Situating Choreographies of the Real in Elefsina: Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2

Maria Konomi*

Abstract

This paper discusses the composite promenade and site-specific performance Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2 as a notable example of socially engaged  site-specific work in Elefsina, Greece. Featuring dance pieces in public space by six young choreographers and curated by Patricia Apergi and Aerites dance company, the performance explored an array of themes engaging with the physical, social and cultural landscapes of Elefsina. Situating choreographies of the real in Elefsina involved a two-year period of research in the sites and communities of the city and the creation of socially and environmentally minded locational dramaturgies and kinetic vocabularies in response to the place and the various performance locations.

Keywords: dance; choreography; contemporary Greek choreographers; site-specific; public space; Elefsina

Situating choreographies in real sites of the public realm is currently being practiced and analysed as a complex and deeply engaging contemporary performance strategy with regard to form, content, context, as well as artistic methodologies, design, production and spectatorship frameworks of the site-specific dance performance (Nazeli Snowber, Koplowitz, Barbour, Hunter, Kloetzel).  As Aronson maintains, one important characteristic of site-specificity “is that inevitably it puts both the performance and the audience in conversation with the environment, often for purposes of social or political critique” (175).

Site-dance can be considered “as a valid and vital form of contemporary dance practice that explores, reflects, disrupts, contests and develops understandings and practices of inhabiting and engaging with a range of sites and environments” (Hunter 2). Such approaches next to their nontraditional formal requirements and production challenges are informed by deeper interdisciplinary engagements with socio-cultural, political, economic, material and ecological perspectives. Situating choreographies of the real can be considered an essentially socially engaged artistic practice. Some practitioners like MacBean, have proposed basic guidelines and exercises for creating site-specific dance practice “promoting social awareness in choreography”; these address fundamental components like the site and its history, movement,  and audience active participation, while also stressing rules like “no transplanting”  pre-existing work (97-99).  

Walking research for 25km by Eliane Roumie with Zoe Efstathiou, Nancy Nerantzi, Marina Tsapekou. Photo: Elian Roumie/Giannis Schoinas

This spatially and socially expanded area of investigation was undertaken as a joint venture of the Elefsina European Capital of Culture 2023 and the arts initiative U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography aiming to rethink the art of choreography in Greece and to compensate for lacking educational opportunities for young choreographers.[1]

Conceived by Patricia Apergi working in dialogue with emerging choreographers and multidisciplinary experts, the U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography “aims to offer a comprehensive creative research and experimentation process, as well as the acquisition of knowledge relating to this artistic field and its practices” (Akadimia). As the artistic culmination of a two-year program of the first U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography, the composite site-specific dance performance Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2  was created in June-July 2023 by six choreographers:  Eliane Roumie, George Papadopoulos, Emmanouela Sakellari, Katerina Foti, Christiana Kosiari, Diamanto Chatzizacharia. The project was curated by the artistic director Patricia Apergi and the contemporary dance company Aerites.[2]

Performative tableau vivant during the promenade performance of Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2. Artistic Direction: Patricia Apergi and Aerites Dance Company. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The project was presented in the framework of 2023 Eleusis European Capital of Europe and its integrated artistic, research and educational program, with the general title Mysteries of Transition, which focused on the three Axes: People – Society / Labour / Environment. It drew inspiration from the long and multifaceted history of the city, ancient and sacred, modern industrial and contemporary post-industrial.

One of the five most important sacred cities of antiquity, the city of the Elefsinian Mysteries and birthplace of Aeschylus, Elefsina – thanks to its natural port and strategic location, 21 km west of Athens, in the Thriassian Plain, the northwestern most tip of the Saronic Gulf – was transformed from the 19th century onwards into the productive engine of Greece and one of its largest industrial centers [with] the signs of industrialization still prominent on the body of the city.

“Aerites”

The project took the form of an ambulatory site-specific performance with six episodes/stations mapping out a route in Elefsina with a duration of a minimum of three hours.[3] Featuring six different artistic voices,  each choreographer was invited to present their fifteen-minute original site-specific dance work in different locations of the urban public space of Elefsina in conversation with the history of the city, its people, buildings and neighborhoods, in direct communication with the public space. Each episode/station along the route illuminated a hidden aspect of the city, inviting the audience on a journey through the space and time of Elefsina, past, present and future.

