Photo by Chelsea Rowe

KUNST-STOFF's New Work Reimagines Dance

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

San Francisco Monthly Jean Schiffman "This morning I dreamed that I was unable to see," says Yannis Adoniou, the choreographer, artistic director, and cofounder â?? with Finnish-born, Berlin-based choreographer â?? Tomi Paasonen â?? of San Francisco's innovative contemporary dance company, KUNST-STOFF. Lithe and trim with short black hair and glasses, Adoniou is chatting in a conference room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He has danced on the stage of YBCA's theater many times, with Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, but now he is preparing for his own small troupe's debut here. Adoniou describes his dream, in his distinctive Greek accent: "I was at a wedding, and [aerialist] Joanna Haigood was there: she had made a really beautiful cake. Then I realized that I was blind, and I had to wake up and open my eyes to make sure I can see. It was weird! For the past year, as an ODC resident artist, Adoniou has immersed himself in the world of the blind and sight-impared. As We Close Their Eyes, which emphasizes the non-visual aspects of modern dance, premieres on a program with In-Sight, a rep piece from 2004. The evening is part of YBCA's Bay Area Now series, which showcases multidisciplinary works by the area's most exciting artists. "I was reading about a museum [in Greece]." explains Adoniou, of the inspiration for Close/Eyes, "where blind people can actually go and touch the art. And I started crying; I got very emotional. Museums, it's always do not touch, do not go there. So for me it was such a liberation, such a beautiful idea." In conceptualizing Close/Eyes, he brought his dancers to San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Imapred, a resource center, and he invited some of LightHouse's members to attend rehearsals, during which some of the dancers were blindfolded. He also went to Greece to see the museum he'd read about. Development proceeded, with collaborators Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri (sound) and Patty Ann Farrell (lights). As a scenic element, a video with some text will track the everyday lives of two blind San Franciscans: "We follow them [with cameras]," explains Adoniou, "talk to them, see how they respond [to the world]. They're very capable ... and so aware." Dancers move to a sound score composed of familiar noises. "Marianthi uses classical instruments as objects and daily objects as classical instruments," says Adoniou. "It's a perfect match for us." At times, a voiceover describes the dancers' movements. The idea is to open up the world of dance to senses other than sight, stimulating both the tactile and even possibly the olfactory (once, for a show, Adoniou had dancers spray rosewater everywhere). Patrons both sighted and blind will initially mingle with dancers on a pitch-black stage. Buty beyond that, Adoniou wants to discover how a change in our capabilities, in our established way of perceiving the world, can unexpectedly enhance our sensitivity and awareness, both physical and spiritual. Most of KUNST-STOFF's highly trained dancers (in German, kunst means art; stoff, things) have been with the company since its inception in 1998 and are used to Adoniou's penchant for exploring the unknown. The choreographer himself started out doing traditional Greek folk dances and disco. Told he had natural talent, he took his first ballet class at 16 - despite the objections of his father, who threatened to jump off the Acropolis if his son turned dancer - and, soon after, left Athens to train at Hamburg Ballet School, choreographing at age 19. In 1993, at 23, he came to San Francisco to work with LINES Ballet, having met Alonzo King in Frankfurt. "The work asked for a lot of intuition and trust, and my life so far has been all about intuition and trust," Adoniou says. "I always follow my heart." Later he moved back to Europe to hone a more structured, intellectually thought-out approach to choreography, and over time danced with the Bonn State Ballet, as well as other companies in Europe and New York and with Sarah Shelton Mann's Contraband. In 1998 he won a Bay Area Isadora Duncan award for outstanding achievement in performance. "I think Yannis is a true seeker, like most artists," comments Alonzo King. "Yannis the wonderful choreographer Tomi strive to have no artifice. Their aim is to get to the essential nature of things, just as a scientist tries to get at what's behind phenomena." In In-Sight, performers dance in relation to a backdrop of Cara Judea Alhadeff's huge and varied photographic projections of nude bodies, which cast stunning colors, light and shadow. Some of the dancers too are at times nude, limbs forming mesmerizing patterns as they alternately crawl and soar. "Birth, lost innocence, oppression - the big themes are all there, never hammering the viewer into obvious interpretations." wrote dance critic Rachel Howard in the San Francisco Chronicle when In-Sight, with eclectic sound score by Jethro DeHart, first premiered. "Each piece that KUNST-STOFF does is different," comments Angela Mattox, YBCA's associate performing arts curator. "KUNST-STOFF has really emerged as a leader in terms of experimentation. They're a new generation and a new voice. There's that sense of risk with them. Yannis is out there seeing a lot of work, and he's absorbed a lot, like a sponge. He's always curious. "I once thought I might become a Greek Orthodox priest, because I like the ritual," says Adoniou. "If you go back in time, in Greece or India or Egypt, dance was entertainment but it was also ritual, something you feel close to your spine. I do believe being an artist, you are a preacher. I remember Alonzo once said, 'If you change one person's life, you have achieved.' Martha Graham said the same thing." Has any performance ever changed his life? Yes, Alonzo King's Without Wax, danced by the late Tracy-Kai Maier from the San Francisco Ballet. "Her use of her head and upper body, and her spirit onstage, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life," sighs Adoniou. "I remember sitting there with Tomi and squeezing his knee at times. All the people I've been attracted to as performers - Alonzo, William Forsythe [of Ballet Frankfurt], Sara Shelton Mann [and others] - they all believe in ecstasy. Everything you do is to go to this place. When I choreograph, if I can create something that the dancer can take to that level... It doesn't even have to be me, I'm happy when I can provide the space, the playground, where my dancers can achieve that ... [and] I want everyone who comes to open their senses and feel something deep."