Yannis Adoniou: Learning By Doing

Yannis Adoniou Sacramento Ballet 2010
Yannis Adoniou Sacramento Ballet 2010.

How might one describe the creature that is Yannis Adoniou? I could try by speaking of a Mediterranean sun, glowing and glistening, nourishing and radiant. I might then suggest the world as a stage, upon which edges are publicly explored, surveyed, challenged, redefined. I’d probably conclude with theories of convergence; portals easily overlooked when viewed through apathetic eyes, a kaleidoscopic mixture of talent, intellect, beauty, power, simplicity, sensuality, curiosity and chance.

Born in Athens, Greece, on the fourth of May, to a vivacious tribe of aesthetically minded folk; Yanni’s family tree includes an impressive lineage of nonprofessional artists. His great-great-grandfather was a performer, his uncle a traditional Greek musician, and his father a passionate social dancer. Yanni’s one-year-older sister Louisa, is a talented art-hobbyist as well, painting, dancing and playing various musical instruments with remarkable skill. Much like her younger brother, Louisa is diversely talented.

Not particularly interested in academic study, Yanni’s greatest lessons have been ascertained “outside of the books”, through observation and doing. By the age of five, he was a dedicated painter, decorating his sister’s school books with drawings and impeccably transcribed texts. Many were astonished by this, believing Adoniou to be some sort of intellectual genius wunderkind. In actuality, Yannis was merely reproducing examples of visual form, with virtually no understanding towards the meaning behind these words. At the age of thirteen, Yannis began going out to parities and clubs, surrounded by incredible music, food and dance. When Yannis was sixteen his parents divorced, his father remarried, and another daughter was born. Also at sixteen, Yannis dropped out of high school, enrolling as exceptional talent at KSOT, the Greek national school for dance in Athens.

Yannis studied at KSOT for eighteen months before auditioning for both the Rosella Hightower Centre de Danse Classique in Cannes, and the John Neumeier Ballet School in Hamburg. Yannis ultimately chose to study in Hamburg, where he lived for the following three years. “I’m the only one in my family who has followed the professional path of art making, taking responsibility through art to live my life on this Earth. While I feel like my relationship with family has involved exposing them to art, they all naturally have their own individual inner voices, and I really enjoy this. The first time my sister came to visit me in San Francisco, she asked me to teach her how to paint. She paints two dimensional, flat, and I said to her, I’m gong to show you how to create dimension, but your style is fantastic, I wouldn’t change it. So my sister went back and started painting icons, and fantastic, it was really beautiful.”

In ballet school, Yannis was a diamond in the rough, not so technically advanced in comparison to other classmates. He excelled naturally in requisite choreography classes, recognized early on as possessing exceptional directorial talent and imagination. This was a a discovery which would prove to alter the course of Yanni’s life. “Choreography was a fantastic way for me to express myself, because when you’re learning technique, its all about you adapting to the form, it’s nothing about you personally. Like when I was in school, I had the books but I really learned by observing. Looking back it was the same system, choreography was what I learned outside of academia.” While in Hamburg, Yannis also found his future artistic and romantic partner in a young Finnish dancer named Tomi Paasonen. Tomi and Yannis became inseparable, spending every possible moment in each other’s company.  After graduating from ballet school, Yannis went on to work with the State Theater of Osnabrück, at the time a burgeoning dance-theater, specializing in experimental performance. For this audition, Yannis prepared several ballet excerpts, though the moment which truly secured his place occurred upon the director’s request, when Yannis sang an improvised Greek song while impersonating Marilyn Monroe. Adoniou stayed in Osnabrück for one year before moving to Bonn, where he returned to his classical pedigree as company member of the State Ballet. While living in Bonn, Yannis also created several original works, receiving critical praise. During this time, Tomi was dancing with the Hamburg Ballet; he and Yannis visited each other every weekend like clockwork.

Adoniou and Paasonen, Athens 1990. Photo credit: Holger Badekow
Adoniou and Paasonen, Athens 1990. Photo credit: Holger Badekow.

During a visit to Frankfurt, Yannis met Alonzo King, director of San Francisco based Lines Contemporary Ballet. Alonzo invited Yannis to join Lines, and in 1992 he moved to San Francisco. “I think it was the perfect match because I’m a very intuitive person, this learning by doing, that was perfect for Alonzo. I never refused anything, it was always: Can you do this? Sure. It was a great partnership, I think I gave him quite a lot as he gave me quite a lot. I remember doing this work for the first time, I never thought that anything wrong could happen. That was fantastic, to actually be on stage feeling so happy, never nervous. The work allowed that, because I was the creator, the first hand.” Yannis danced with Lines for seven seasons, performing many leading parts with dance parter Katy Warner. Warner, a principal and founding member of Lines, was already in her forties when she met twenty-two year old Adoniou. Katy challenged Yannis in ways none had before. “It was fantastic, having the trust of the best, most knowledgeable dancers, to be able to tap into work that’s so beyond my technique, to dance more spiritually.”  In addition to performing with Lines, Yannis performed with the San Francisco Opera Ballet, and for eight years, taught dance at the Dominican University through Lines. “It was kind of an ironic thing, I became a professor of dance without having finished high school. That, I think describes a little bit my path and interest, definitely characteristic of learning by doing.”

