek celebration of life. It's an image that reminds us of a lot of things," he elaborates.

Still Life is the director's attempt to trigger memories and a state of semi-dreaming with the images he creates on stage - that evoke the familiar and the non-familiar.

"Like the table full of food - we know what it is, but we don't know why it's being carried on people's heads. You realise there's a circus acrobatic quality to it though, and all these elements in play trigger your emotions," he adds.

In scenes, a folded ladder is also used as a person's crutch, while a shovel digs under the feet of a pedestrian - the earth it digs up also symbolises the next step.

Still Life uses visual physical theatre and performance art to tapthe Greek myth of Sisyphus, a man who cheated death. To punish him, the gods gave him immortality in endless labour: rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll back down again.

The production has toured over 10 cities, and proved surprisingly popular, says Papaioannou.

In Still Life, he choreographs the actors to explore the intensely absurd, the beauty of strangeness and the importance of finding happiness in everyday life.

Papaioannou's pace and atmosphere has for many years been deeply influenced by butoh (a form of Japanese dance theatre). "There is an inner landscape that I'm trying to open up that I hope will connect with this part of the world," he adds.

With the recent political events in Greece, Papaioannou has decided to return to his roots and to create the "maximum amount of poetry with the minimum amount of means", he quips.

"It's something I knew very well because I started in the underground scene, where I had no financial resources," he points out. He might have started there but he's also reached the ultimate platform, or many would think, when he was hand-picked to create the Athens 2004 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, and most recently, the first European Games 2015 opening.

Papaioannou says that he wouldn't describe that as being at the peak of his career at all.

"It has nothing to do with my personal artistic expression but it was a confirmation of my skills. The principles that I had realised about theatre making was applied in such a different context and production level, and on the largest possible scale," he relates.

Producing the Athen Olympics ceremonies did give him financial freedom, and as a result of creating that opening, Papaioannou notes that he became more experimental and radical. "Because I gained a better understanding of what it takes to be commercial and how to trigger human emotions. So once I got done with that, I could concentrate more seriously on the 'real' work," he shares.

He's in this phase of maturity now, according to Papaioannou, as he tries to create art and theatre out of nothing but talent.

Having had the opportunity to "experiment" on such a large scale, it's like getting the chance to sing in an opera house so that you can pull back and whisper. "You've tested your voice and know you can sing so you go back to your room and whisper your truth."

  • Still Life (Rating: Advisory) will run from Aug 25-27, 8pm, at Victoria Theatre. Tickets from S$25 are available from

Giving an impressionistic take on Singapore


A Letter/Singapore

MUCH of dancer/choreographer Bill T Jones's work revolves around what he calls the "three Ps": the personal, the public and the political. In a rare outing, he is in residency in Singapore, adapting a work here and integrating dance students from the LaSalle College of the Arts in the site-specific A Letter/Singapore.

The work was first created in Paris in 2015, and performed only twice there. On the second night, the Bataclan theatre was attacked by terrorists, which paralysed the city. The third night's performance was subsequently cancelled.

The Singapore performance is only the second iteration of the work - but it'll almost be like a new work. "When we were invited to recreate A Letter to my Nephew, it was not possible to do so," says Jones, in his 60s, and a co-founder of Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. "The particular moment of being a dance company on tour in Europe has passed, so elements such as my associate director Janet Wong's video using cliché tourist images such as the Eiffel Tower, the Pont Neuf or even head-scarfed Syrian women rushing to safety, are not relevant to Singapore."

The original concept is there, though. The title, for instance, is a reference to American writer James Baldwin's essay, "The Fire Next Time" - a letter to his nephew published to great acclaim in The New Yorker magazine in the 1960s. Baldwin's trope is a familiar one of Black Americans, who look at their home from the enlightened safety of Europe.

"The title makes a sly reference to that most important document from a time of social/political upheaval in my country and, subsequently, around the world," explains Jones, referring to the recent rash of gun deaths and violence against black men in poor neighbourhoods in the United States.

Europe, in the meantime, was confronting a huge refugee crisis, all against tourist backdrops such as the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, etc.

