Friday, February 17, 2012

Meet Our Choreographer:

I spoke the other day with Yannis Adoniou, the choreographer who makes his Seattle Opera debut with Orphée et Eurydice (right, photo by Alan Alabastro). Seattle-area opera fans can get a sneak peek at the work of Yannis, and his marvelous dancers, if they join KING-5’s studio audience Monday morning, February 20, for the live taping of “New Day Northwest:” Yannis, Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi, and four of the dancers will be on the show to introduce the opera and perform a brief scene in which some of the Blessed Spirits warn Orpheus what will happen if he looks at Eurydice. Yannis and I talked about the role dance plays in the opera, his career, and why everyone should dance more.

You’re new to Seattle Opera: welcome! We’d like to know a little about your background—where you were born, and how you became a choreographer.
Thanks. I was born in Athens, Greece. My family is still there.

Oh, so you should be able to tell us: is there anything Greek about this opera? The libretto says it takes place in Greece...
It is Greek! I knew this story growing up, my grandmother used to tell us these stories. These myths are Greek, but they’re also universal, that’s what is so beautiful about it.

You’ve come a long way from Greece yourself.
Yes, I live now in San Francisco. I began dance training in Athens, when I was a teenager, then went to Hamburg Ballet School in Germany.

You didn’t begin training until you were a teen? That seems late. Around here, at our Pacific Northwest Ballet school, they start them early...
Yeah, well, Greek culture, we start dancing the day we’re born. In our families it’s different—every event finishes with some kind of dance, dinner parties, birthdays, name-day parties, whatever it is.

Yannis in rehearsal with dancers (l to r) Daniel Howerton, Kyle Johnson, Demetrius Tabron, and Scott Bartell (Alan Alabastro, photo)

And how did you decide to become a professional dancer?
I was always interested in being creative: with my voice, with my body. When I was 16, I met a girl who was a trained ballet dancer, and that made me want to get my body more defined as an instrument. Accidently, I found out through a magazine about some free dance classes for men. So I started taking classes, and half a year later the national ballet school in Athens accepted me as a talent. I had wanted to become an interior designer or an architect, and I was painting as well, so it was a big decision. I was very serious: “I don’t want to do it if I’m not good at it.” But they said they believed I could have a real career, so that’s how it started, and from there I have followed my heart and my brain.

How do you come to be in San Francisco?
After training in Hamburg I was dancing in Bonn, with a classical ballet company, doing Swan Lakes and that stuff. But I was unhappy...I didn’t want to be in a form where everything had been determined by someone else a hundred years back. I was interested in today. So someone who saw my choreography said, “You should talk to Alonzo King, this choreographer in the Bay Area, because the way you move, he’d be very interested.” So I met him and he invited me to come to San Francisco. I danced with the Alonzo King LINES Ballet for seven years, and then started my own company.

And how did you first get involved with Orphée et Eurydice?
I had the pleasure to work with San Francisco Opera for fifteen years as a dancer as well. They have a corps de ballet on staff—it is one of the best contracts, for a dancer. It was interesting because in Europe I had worked in big opera houses, but when I came to the US and started doing contemporary dance, you don’t get that scale of production, with live music. But working for San Francisco Opera brought back that memory. Although I felt the conflict that happens at times between opera and dance.

Dance came from opera, originally; the reason for dance was to support the opera. But then they split, and would only come together when it was necessary. With Orphée, [Stage Director] Jose Maria [Condemi] knew me from San Francisco Opera, and when he first produced Orphée with West Bay Opera, he invited me to work with him and we found a compatible approach, a very collaborative process. Gluck’s music for Orphée is absolutely made for dance.

Dancers Scott Bartell and Kyle Johnson practice lifting Kate Chamberlin while Yannis, in back, instructs (Alan Alabastro, photo)

There are some operas where although the dance music may be good, the dances aren't relevant to the plot, so if you’re an opera company on a tight budget, you cut them. But here it seems the story of the opera continues during the dance numbers.
Dance used to function just as entertainment, you know, fresh meat, something to stimulate the eye--there's all this activity onstage, all of a sudden! Which is fine, it’s always good to be stimulating. But Jose Maria and I are interested in moving the story along: finding a purpose for everything, a way for these different forms to come together.

Here, the dance is part of the story; but for me it’s more the energy of the story. So if Orpheus is talking about his love for Eurydice, the dancers portray the energy of that love. And it’s not so much about what we see, it’s what we feel. With the Furies, it’s a struggle for survival, about pushing through the most difficult, uncomfortable experience in your life. And then there’s a different energy in the Elysian Fields, one that just takes you, it guides you, says “This is where love is, this is where happiness is.”

An experience everyone should be able to share. Which brings me to another topic: can everybody dance?
Of course. I heard this woman talking on TV today: “Get your kids to paint before they become conscious about it, before they begin worrying that they may not be good painters and they stop painting.” It’s the same with dance. People stop dancing when they say, “Oh, maybe I’m not good at this.” If we didn’t have this consciousness, everybody would be dancing much more, with better results.

Yannis Adoniou explains a dance move to Davinia Rodríguez, who sings Eurydice (Alan Alabastro, photo)

Is this phenomenon worse in America than it is in Greece?
Oh, my goodness. Dance is a social thing—it is friction, it is manipulation of time and space. By way of answering your question, one thing I notice when I see people in the U.S., here we never cross paths. You go to the supermarket and you want to get your biscuits, or whatever, and when someone comes in front of you, you say “Excuse me,” and you get out of the way—you avoid that person. This is dance. Actually, it’s a technique we call ‘avoidance.’ In the U.S., you’re not going to cross that person’s energy. People here avoid that friction, whereas in Greece, yes, people touch each other all the time, they push each other, they are more familiar with expressing themselves through movement. And again, at the end of any festivity everyone will dance. Are they better dancers? Not necessarily. And it’s the men, not the women. In many parts of the Middle East, men are the better dancers because the society is all about men dancing. Whereas in the West, men don’t dance. You know, they say if you dance you’re gay.

I noticed that, as an American tourist in the Middle East, my gay-dar didn’t work: you’d see guys holding hands or hanging on to each other, which here would indicate they were a couple—but in fact all it meant was friendship, that they belong together.
Yes, even kissing. In the Middle East, you kiss someone, a man or a woman, to show your respect. Here you’re not going to kiss someone unless it’s sentimental or sexual.

That’s interesting. And it reminds me—you can do this opera with either a male or a female Orpheus.
Yes, there was a female singer when we did it in West Bay, a mezzo soprano. She was dressed as a male, and I think the public understood. That’s the lovely thing about theater: you can do things onstage that you might not be able to do in real life. For instance, in the end they kiss each other, and it’s one of the most beautiful, juicy kisses. And both women were straight! That was amazing to see: two women kissing onstage, and no one was offended. Now, we were in the Bay Area, and it’s diverse and all that, but it’s interesting to be able to see it as a love story between two women and have it be absolutely appropriate.

Would the story work if it were about a girl going to hell to retrieve a guy, and he was the one saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” And she was saying “No, no, I must not!”
I think it would work. I believe love is strong, it doesn’t matter which direction. Also, when you walk down the street, you don’t think, “I’m male, I’m tall, I’m short, I’m hairy, I’m not hairy, I’m wearing red or green.” This is what other people see. But as you walk, you’re just you, an energy. I don’t think we’re constantly saying to ourselves, “I’m a man!” It’s when we get beyond that exterior body, the part that’s choreographed by society, that we’re able to reach common ground. That’s where it’s more true, more real, more universal.

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