'Solo for Yannis', Colaboration with Tomi Paasonen and Alonzo King. San Francisco 2008. Photo credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang
‘Solo for Yannis’, Colaboration with Tomi Paasonen and Alonzo King. San Francisco 2008. Photo credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang.

In 1995, Tomi joined Yannis and Lines in San Francisco, for one season only before moving to Chicago. Two years later, after a tragic career-ending accident, Tomi returned to San Francisco, and moved back in with Yannis, who was still dancing with Lines. In 1998, Yannis and Tomi joined forces once again, and the dance-theater collective KUNST-STOFF was born. “We found most of our dancers first through the dance center where I was working. They were all kind of drop-outs themselves, rejects from other places, Noel was found on the street. Every person involved, the technical collaborators as well, they were all equally crazy. There were doors and windows, right and left that we could open to be in these exciting places and worlds. Like Camp KUNST-STOFF, Burning Man, performances all over the city. Bars, clubs, there were opportunities 24-7. Doing multi-media video works. The first piece I did, I projected a vintage 8-millimeter porn film that I found lying around the house. San Francisco was all about having fun and not being censored, the work was always presented in a very good quality.”

Continuing, “I had started going to discos and clubs when I was thirteen. I’d already done that before I went to Hamburg. I partied, I went to drag shows, I’d seen things you know. So when I came to San Francisco it was exciting, but I had done even more exciting things by the time I was sixteen. For Tomi it was different. In his teens he was this perfect ballet boy, for him San Francisco was freedom. He really let go, and started finding life. I think as terrible as his injury was, at the same time that was what he needed in order to grasp who he really is.” Timing also played a big part in KUNST-STOFF’s explosive arrival. The Bay Area was a tech world epicenter in the late-nineties, and KUNST-STOFF was known for large scale multimedia productions. A considerable percentage of private funding came to KUNST-Stoff directly through tech industry donors.

KUNST-STOFF at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with dancers Spencer Dickhaus and Suzanne Lappas. San Francisco 2009. Photo credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang
KUNST-STOFF at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. San Francisco 2009. Photo credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Tomi’s visa expired, prompting a move to Berlin in 2000, which left a majority of everyday KUNST-STOFF duties under Yanni’s supervision. “When you are different and when you don’t have support its a liability, and I believe that to whomever I’m working with I have a responsibility. It was a miracle how I did it every year. I started narrowing down and transforming KUNST-STOFF into more of a conventional dance company. This is where I started thinking touring, residencies, all that stuff. I wanted to organize this thing, see what it is, and put a stamp on it. That was the work, to stabilize KUNST-STOFF as a dance company. A lot of the success of the early days was based on these fresh, abandoned and free-spirited ideas. When we started playing the big stages like the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, suddenly we became sophisticated, grown up, and the whole thing changed. Even some of our friends didn’t like us anymore, they thought that we were too institutional. Success can change your picture in a community overnight. People saw me as a presenter, I became Mister Yannis, I hated it. People started sending me DVD’s, I was like: No, if you want to work here just come and meet me in person. I’m not auditioning people, I’m not curating, I’m not telling you what to do. I didn’t ask to be, I had to be the executive director. I think it’s important in whatever you do to name it and take a responsibility, then you have to serve it, and I did. I have done for a lot of people, I have supported many careers.”

While very much inspired by “mentors” such as Alonzo King and William Forsythe, Yannis remains cautious in receiving influence. “I grew up with no interest in public stars, I don’t believe in fame overnight, I never placed star posters in my bedroom. I’m not jealous, I’m not competitive. I’m not interested in perform to perform. I’m interested in when I perform, how can I feel things on stage, to be on stage and feel every single moment, to be present, and learn from it. It doesn’t come through ego, it comes through listening, service and acceptance. Mastering the elements of creation, and also the dialogue between performer and viewer – I think that this is what’s beautiful about performing. To me the most moving performance I remember, I was crying, was Madama Butterfly at San Francisco Opera. It was not because the story is fantastic, the story is absolutely fantastic and tragic because you know already what’s going to happen, but this woman had the opportunity to go through this for hours. I was crying for her because that human being takes the responsibility in that moment to sing for all of us, for all the Madama Butterflies, for all these women, for all these boys, for all these husbands, for that she was a heroic person. Her technique and all it employs was there to support that idea. That’s what I’m interested in. When that can happen, I’m like absolutely hallelujah!”

