Yannis Adoniou: The Art of Doing

[Photo Credit: CPRowe]

Try to describe Yannis Adoniou, and you might liken him to the Mediterranean sun: a radiant, fusion-inducing force, contained only by its own volition. But why did the sun learn to shine? It shines because it does. And likewise, Yanni’s luminance ignites in the art of doing. 

Yannis was born in Athens, Greece, to a “tribe” of nonprofessional artists; who, for generations, have experienced the world through creativity’s kaleidoscopic lens. Yannis was painting by the age of five—his older sister Louisa’s schoolbooks, a canvas for his earliest drawings and texts. While Yannis had no inkling as to what they meant, his instinct compelled him to copy visual form.

At 13, Yannis discovered nightclubs and parties—a strange yet seductive world where expression knows no bounds. At 16, he dropped out of high school and enrolled at KSOT, the National School of Dance in Athens. 18 months later, Yannis moved to Germany, to train at the prestigious Hamburg Ballet School. There, he developed a world-class technique and realized his passion for choreography.

“Choreography was a fantastic way for me to express myself. Because when you’re learning technique, it’s 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.

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

At ballet school, Yannis gained far more than formal education. He found his future artistic and romantic partner in Tomi Paasonen, a young Finnish dancer and fellow classmate. Once their respective worlds collided, the two became inseparable. Even when living in different cities, countries, or continents, they found their way back to one another.

Yannis left Hamburg and moved a few hours south to dance at the State Theater of Osnabrück (a then burgeoning theater specializing in experimental work). One year later, he moved to Bonn, where he danced with the State Ballet. In his spare time, Yannis choreographed original works and garnered critical acclaim. Then Yannis traveled to Frankfurt, where he met Alonzo King, Founder/Director of Lines Contemporary Ballet. After seeing Yannis perform, King invited him to join his company. Yannis accepted the offer, moved to San Francisco in 1992, and danced with Lines for seven seasons.

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

“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.”

During this time, Yannis also performed with the San Francisco Opera Ballet, and taught dance at the Dominican University of California.

“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.”

Yannis and Tomi joined forces again in 1998. This time in San Francisco, where they founded KUNST-STOFF, a contemporary dance-theater collective. Together, they created large-scale, site-specific, multimedia productions, and cultivated a diverse community of artists. In a time when the Bay Area was still acquiring its tech-world-epicenter status, KUNST-STOFF merged experimental arts subculture with the new digital wave. Their performances popped up whenever, wherever: from theaters, to bars, to beaches, to the main stage on Burning Man’s infamous playa.

“We found most of our dancers first through the dance center where I was working. They were all kind of dropouts themselves, rejects from other places… 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…

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
Photo Credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

In 2005, KUNST-STOFF fell under Yanni’s immediate supervision. As the cost of living and working in San Francisco became increasingly inhospitable, he transformed the collective into more of a conventional dance company, performing at some of the city’s larger venues. Many disagreed with this direction—they felt the group had become too institutional—but Yannis felt a great responsibility to see KUNST-STOFF survive.

At the same time, he maintained an active performing career, while choreographing productions for Seattle Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, and other regional west coast houses.

November 2013 marked KUNST-STOFF’s 15th consecutive home season and the company’s bittersweet San Francisco farewell. I joined Yannis and Tomi for their three-night retrospective; and then I caught up with Yannis at the now former KUNST-STOFF Arts space. Yannis was only a few days away from leaving the US, and returning permanently to his native Athens. To get there, he’d travel through Hamburg, opposite the way he came decades before.

As an impromptu parting gift, Yannis left me with this:

“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…

VS: And celebration?

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

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 currently performs throughout Greece, the Middle East, and Germany. For information on Yannis and KUNST-STOFF, visit www.kunst-stoff.org.

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