Performative tableau vivant during the promenade performance of Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2. Artistic Direction: Patricia Apergi and Aerites Dance Company. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The six parts were linked with interspersed quirky and surreal tableaux vivants along the walking route to the different performance sites curated by Apergi and Aerites, i.e. an urban beach on the side of the street, a seated man with a birthday cake in flames, a mermaid on the shore with her lit wire costume.  A group of female guides led the way; the main guide named Demetra (like the ancient Elefsinian cult goddess) talked on a portable microphone setting the tone and pace for the walking audience (Konomi-a). There were also two performative bus drives between different episodes adding to the ambulatory urban everyday aesthetics of the piece.

Found sites and everyday/found materials in Dealing with Fireworks by Emmanouela Sakellari. Photo: John Kouskoutis

Topo-specificity constituted the central core of all the dance parts of the performance, focusing on creating locally inspired and socially determined themes, narratives and kinetic vocabulary, largely as dramaturgies of the real, while putting into use interdisciplinary research methodologies influenced by performance studies, urban geography, sociology, ecology and anthropology, among others. The three-hour promenade performance with its six choreographic episodes was particularly demanding in terms of experiential audience participation, aiming to engage both with iconic and lesser-known sites of Elefsina, and to create a diverse array of somatic writing for the constitution of a new embodied and experiential mapping of the city.

 All choreographies were born out of two-year site-specific research resulting in a deep and multi-layered understanding of Elefsina as a landmark of ancient and modern history, a location of industrial exploitation and a place in severe ecological crisis, a site of post-industrial abandonment, but also a resilient social space and an established cultural landmark ripe with possibilities for future growth. 

Researching performance locations in public space: Katerina Foti in rehearsals for THE KITCHEN DANCE: A House Trance Vocabulary. Photo: Anastasia Giannaki

Despite its critical environmental predicament, Elefsina can be characterized as a place with strong social bonds and a vibrant shared space, with many collectivities and solidarity human resources, retaining its hope for transformation and growth. Whereas a strong legacy in site-specific contexts and methods has been established in Elefsina in the past decades regarding visual arts and performance art, the modality of site-specific dance was largely unexplored. The promenade performance with all its different perspectives provided a kaleidoscopic insight into the multiple contemporary and future realities of Elefsina, enriched with its many antagonizing aspects: mythic, imaginary and real.

Station 02/ Episode 01: 25km. Concept – Choreography: Eliane Roumie. Sound design: Manos Paterakis. Set design: Stavros Balis. Performance: Zoe Efstathiou, Nancy Nerantzi, Marina Tsapekou. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The opening Station 02/ Episode 01: 25km conceived and choreographed by Eliane Roumie refers to the distance from the centre of Athens to the entrance of the city of ancient Elefsina (Mystery 59). It was inspired by the Eleusinian Mysteries Procession aiming at its conceptual and kinetic reinvention in a contemporary and polysemantic experiential form of walking practices and self-reflection. The project consists of an artistic documentary and a visual map, as well as a dance performance, structured also as a visual site-specific installation. The performance installation was themed around an abandoned open-air market (laiki agora) explored as an important source of everyday aesthetics and visual inspiration and enriched with all kinds of surreal associations and everyday objects seen through an uncanny viewpoint.

The main spatial and kinetic influences of the piece were the collective and durational walking practices experienced and repeated by the three performers. These long hour walks yielded different conceptual and sensory stimuli and materialities encountered on the long walking route to Elefsina which in turn weaved the kinetic vocabulary of the piece. The piece sought to express these walking practices encompassing the experience of a long-lasting procession on foot, drawing stimulus and exploring the ways in which this collective experience can be translated into movement. The anticipation of departure, the ephemeral contact with nature, the need to purify the soul and body, and the prolonged arrival represent different aspects of kinetic research and constitute the building material for the composition of a contemporary collective ritual (Κonomi-b).

Station 02/ Episode 01: 25km. Concept – Choreography: Eliane Roumie. Sound design: Manos Paterakis. Set design: Stavros Balis. Performance: Zoe Efstathiou, Nancy Nerantzi, Marina Tsapekou. Photo: John Kouskoutis

Different aspects of Elefsina’s past and present are addressed, pointing also at the city’s industrial heritage, as the backdrop of the selected location included the abandoned Kronos and Iris factories. These both consist iconic landmarks of the industrial and cultural heritage of Elefsina and of its historical local labour movement, classified as preserved modern monuments and typical examples of industrial architecture of the inter-war period.

