Performance Art of Inclusivity, Human Stories and Revolutionary Politics

Dara Milovanović*

The 14th edition of the Open House Festival of Contemporary Dance and Performance. Produced by the Dance House Lemesos, 28 September to 1 October 2023, Limassol, Cyprus.

The Open House festival, curated by the departing artistic director of Dance House Lemesos, Alexis Vasiliou, featured a variety of performances, screenings and installations by Cypriot and international artists. The festival is one of six locally produced festivals for contemporary dance and/or performance art, with a particular focus on avant-garde, edgy and politically relevant performance. Dance House Lemesos is a partner with the Aerowaves network and, therefore, includes some works chosen by the network. Aerowaves describes itself on its website as “a hub for dance discovery” that aims to “discover promising emerging choreographers in Europe.” Originally, the network promoted works by young choreographers under thirty; however, this criterion appears to have changed to create a wider age range. Their call appears to be open to a variety of dance genres, although the artists chosen mostly work within the contemporary idiom which, of course, includes a vast number of styles and references. One of the international performances associated with Aerowaves was The Pure Gold Is Seeping Out of Me by the Polish dance maker Renata Piotrowska-Auffret.

The focus of the festival was on women creators in various stages of life, creation and experience, giving it a clear direction it lacked in the past. It showcased pieces created during the Dance House Lemesos residency project entitled Performing the New, which included a performance by Annie Khoury and an installation by Artemis Evlogimenou. The festival invited performances that premiered in Cyprus over the year 2023, including the well-established choreographer Arianna Economou’s Happy Happier Days and works by emerging creators: Styliana Apostolou’s Vacationist in the Absurd and Melina Sofocleous’ piece Vounaros, which premiered at the festival and combined assaulting physicality and theatrical exploration to explore personal and cultural struggle. This review concentrates on works that made the greatest impact on me.

Image of projection of the Open House Festival logo. Municipal Arts Center – Papadakis Warehouses, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo: Pavlos Vrionides

The highlight of the festival was the performance Lazaros, conceived and performed by Elena Agathocleous, a Cypriot theatre-maker and performance artist. Originally conceived for a formal theatrical space, the festival performance took place in Ravens, an old rock club, which proved to be a great fit for the piece. In this performance, Agathocleous embodies her alter ago as the front woman of an alternative rock band, accompanied by a keyboard player, Marianna Michael, and drummer/guitarist Alexandros Papadopoulos. Agathocleous, a seasoned performer wearing a simple T-shirt and tailored trousers, exaggerated eyeliner and red lipstick, begins the performance with a movement solo based on cool rock-chick moves, with such clarity and precision that it is difficult to remember that she is neither a rock star nor a trained dancer. The performance references religious texts to expose the contemporary tragedy of misogyny, particularly in Cyprus and Greece. Agathocleous performs a song that resembles heated poetry about Lazaros and mentions Jesus directly in her lyrics. The song fills the performance space with electrical intensity and power. The performance includes recordings of a Greek orthodox choir and a duet with Michael in flat tone harmony that complements and contrasts Agathocleous’ solo performance. The piece also features a recorded narrative about a body decomposing after death, perhaps to remind the audience of the miracle of Lazaros’s resurrection. The performance questions rigid local religious idioms; yet the potency of the performance transcends the local culture and takes on a revolutionary feel. Agathocleous, as both protagonist and creator, claims the physical, visual and aural space, projecting a strong feminist work.

Elena Agathocleous during her alternative rock solo Lazaros. At Ravens Music Hall, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo: Pavlos Vrionides

The festival featured two screenings of films that were vastly different in aesthetics, narrative and meaning. Electra by the Czech filmmaker Daria Kascheeva explores complex and multiple themes, with images of girlhood and womanhood interlaced with issues of parental abuse and neglect. The film is classified as animation; however, it employs a variety of techniques to blur reality, memory and psychological projections. Kascheeva combines human performance and movement with stock animation that features life-size Barbie-like dolls and deconstruction of bodies through digitally animated dismembering of dolls, exaggerated make-up and prosthetics. The filmmaker recalls the tenth birthday of the protagonist through the eyes of the young girl and her adult self, trying to make sense of the memory of her father leaving and her mother numbing her pain and existence with alcohol. She contrasts images of women projected by the media and self-mutilation through cosmetic surgery, make-up and eating disorders with the image of the mother, herself and the child in a rather disturbing way, showing the mother with over-inflated plastic lips and the young girl with smudged make-up demonstrating inappropriate maturity. Her refusal to adhere to a linear narrative makes the viewer alert and attentive to messages implied and explicitly presented, such as the possible abuse by the father of the mother and herself.

Spirit, a film by the Cypriot dance and performance artist Eleana Alexandrou, presents edited documentation of a long duration performance created in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Due to the lockdown restrictions, the live performance was screened in real time, allowing for audience interaction through social media. The film features excerpts from the improvisation-based dance performance, featuring three dancers and an actor. Additionally, it includes questions that were sent to the performers through social media at the time of the performance, to which they responded verbally or with movement. Some of the questions were thoughtful, culturally pertinent; others quite banal, revealing the sexist, racist and homophobic ideology still deeply ingrained in Cypriot society. Many of the questions and all of the answers were in the Cypriot dialect, which is used colloquially but not formally or officially in Cyprus. This created a political statement, refusing colonization by reclaiming authentic Cypriot culture, but it also creates an intimacy between performers and audience as they share the rhythm and syntax that is unique to the island. The film is heartfelt and warm, created in honour of the artist’s grandmother, to whom she was very close and who had recently passed away.

Hailed as the highlight of the festival, Ioanna Paraskevopoulou’s performance Mos played to a sold-out audience. Featuring the masterful dancer Giorgos Kotsifakis and the choreographer herself, the work explored aural design, achieved with different props to create sounds that illustrated various film excerpts, as commonly used in film production before the arrival of digital techniques.

In the latter part of the performance, the two executed basic tap dance movements, including a single time step and a shuffle, ball, change. Their dance sequence included much repetition that featured the two steps and an accented run on wooden boards, with microphones placed for recording and subsequent looping by the sound technician. The repetition created a mesmerising and intense soundscape, although the piece appeared to ignore the complexity of tap’s history and culture in a rather tone-deaf manner.

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou and Giorgos Kotsifakis in sound making action Mos. Rialto Theatre, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo: Pavlos Vrionides

The festival ended with Atlas da Boca, created by Portuguese/Brazilian transwoman Gaya de Medeiros and featuring transman Ary Zara. The vague description of the piece, that it intends to explore the mouth as a symbol of intersection between private and public life, between the erotic and the public, does not reveal that the piece is surprisingly funny and emotional without resorting to gimmicks or fetishism. The work exposes a process of performance making and editing that is human rather than gender-based. The performers communicate their ideas through impressive abstract physical explorations, giving the work a poetic aesthetic that allows the audience to envisage the political messages. Even in the spoken sections, with the use of humour and honesty, the messages are not dictated but rather gently communicated. This performance was a great way to end the festival and to reiterate its final remarks regarding inclusivity, performance-making, focus on women creators, humour and human stories. 

*Dara Milovanović is an Associate Professor of Dance and Head of the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Nicosia. She holds a PhD in Dance Studies, an MA in American Dance Studies and BS in History and Politics. Her scholarship appears in books and academic journals, such as Perspectives on American Dance: The Twentieth Century, Peephole Journal, Dance Research, International Screendance Journal, Body Space & Technology Journal, Dance Education in Practice and Research in Dance Education. Dara is a performer, educator and scholar.

Copyright © 2023 Dara Milovanović
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