Adoniou in rehearsal for L'Orfeo with Davinia Rodríguez. Seattle Opera 2012
Adoniou in rehearsal for L’Orfeo with Davinia Rodríguez. Seattle Opera 2012.

Yannis has choreographed productions for Seattle Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, and West Edge Opera in Berkeley. He has worked on Baroque classics such as Orpheus and Eurydice, romantic era tour de forces such as Aida and Samson et Delilah, as well as the American premiere of Bounjour M. Gauguin, by Fabrizio Carlone. “When directing opera the music is the platform, the story is organized for you. With the music and the story in place, one can further layer the operatic spectacle. Both singing and dance are very physical art forms, and make for great partners. Voice and movement start from breath. When I work in opera, I support the singers by staging them with movements that tell their stories and also support the voice. For the dancers in opera, I ask them to be more like singers and use their ears to motivate and guide their movements.”

November 2013 in San Francisco marked both the fifteenth consecutive home season for KUNST-STOFF, as well as the company’s bittersweet farewell. Gone are the days of the Bay Area claiming KUNST-STOFF as it’s own. Yannis has opted to take KUNST-STOFF permanently on the road, newly reinventing the company as KUNST-STOFF Productions. Now settling back into his native Athens, Yannis plans for the company to exist where ever the day takes him and his laptop. I had the good fortune of joining Yannis, Tomi, and company for the retrospective, three consecutive evenings of performances and revelry. Being with them was as it always is, inspiring beyond measure. A few days later I caught up with Yannis at KUNST-STOFF Arts. Seated on a beige couch in the asymmetrically shaped basement studio, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center district, an unmistakeable aroma of Burger King french fries wafted through an adjacent hallway as we hashed through the history of his life and my participation in it. Much like Yanni’s compositions, our discussion weaved itself into a tapestry of anecdotal, nostalgic, obscure yet heartfelt narrative. The following is what he left me with:

Yannis Adoniou, Daiane Lopes Da Silva and Bruno Augusto perform 'Les Sylphides'. San Francisco 2012. Photo credit: Dazzle Rowe
Yannis Adoniou, Daiane Lopes Da Silva and Bruno Augusto perform ‘Les Sylphides’. San Francisco 2012. Photo credit: Dazzle Rowe.

“I’ve been living in the U.S. for 15 years, but I am Greek, that’s what my characteristics are, and that’s where the conversation is. I’ll be going back through Hamburg to Athens, the way I came. I’m looking forward to being home. People who know me from Lines, know me as Yannis who was twenty-two years old and didn’t speak much English. Its kind of crazy how much I’ve established out of knowing basically nothing. As I get older, I want to become more knowledgeable, I want to become more free. I don’t see myself getting older and letting go, its the opposite, it’s an internal logic. I think if you feel from the inside, it will manifest, it will shape. There’s something about taking time that I want to experience. In those moments when we go out of the ordinary, where we’re breaking the path, this is what we remember, this is what life is based on. When everything is on schedule, on time, there’s nothing to remember, It doesn’t leave an imprint. I think that choreography, or the creation or the timing is what moves you along. In between is you and the present and the moment that you’re learning from, even when you’re on stage. So the question was specifically, what’s my mission? I think it’s understanding still. I need to take time to understand what I’ve got before I move on. I think that’s super important. I always feel like I have to die and come back to life. You now what I’m saying? You have to do that. I’m very excited to have KUNST-STOFF Productions, to be able to work on projects around the world. Even if I do two big projects a year, that’s fantastic. The whole thing is problem solving. A brain can say well, I can’t do that because of this and this and this and this and that, you have to identify it. If you don’t deal with that you are fucked. So to identify where the problems or the conflicts are, its very important, step number one. Step number two is to be able to find solutions, step three is to do your dream. I think its like these three things, its a good one, you should write that. Its the three steps of life, its a code:

YA: Step 1 – identify the dream, destination. 

       Step 2 – Realize conflicts, logistics. 

       Step 3 – Find solution and execute, live your dream.

VS: Celebrate?

YA: Well, celebrate after you do what you have to. 

VS: I’d like to think that the celebration is in the execution.

YA: Good for you.

VS: Thanks, Yannis.

YA: Thanks Veronika.

Yannis Adoniou in '98-13' by Yannis Adoniou. KUNST-STOFF 15th Anniversary season retrospective, San Francisco 2013. Photo Credit: Dazzle Rowe
Yannis Adoniou in ’98-13′ by Yannis Adoniou. KUNST-STOFF 15th anniversary season retrospective, San Francisco 2013. Photo Credit: Dazzle Rowe

*** Cover Photo: Yannis Adoniou, Salt Flats, Utah 2011. Photo Credit: CP Rowe 

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