Station 02/Episode 02: Polluted – Don’t look! Conception – Choreography – Interpretation: George Papadopoulos. Costume design: Ioanna Chrysomalli.  Photo: John Kouskoutis

Station/Episode 02: Polluted − Don’t look! was conceived, choreographed and performed by George Papadopoulos. The project was inspired by the concepts of transformation, mutation, survival and ultimately adaptation to extremely adverse conditions of environmental pollution and climate crisis. It explored the question of inhabiting a place that has been violently cut off from its contact with nature, presenting a creature contaminated by reckless industrial development and trying to find ways to breathe in a suffocating environment. The discarded plastic water bottle became a “glocal” emblematic sign of the material asphyxia of our polluted planet. The man who emerges from his underground shelter and can breathe only through the plastic bottle becomes a timeless creature that encapsulates the transformation of the past, the survival of the present and the projection of his existence into the future.

Local people become engaged performance audience in Polluted – Don’t look! by George Papadopoulos. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The piece created a dystopian yet poetic narrative of the city and its inhabitants in the context of its urgent environmental predicament, attesting to the material agency of the everyday objects and sites that genuinely shaped the kinetic vocabulary of the piece (Konomi-c). Set next to a playground and with a backdrop of residential houses, the piece contrasts its dark, dystopian visions with the ever-present prospect of spontaneous human and social interaction and managed to engage everyday audiences.

Station 02/ Episode 03: Dealing with Fireworks. Conception-Choreography: Emmanouela Sakellari Original Music & Video: Alexis Falantas. Interpretation: Antonia Exertzi, Theodora Exertzi. Photo: Fani Maria Chatzi

Station/Episode 03: Dealing with Fireworks was conceived and choreographed by Emmanouela Sakellari. Exploring the industrial history of the workers in Elefsina and researching the notorious and long abandoned Pyrkal Industrial Complex,[4] the project attempted to create a metaphor of everyday life inspired by the production process of explosives and the dangerous working conditions at these factories, envisioning the performing site as a minefield.  While Sakellari’s work was both rooted in the fictitious and the real, as well as managing to escape being overtly descriptive, the piece can be also thought to indirectly comment on the ever-present threat in the community of Elefsina regarding existing ammunition and explosives’ residues from the vast Pyrkal factory area. In a playful as well as socially minded gesture, the seated audience were given to wear safety helmets.

Station 02/Episode 03: Dealing with Fireworks. Conception-Choreography: Emmanouela Sakellari. Interpretation: Antonia Exertzi, Theodora Exertzi. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The notion of danger and urgency runs through the work, and the dynamics of people’s relationships are being constantly affected by a potential threat until they manage to overcome their fears. The coloured smoke cans used in the performance create both playful and worrying undertones. In a world that lives amidst explosions in need of survival, the power of friendship, the tragic nature of life, the importance of hope and the paradox of life and death form the main themes of the play (Mystery 59). The piece also activates the site of another abandoned area, the old shipyard, with the sea vista providing a hint of hopefulness and an ephemeral relief (Konomi-d).

Station 02/Episode o4: THE KITCHEN DANCE: A House Trance Vocabulary. Conception – Choreography – Interpretation: Katerina Foti. Original Music: Gina Iliopoulou. Costume Design: Lina Stavropoulou. Lighting: Stevi Koutsothanasi. Photo: Anastasia Giannaki

Station/Episode 04: THE KITCHEN DANCE: A House Trance Vocabulary was conceived, choreographed and performed by Katerina Foti who turned her attention to unwaged domestic labour, a condition affecting most women in Greece from all working classes, family and age backgrounds. In addition to exploring her own personal experiences, Foti researched female narratives, testimonies and experiences of domestic labor both in Elefsina, as well as from friends and family. Through this process she was led “to the nuclear and universal place in which leisure and work coexist in delicate balance: the kitchen’’ (Mystery 59). In Foti’s piece, the kitchen is conceived as a symbolic place of domesticity characterized by stark paradoxes, both a private safe space and a prison. She claims that:

although fully identified with domestic work, the kitchen is also a place of female confession far from social criticism. It is a prison of endless manual work −often an additional task for the already working woman− and a family hearth, and at the same time it becomes a place of worship, a meeting place and a place of celebration, as well as a place where a woman can take stock of a whole life and set up a small personal revolution.

Mystery 59

The kitchen becomes both a metaphor and a staging mechanism for emphasizing the suffocating domestic labour restrictions of the women and, in particular the ambiguous routines of food preparation, along with glimpses of release and transformation.

