Dimitria Festival, Thessaloniki, October 2017
The historical trajectory of the Dimitria Festival, with its origins dating back to the Byzantine era, is impressive, to say the least. The Festival was officially re-established in 1966 and has since etched deep traces in Thessaloniki’s fabric. Widely acknowledged as Thessaloniki’s cultural arch-event and as one of the foremost historic institutions of Greece, the Dimitria Festival has been functioning for the past five decades as much more than a platform for cultural events serving the purpose of expanding Greece’s and Thessaloniki’s cultural visibility.
Promotion video of the 52nd Dimitria Festival
The variegated programme of this year’s fifty-second edition attempted to make up for shortages in official backing measures. It included more than forty main events, not only theatre performances and performance art pieces, concerts, and visual arts installations, but also performing arts workshops, “masterclasses,” and multimedia urban art projects. It was well-thought through and marked by a generous cosmopolitan impulse and hopeful outreach.
Revolution in Art: a multimedia exhibition focusing on the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its impact on the Russian avant-garde
(Theatre) cultures as seemingly dissimilar as the Bulgarian and the Chinese, the Hungarian and the Irish, the Romanian and the Iranian, the Russian and, of course, the Greek were included. Contact with all these different strands of the contemporary world stage was mind-expanding, while the performances representing them had several notable merits. Still, the impact of the performances among the festival’s audiences varied, with some of them receiving a hearty response and others a reticent one. This was hardly unexpected given the sheer variety the events exhibited in their aesthetic and ideological approaches, as well as the very unfamiliarity of some of the theatrical traditions sampled by this year’s edition. Four of them, which also seemed to unequivocally win their audiences, could be said to be truly captivating.
One such performance was the Iranian contribution, Israfil’s Trumpet. Amer Mosafer and a troupe of six performers brought to the stage Siavash Pakrah’s story about a war-torn city (really an “every city” devastated by “every war”) populated by quasi shadowy beings; the human leftovers of the ever present war. The nightmarish setting becomes the playground—literally a merry-go-round stage propelled by stagehands in view of the audience—of a young boy (Illia Nasrollahi) who is left by his mother (Maryam Naghibi) in the care of his grumpy paternal grandmother (Fatemeh Naghavi) and who has mysteriously donned a double identity (apparently he has taken on the identities of a pair of twin brothers). Much like the prophesized blow of Israfil’s trumpet found in the Qur’an, to which the play’s title alludes, the presence of the boy announces and brings about the metaphorical resurrection of the once dead on their feet residents of the unspecified city, but, alas, it proves unable to stave off their eventual “real” death.
Despite some slight clichés in the plot, some loose ends (such as the very double identity of the protagonist), a few turbulences pace-wise, and the several technical issues that popped up during the performance and sadly compromised some of its assets, Israfil’s Trumpet was rewarding. The subdued yet compelling performances from all six performers (also including Bahar Katoozi as the mad woman, Kazem Sayahi as the ex-officer and Hosseini Nia as the priest), with that of the eight-year-old protagonist being a true gem, made for a heart-warming theatre experience.
Official trailer of dance theater performance “Moeder (Mother)” by Peeping Tom (2016)
The performance of Moeder (or Mother), by the Belgian dance troupe/collective Peeping Tom, founded by Gabriela Carizo and Franck Chartier, offered a fascinating family portrait (the second volume of a trilogy which also includes the earlier Vader and the forthcoming Kind), weaving together dance, music and theatre. Directed by Carrizo, and inspired by the death of her own mother, this piece is by many considered the highlight of the Festival’s fifty-second edition, and with good reason.
Moeder could be described as a series of scenes mined from the realm of dreams (and nightmares). Each scene surreally dramatizes and choreographs fantasies, neuroses and fears occupying the grey zone between life and death, sanity and madness, entrapment and release, suffering and joy. Each weaves a thread, as much corporeal and sensorial as conceptual and spiritual, that eventually leads (back) to memory and/of the mother figure in all of its archetypal import. Every element of the performance seems to plays tricks on the audience: performers, setting and scenic objects, and, importantly, sound. The maternity ward becomes a museum and the incubator a prison, the heart drawing on the wall starts bleeding, the sculpture transforms into a zither player, the coffee machine turns out to be a kleptomaniac’s object of passionate sexual desire, sound is turned into a zooming device . . . In the course of the performance, the limits of the (im)possible are put to the test; insistently pushed against they are found quite slack.
