ENERGY IN MOTION
THREE weeks after flying into Sydney to orchestrate one of his complex, elaborate dance works, Andonis Foniadakis watches silently as the fruits of his labour unfold. In a studio at Sydney Dance Company, a ball of dancers rolls together and then splits apart, dispersing to all points of the room before bodies swirl together, once again, to form Rorschach-pattern tableaus. It’s visual polyphony in action, the eye being purposely snagged and then dragged all over the room as heads and limbs hook and interweave sinuously in endless variations of the pas de deux against a pounding soundtrack by French composer Julien Tarride, who is sitting nearby. He’s a figure of owlish serenity, in contrast to the intense Foniadakis, who whispers to the note-taking assistant at his feet.
Earlier in the year, SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela said of the versatile, in-demand freelance choreographer Foniadakis: “I saw his work and I thought, wow. It is full of energy, power, ambition, it’s crazy — sheer beauty and really intense. I’ve never seen anything so wild.”
This is a choreographer who does everything at full throttle, it seems. He runs his own project-based company while juggling international commissions in Europe, the US and now Australia; the sense of an ever-present ticking clock seeps into the curiously precise way he has of quantifying his work output in units of time (the Martha Graham Dance Company dancers took several weeks to learn 17 minutes of choreography, he says; the SDC dancers have been learning much faster — about 30 minutes in three weeks: “very fast, very solid”). During lunch break he charges down a corridor so fast that Review has to run to keep up, firing off instructions in French to an offsider, checking media schedules and consulting with another member of his small entourage (which, until yesterday, included designer Tassos Sofroniou, in Sydney on a 48-hour visit) before finally folding his lanky, elastic frame on to a chair in a tiny office and stopping to collect his thoughts — and catch his breath — for what seems like the first time during a frenetic stretch of eight-hour days in the studio.
In the flesh, the Greek choreographer, 43, is a coiled spring. Time is forever tight: he’s been creating at breakneck speed ever since his choreographic star took full flight about four years ago on the back of a string of well-received works for blue-chip dance companies across the world: the darkly aggressive Kosmos for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, the beautiful, swirling Echo for the Martha Graham company, the explosive Horizons for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and the elegant Glory for Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve, set to Handel excerpts and restaged at New York’s Joyce Theatre this year.
Along the way, there’s been an out-there Rite of Spring, complete with black loin cloths, Gstrings and kneepads, the quirky Wisteria Maiden, featuring kabuki masks, fans, white wigs and fighting sticks, and choreographic pieces for three operas (including for the premiere of a production of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux at the Theatres des Champs Elysees this month). Last year he took on the role of movement co-ordinator for his first big-budget Hollywood film, Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah. He runs thin hands through a rumpled quiff of dark hair. “Yes, it’s been a big few years.”
This month he will make his SDC debut with his new work Parenthesis as part of the company’s Louder than Words season. As with so much of his choreography — The New York Times’ dance critic Gia Kourlas notes that he likes to “keep his pulsating stage frantic and dense” — it features a trademark heightened busyness. It’s all relentlessly propelled by Tarride’s guttural hybrid score (which takes in everything from gritty, pulsing electronica to birdsong and rainforest sounds in a stream of what Tarride describes as “psychoacoustic” references: “every sound has in itself a pure visual reference that we can’t avoid”).
Foniadakis describes the work as an exploration of duality in intimate relationships, order and disorder: to illustrate this choreographically, he says, he began with a study of the pas de deux before breaking it down into fragments.
SDC dancer Charmene Yap, among others, is flung like a rubber doll between a cluster of men: Foniadakis says his aim was to “make a kind of extended diversion of how a duet can become multiplied and deconstructed and dispersed into many different possibilities, so when Charmene gets manipulated by five guys, it looks like it’s just one guy. This work is about tearing apart the idea of one, so that one becomes many.”
Music is a key part of his creative process: he pays tribute to Tarride, with whom he has worked since 2003. For this work, crafted to a tight deadline, he outlined his ideas to Tarride and told him to come up with a score; Tarride delivered “chunks” of music, which Foniadakis then set to movement. It’s an intriguingly modular creative process, but “I didn’t move things around because I respected his way of travelling through my story”. He pays tribute, too, to another long-term collaborator, Sofroniou, for the intricately structured costumes — tight bodices and flowing, pleated skirts in navies, neutrals and the odd turquoise flash.
Hailing from the small city of Ierapetra, Greece, Foniadakis trained at the State Dance School of Athens before receiving a Maria Callas Scholarship and embarking on further training at Ecole Rudra-Bejart Lausanne in Switzerland. In his dance career, he has performed with the Bejart Ballet Lausanne, Lyon Opera Ballet and Saburo Teshigawara/KARAS company, in works by Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Jiri Kylian, Bill T. Jones and others. In 2003 he formed his own company, Apotosoma, and in 2004 he premiered his first big piece, Selon Desir, with Geneva Ballet. He pays heartfelt tribute to the century-old Swiss company and its director Philippe Cohen who, he says, saw a previous small work he did at Lyon Opera Ballet while still a dancer, and “saw the skeleton of a choreographer”. He went on to make four works for the Geneva company, which he credits for giving him his start
Foniadakis has enjoyed his forays into opera and film — working with the latest technology for two months with Aronofsky and the Noah technical team to craft a sequence involving the animation of “half monster, half human” creatures was “incredible … I was like a child in Disneyland”. Ultimately, however, these projects lack creative depth, he says, because the vision of the choreographer takes a back seat to that of the director. So his creative sympathies remain fully engaged in crafting work for the stage.
He remains awed by his recent experience working with the “generous, committed” dancers of the storied Martha Graham Dance Company on Echo, which debuted this year: “That was amazing. I couldn’t believe when I got the invitation because it was like, oh my God, Martha Graham is historic in the dance community.” It doesn’t stop him, however, from being candid about “the practical reality of working with a company with little experience of working with anything else other than the Martha Graham style. I managed to make 17 minutes in two weeks, and a big part of it was not just creating but coaching, teaching them the principles of the movement, which took a lot of time.”
Another memorable high-profile experience came in working with Cedar Lake last year on Horizons. “It’s a totally different reality, it’s a rep company that has experience with worldwide choreographers, different styles, they are very smart, very strong.” Horizons, he says, “kind of solidified and secured my [reputation], gave me, I don’t know, a larger visibility internationally”.
Talk shifts to wider issues in dance: how does he respond to the criticism that dance — compared with, say, theatre — is too abstract and solipsistic, failing generally to address pressing political and social issues of the day? While there are exceptions — witness Bill Forsythe’s seminal anti-war piece Three Atmospheric Studies — this is predominantly a generation of dancemakers who disavow being citizen-artists, who prefer to keep ideology off the stage; Mikhail Baryshnikov once said that “artistic dissent is a beautiful lake with very thin ice”, referring to the dearth of enduring politically focused dance works.
Foniadakis believes politics in dance can be too creatively narrowing. Far better, he says, to focus on timeless universal human states — love or loss or death — than on specifics.
“It’s a very delicate matter, but my position is not to form or change political views or make comment,” he says. “I am very much more concerned about the human itself, about who we are and what our origins, and hopes and fears are. You know, I’m Greek, and right now my country is running into a national disaster, it is a political subject, and yes, I could have chosen to make a statement out of it. But once you have chosen to go this way, your work becomes somehow conditioned to such specific subjects. And when the political position changes, it stays the same, like a photograph.”
Foniadakis; in rehearsals with Sydney
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