Count no man happy till he dies, the great Greek playwright Sophocles warned us in 429 BC — a perspective renewed often in the deliberately bleak, slow and dark movement-theater spectacle “The Great Tamer,” created by Sophocles’ countryman Dimitris Papaioannou.
In its American premiere Friday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the unbroken, plotless, two-hour performance offered plenty of metaphors for our precarious existence: a man trying to balance atop an inflatable world globe, for instance, and, a few moments later, a funeral procession for that globe.
What’s more, after hours of watching the members of Papaioannou’s 10-person company emerging from or disappearing into the dull-gray floor-panels of Tina Tzoka’s set, the last revelation proved to be the grimmest: a disintegrating skeleton. However, against that reminder of our inevitable mortality, Papaioannou set a celebration of breath: the essential living moment in all its wonder.
Best known for staging the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Papaioannou also was the first artist invited to create a full-evening work for the groundbreaking Pina Bausch company after her death in 2009. He shares with Bausch a taste for maddening repetitions of mundane actions, depictions of exploiting the helpless and sudden eruptions of gallows humor, as in a gymnastic illusion that gives a naked woman the legs of a man.
He builds “The Great Tamer” on coverings and uncoverings: nudity revealed and then concealed; an astronaut stripping out of space regalia; the floor panels opening to give the company earth to dig in, water to bathe in, a cave to hide in and quicksand to sink in. (Given the abundant nudity, we’re limited in what we can show here, but stunning YouTube and Vimeo videos abound.) At one point, the cast uses the panels to create a great white wall, the ultimate covering of the landscape. But it doesn’t last long. Draw your own conclusions.
There’s also a journey involving a slender nude man — initially, Christos Strinopoulos and later Alex Vangelis, who has a remarkable semaphoric solo, the closest approximation of conventional dancing in the production. Brief passages involved stilts, aerial maneuvers and more gymnastics, but they weren’t sustained long enough to function as showpiece distractions.
Papaioannou’s focus remains unyielding, but “The Great Tamer” has enough scope to introduce remnants of classic European art — Johann Strauss’ beautiful “Blue Danube” waltz on the soundtrack, a passage depicting Rembrandt doctors in mid-dissection, plus references to Greek mythology.
However, this is not one of those contemporary European pieces that mourns the loss of the continent’s cultural primacy. No, Strauss sounds fatally warped here, the Rembrandt doctors become elegant cannibals, and skewed Greek mythology helps Papaioannou envision a graveyard of art desperate for renewal.
And renewal comes, suddenly, in a brilliant coup de théâtre when huge fusillades of golden darts pierce the floor panels and instantly generate a new fertile terrain: a farmland, rich in grain. It’s another wondrous, essential moment in this abstract expressionist life cycle that makes the future possible.