Two more examples of performances that did credit to the festival were Our Secrets, by Hungary’s leading theatre director Béla Pintér (and Company), and Sleep, Stella, by the acclaimed Greek (film) director, Yiannis Economides.
The former tapped into the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), with which it shares some plot elements and the theme of surveillance, classical and disco music, as well as Slavic folk music and dance, in order to compose a tragicomic, as much pathetic as hilarious, crudely realistic, or even grotesque, insight into the Hungarian society of the 1980s and its moral conflicts. The play’s treatment of pedophilia and betrayal was as harrowing as it was revealing, and, as was to be expected, less cathartic than ambivalent. Friedenthál Zoltán was staggering in the role of the tormented pedophile, Istvan Balla Ban, while Éva Enyedi and Angéla Stefanovics offered heartbreaking performances as the children who get targeted by Istvan’s abhorrent desire. Credit is also due to Gábor Pelva, György Póta, Hella Roszik for providing the performance’s colorful musical backcloth. A certain spineless quality in the performances of some of the cast’s members aside, this was a largely successful event.
Finally, Sleep, Stella, a play as intense as its titular heroine (played by the talented Ioanna Kolliopoulou), seemed to have made a strong impression on the audiences of the Festival. The fact that many spectators watched the performance twice testifies to that. The play drew from the now classic work of Gregorios Xenopoulos’ Stella Violanti (1909) to tell the story of the forbidden love of Stella, the daughter of an upwards mobile, ganglord-like, patriarch, Antonis Gerakaris (the exquisite Stathis Stamoulakos), with a still relatively unknown young actor, Marios Aggelis (Phillipos Christodoulou). With a script drafted according to the creative input of the eight-member cast during the rehearsal process, and with a performance based on the improvisation of the cast along certain given narrative lines as well as on their interaction with the audience, Sleep, Stella inspected the moral anatomy of the modern (“new”) Greek middle-class society. At the end of the excruciating dissection there is only tragedy to be found. Intrafamilial altercations, triggered by Stella’s decision to break off her engagement with the son of a powerful political family in order to be with Marios, escalate to the point of familial disintegration. The encounter between father and lover, orchestrated by the former, ends up with Marios leaving the room crawling in all fours under gunpoint. We get the sense that Antonis’ gun is really targeting his own family. The metaphorical bullet hits his relationship with his beloved daughter, Stella, fatally injuring it.
Moments before the “curtain falls” the title’s imperative seems like a humane act of kindness, tender in its roughness—as all tragedy should be. The last (second) performance received a standing ovation by a large part of the audience. An acute sense of melancholy sarcasm and the oddly liberating act of laughing yourself to tears were gains to be reaped from Sleep, Stella.
Although its materialization takes place in anything but favorable conditions in the course of the past decade, in view of Greece’s financial crisis and its reverberations throughout all of the country’s spheres of activity, the Dimitria Festival still enables an encounter between the audiences of Thessaloniki and the international performing arts scene that is to be treasured, not least because it is so hard to find under the circumstances. For that very reason, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that we need the institution of the Dimitria, now more than ever, as an index with which to gauge the vim and vigor of the community that feeds into and off the Festival, locally (Thessaloniki) and more broadly (Greece). But, if I may add, we need it to be even better and, certainly, more efficient administration-wise.
*Katerina Delikonstantinidou is a PhD Candidate in the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her articles have been published in numerous volumes and journals, her research work has been presented at national and international conferences, and she is the recipient of several grants and scholarships. She has been a member of the web team for Critical Stages since 2014. Her research areas include Theatre and Performing Arts, Ancient myth, Greek Tragedy and Ethnic Studies.