Station 02/Episode o4: THE KITCHEN DANCE: A House Trance Vocabulary. Conceived, choreographed and performed by Katerina Foti. Photo: Anastasia Giannaki

The kinetic vocabulary was shaped by jerky stylizations of everyday repetitive movements of domestic labour, a condition of both mechanistic and psychological implications for the women’s lives. The music can be described as an electronic version of musical themes from Bizet’s Carmen, “whose plot is in fact a femicide” as Foti observes (Konomi-e). The female solo performer in the piece is a woman unidentifiably middle- aged living almost exclusively in her kitchen where her past, present and future is transformed by association into a universal and collective female narrative.

Following an intensive location hunting, the particularly atmospheric staging utilized a found public space by the seafront. It was an abandoned semi-outdoor construction, which previously belonged to a local bar cantina destroyed by fire. The box-like staging arrangement was turned into a kind of working class low rise house and its main kitchen-space where domestic labour takes place, like table setting, dish washing, food storage, ironing, and so on, all activities that influenced the kinetic vocabulary of the piece (Konomi (e)). Every object and piece of decoration like the window and door curtains blended with local features and rooted the staging in aesthetics of the everyday and the familiar. The existing graffiti, similar to other graffiti found on the walls of Elefsina, created a potent fusion of real exterior and staged interior space.

Station 02/Episode 05: Bouboulines. Conception – Choreography: Christiana Kosiari. Original Music: Jan Van Angelopoulos. Costume designer: Lina Stavropoulou. Interpretation: Aphrodite Kapala, Maria-Angela Katsikali-Kosiari, Mata Koulouridis, Niki Filianou. Photo: John Kouskoutis

Station/Episode 05: Bouboulines conceived and choreographed by Christiana Kosiari also displayed an intensive engagement with the gendered sociocultural landscape of Elefsina. This work was directly inspired by the women factory workers in Elefsina, who during the peak years of industrial labour, were often called Bouboulines.[5] The main score of the piece involved four women over sixty-five meeting around a table, a meeting place that represents many moments of togetherness and sharing. The piece presented a place of work, discussion, singing, female empowerment, revolution, celebration. Mechanical and repetitive movements found in factory labour (as well as in household labour) created a new kinetic vocabulary, where the four women transpose these moves into a dance of women driven by friendship, affection and love (Konomi-f).

Bouboulines by Christiana Kosiari, interpreted by Aphrodite Kapala, Maria-Angela Katsikali-Kosiari, Mata Koulouridis, Niki Filianou. Photo: Stephie Grape

The main conceptual themes and narratives of the dance practice and choreography were shaped through a culture of inclusivity which has encouraged a wide range of voices and perspectives within the dance community, fostering creativity and experimentation. An outstanding aspect of the work, as Kosiari elaborates, is that the performers ‘‘are not professional dancers, they are the women next door, our mothers, our aunts, our grandmothers. Their faces reflect all those women who have toiled, who have been empowered, who may be retired but who live every moment in the spirit of a child. They are life itself and they invite you to sing and dance with them’’ (Mystery 59).

Station 02/Episode 05: Bouboulines. Conception – Choreography: Christiana Kosiari. Photo: John Kouskoutis

In contrast, the piece was situated at the small fishing boat docks of Elefsina, close to a real tavern, and performed among the seated audience after a small break where the audience was treated with local snacks and drinks. Despite its seemingly paradoxical location, the piece created the experience of a shared space in the community celebrating both labour and leisure.

Station 02/Episode 06: Dunk. Conception – Choreography Diamanto Chatzizacharia Music: Alexandros Christofidis. Performance: Eleftheria Agapaki, Sophia Anastasiou, Ioanna Karategou, Maritina Katsibraki. With the generous participation of young people from the Cultterra group in Elefsina. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The closing piece Station/Episode 06: Dunk, conceived and choreographed by Diamanto Chatzizacharia, dealt with the idea of change occurring in the physical and social landscape of a small town exploring the issue from the perspective of young people (Mystery 59). According to the choreographer, ‘’the piece specifically explores in which ways the quest of the young people of Elefsina for personal development affects their environment.” The piece plays with bringing into contrast the physical and the social environment.

Overall, the work “is inspired by the metamorphoses of Elefsina during the last hundred years. While the past is still visible in the landscape of the city, surrendered to the wear and tear of time, young people are redefining their identity and dreaming of a better future for their hometown” (Mystery 59). Various locations were researched, but the space of an outdoors basketball court was selected due to both its physical traits, as well as its social space dynamic: an open space for sports and leisure time, as well as a space for socializing and hanging around, bringing together youth from diverse backgrounds.

