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Dimitris Papaioannou's “Transverse Orientation.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Extending the Limits

Dimitris Papaioannou's “Transverse Orientation” opens at BAM

Performance
Dimitris Papaioannou's “Transverse Orientation”
Place
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, November 11, 2022
Words
Cecilia Whalen

Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Transverse Orientation” starts with a joke: Entering from a single door in a blank white wall, several tall, pin-headed figures rush onstage with ladders. Dressed in all black, they skitter towards a lone, flickering fluorescent light. How many of the faceless shadow people does it take to change a lightbulb? They put their shrunken heads together to find out.

Papaioannou has become famous for his extremely intricate and daring large-scale creations. He first gained international popularity in 2004 when he choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic Games in his native Athens. In 2015, he produced another opening ceremony, this time for the European Games, and in 2018 he became the first choreographer to make a new full-length work on Tanztheater Wuppertal following Pina Bausch’s death. “Transverse Orientation,” which had its New York premier at this year’s Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, is another massive work made up of overlapping mystical (and often unsettling) dream-like scenarios.

Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Transverse Orientation.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

Following the bobble heads is the dramatic entrance of a bull. Lifesize and life-like, the bull is controlled by the performers who wrestle with it as it travels around the stage. Naturally, after all that exercise, the bull gets thirsty. One actor, who has by this point removed all of his clothing, brings the bull some water in a bucket. (The first of the performers to lose his britches, he had been using the bucket to dignify himself.) The bull laps up some of the water with a pink tongue, the supple hand of one of the performers.

The bull reappears throughout the piece as both friend and foe. The players try to fight it, and at one point a naked man lies still underneath it, as if trampled. Contrarily, the bull also carries the performers: In one majestic moment, a naked woman floats atop it as Europa or Lady Godiva.

Other moments with the bull are not as cut and dry. Shortly after we notice the collapsed man beneath the animal, the bull begins to move again. We suddenly see that it carries something within it. Slowly seeping out of the bull is a real-live woman.

Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Transverse Orientation.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

It was at about this time—where the woman drops from the bull’s loins—that I started to realize “Transverse Orientation” is more nightmare than dream. Despite the occasional comedic relief, the ensuing events become more and more disturbing. There’s a scuba diver who swims across the stage, is stripped out of his wet suit and waterboarded with clear marbles poured from a pail. Next is a man in sequined pants who stands upstage in too-big shoes, crosses his legs, then flops around like a beached merman. More than once, a performer lies down on the springs of a cot which folds in half and traps him. Meanwhile, two performers attach themselves together, top to bottom, to create a naked, crawling four-legged creature.

These are intense images, to say the least, and “Transverse Orientation’s” shock value is tremendous. Sitting there squirming in my seat, I started to wonder, what exactly is the value of the shock? Is there a line to be drawn between ‘a little unsettling’ and truly perverse? If so, on which side does a defecating bull lie, or a writhing naked man bound in a rope? (My personal line appeared alongside the emergence of an enormous impression of female anatomy from which dripped a gooey pink liquid and ultimately revealed a naked woman holding a baby.) 

Papaioannou and his team have mastered the ability to produce extraordinary and powerful visual experiences. His use of space is spectacular. (In one of the most impressive design moments, there is a knock at the door, and a man opens it to find a brick wall. Suddenly, the oversized Styrofoam bricks begin to flood into the room before he can stop them. Another example comes at the very end, when the performers pull up the floorboards to reveal an actual pool of water that was hidden underneath). In terms of craftmanship, “Transverse Orientation” gets an A+.

Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Transverse Orientation.” Photograph by Julieta Cervantes

That said, at the end of this awe-inspiring experience, what remained for me was an overwhelming sense of disgust and, frankly, a little nausea. Evidently this was a if not the point: To depict human suffering, trauma, and the grotesque, at many times so graphically that audience members were shielding their eyes.

Perhaps Papaioannou, in his unnerving portrayals of the subconscious, was accessing his countryman Aeschylus, who says “in our sleep, the pain of pain remembered falls drop by drop upon the heart” If creating and depicting painful experience was his purpose, Papaioannou was successful, and pain and horror for the sake of pain and horror certainly draws an audience. But is there merit in disgust, all on its own? Besides the few funny parts, there was little contrast in mood or opportunity for redemption. If the disgust doesn’t lead to a repudiation of the disgusting, if it isn’t accompanied by empathy for the traumatized, or an understanding of some greater truth, is it worth the stomachache? Judging by the size of the crowd (and I’m told the following night sold out), this is clearly up for debate.

Reading further into Aeschylus may provide an argument:

“In our sleep, the pain of pain remembered falls drop by drop upon the heart until . . . comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering. That we must suffer, suffer into truth.”

By the end of “Transverse Orientation,” I had done my fair share of suffering. I’m not sure I left the theater any wiser.

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