"Both scenarios - Europe's and my country's - could be reduced to poetic still frames of social unrest, people in the streets, red police lights and tear gas," Jones notes.

Naturally, he couldn't translate that to Singapore, but A Letter/Singapore will still be guided by a Frida Kahlo-like image of Jones's bedridden nephew in Tampa, Florida, and superimposed with images of modern Singapore. "I have only visited and performed in Singapore briefly twice so this is not intended to be any sort of analysis of the city, but an impressionistic take on it," says Jones.

His nephew's circumstance as a young black man struggling with health, among other things, is represented by the music of his youth and imagery that haunts him as he is no longer able to move in the streets and on stages both real and imagined.

But the work won't be over-political or literal, he stresses, as it'll be about "poems and a song".

Much of Jones's work of the last 10 years has been about removing motifs, ideas and imagery from their initial context and recombining them in search of a fresh way to express the myriad impressions and questions that confront him as he tries to participate in and understand the world. "One element that sets A Letter/Singapore apart is the inclusion of 23 young dancers from LaSalle," Jones points out.

He says that being a "choreographer/director" has expanded his arsenal of creative devices considerably, adding that as a 64-year-old body-based artist, he must be "more poised, less spontaneous and more strategic in performance".

  • A Letter/Singapore by Bill T Jones will be held on Sept 15-17 at the Singapore Airlines Theatre, Basement 1, LASALLE, 1 McNally Street. The ticket includes free admission to Bill T Jones's solo lecture performance, Making and Doing, on Sept 14, 8pm at 72-13, Theatreworks, Mohamed Sultan Road.

Japanese butoh meets Harlem voguing


In the Mood for Frankie and The Return Of La Argentina

TRAJAL Harrell is neither a painter nor an academic, but his works can be experienced in key museums in the United States such as the Museum of Modern Art. With performance taking up a bigger role in contemporary visual arts, Harrell - a Yale graduate in American studies and a trained dancer - has found a workspace and launch pad in major museums which have been supporting performance and dance "for the last seven to 10 years".

Harrell - who has trained in a whole range of prestigious institutions and residencies in Europe and the US - won an award in 2012 for creating a 21st century drama where post-modern dance, voguing and Greek tragedy collide.

He has spent more than a decade looking at Japanese butoh through the theoretical lens of voguing and at modern dance through the theoretical lens of butoh.

Voguing, of course, is that highly stylised dance imitating the characteristic poses by models on a catwalk. It evolved out of the underground black Harlem drag scene in the 1980s and was exposed to the mainstream by Madonna when she featured voguing in her 1990 hit, Vogue.

"I was first drawn to these ideas by trying to find a connection between butoh and the aesthetic of Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons. Then I discovered the actual work of Tatsumi Hijikata (the founder of the butoh dance form) and I was hooked," shares the 43-year-old. "In general, I think my use of the historical imagination and posing impossible questions has had an effect. Previously, artists were doing more reconstructions and recreations of past works. I think I offered another kind of artistic strategy that perhaps afforded more personal expression," he says.

Harrell's works, In the Mood for Frankie and The Return of La Argentina make their Asian debut at SIFA. Each of them rethinks the relationship between unsettling, surrealist Japanese butoh and highly stylised Harlem voguing, two seemingly different dance forms.

In The Mood For Frankie, set on a bare fashion catwalk, is a work that looks at the figure of the muse.

The Return of La Argentina is Harrell's research and production of dance pieces related to the work of the late butoh founder Hijikata. "Yes, I've 'divorced' butoh from its traditional context but perhaps I get closer to some of the original impetus. I am not trying to just copy the superficial layers but looking at the initial motivations, roots and spirit," Harrell explains.

  • In the Mood for Frankie will be held on Sept 1, 2, 3 at 8pm & 9.30pm nightly at 72-13, Mohd Sultan Road. The S$35 includes free admission to The Return Of La Argentina, available from The Return Of La Argentina is on Sept 4, at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm, at 72-13 Mohd Sultan Road. (30 min, no intermission). Free admission (with ticket to In The Mood For Frankie); or single-entry ticket at S$25

READ MORE: Reviews of SIFA shows