Station 02/Episode 06: Dunk. Conception – Choreography Diamanto Chatzizacharia. Performance: Eleftheria Agapaki, Sophia Anastasiou, Ioanna Karategou, Maritina Katsibraki. Photo: John Kouskoutis

The kinetic material of the piece interestingly is inspired by the young people’s routines: from the daily walks and group sports to parties and nightlife, while repetitiveness symbolises their relentless striving for personal development in a self-defined alternative to mechanistic repetition (Konomi-g). Movement essentially “reflects a hopeful attempt at change and reconfiguration through a chaotic harmony of young and tireless bodies” (Mystery 59).

Towards the end of the piece, the performers gradually mingle with the audience space inviting their participation in a chaotic encounter, creating an ephemeral community that reminds us of Elefsina. The reception of the piece started hesitatingly by the local community to be fully embraced by the time of its opening performances. A special mention is made by Chatzizacharia to the local Cultterra youth group which provided a source of inspiration and a discursive platform for much of the physical form and the shaping of the kinetic vocabulary of the piece (Konomi-g).

Rehearsing Dunk by Diamanto Chatzizacharia, performed by Eleftheria Agapaki, Sophia Anastasiou, Ioanna Karategou, Maritina Katsibraki. Photo: Diamanto Chatzizacharia

Overall, the promenade dance performance Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries/ Season 2 with its composite structure, rich material and breadth of practices, attests to the future capacity of dance practice as a medium to investigate complex site-specific dramaturgies and to adapt to diverse artistic approaches engaging with an increasingly pluralistic environment. The potential for a combined social and aesthetic kinetic vocabulary and powerful impact on audiences gives dance a significant momentum and a central role in contemporary artistic developments (Lepecki, 14-15).

Performing in the context of everyday life. Mystery 59 U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography: dance MyS+eries / Season 2. Artistic Direction: Patricia Apergi and Aerites Dance Company. Still from Polluted- Don’t look! Conception – Choreography – Interpretation: George Papadopoulos. Photo: John Kouskoutis

One of the most important implications of site-specific dance practices is perhaps the potential for an extended audience reach and the direct impact of dance practices set into everyday urban environments and woven into the nexus of everyday life and other urban activities. In Mystery 59 the trajectory of the performance audience intermingled with chance, street audience as well as the spontaneous urban activities of the city. These events and images enriched the material used in the dance performance, situating the promenade piece simultaneously firmly within a blend of both real and fictional dramaturgies of the city of Elefsina. The audience’s own kinetic vocabulary, the promenade rhythm and energy, its groupings, regroupings and encounters, all these constituted an aleatoric choreography of sorts within the choreography of the piece, at once exciting and demanding. Such extended audiences, performing sites, vocabularies and methodologies present intriguing frameworks of potentialities that engaged and socially minded site-specific practices can offer to contemporary and future dance practices.


Endnotes

[1] For more information on U(R)TOPIAS Academy of Choreography, see here.

[2] Patricia Apergi was born in Athens. In 2006, she founded the Aerites Dance Company, for which she has choreographed the following pieces: “U(R)TOPIAS” (2021), “Hero” (2020), “Polittes (Citizens Defeated)” (2018), “Cementary” (2017), “TANZheimer” (2014), “Planites” (2013), “Era poVera” (2012), “The Manifest of the Other” (2010), “d.opa! (dopamines of post-Athenians)” (2009), “Ferry Tales” (2009), “Apolost” (2008), and “Anorexia Socialis” (2007); see more info on Patricia Apergi.

[3] The project title follows the concept of ’Eleusis European Capital of Culture 2023’, where all projects and performances are considered and numbered as contemporary ‘mysteries’, in allusion to the ancient cult of Elefsinian mysteries. For production details for all six individual dance parts see “Mystery 59“, performance programme.

[4] On the landmark PYRKAL factory in Elefsina, see here.

[5] Named after Bouboulina, a well-known female heroine of the Greek War of the National Independence.

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*Maria Konomi (PhD) is Αssistant Professor at the Department of Theatre Studies at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and a professional scenographer, visual artist and curator. She has presented her work at major theatre organisations, art exhibitions and museums, as well as theatre and film festivals in UK, Greece, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic. Her research and publications revolve around expanded scenography, new spatial forms of theatre and site-specific performance. She has participated at Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ15, PQ23) as co-curator, member of a curatorial team and a participating artist at the professional and student exhibition entries (Greece).

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