Yannis Adoniou: The Art of Doing

[Photo Credit: CPRowe]

Try to describe dancer Yannis Adoniou, and you might liken him to the Mediterranean sun. An expressive, fusion-inducing force contained by its own volition. A star who burned prior to known time. Golden and warm. Radiant. Complete. Yannis too grows brighter as he beams, luminous in the art of doing.

Yannis was born in Athens, Greece, to a tribe of nonprofessional artists. He started painting when he was five, pictures and texts in his sister’s schoolbooks. With no understanding of what it meant, he copied visual form, translating lines from one canvas to another, diligently and often. At thirteen, Yannis discovered disco, a world where expression knows no bounds. His first experimental period in the public eye pushing parameters of physical movement. At sixteen, he enrolled at the Greek National School of Dance. At seventeen, he moved to Germany. There, he studied technique and choreography at the Hamburg Ballet School.

Choreography was a way for me to express myself, because when you’re learning technique, it’s all about you adapting to the technique. It’s nothing about you. Like when I was in school, I had the books but I really learned by observing.

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

In Hamburg, Yanni’s legacy took shape—he found a partner in Finnish classmate Tomi Paasonen. Once the two collided, they symbiotically aligned, both on and offstage. They’ve stayed this way throughout their adult lives, even when in different countries. Whether by intention or by chance, Tomi and Yannis find their way to one another. 

After completing ballet school, Yannis danced for one year at the avant-garde Osnabrück Theater. Then he moved to Bonn, where he performed classic repertoire at the prestigious State Ballet. During this time, he also choreographed original work that garnered critical acclaim. Then on a trip to Frankfurt, he met Alonzo King, founder of Lines Ballet in San Francisco. Impressed by Yanni’s commanding, fluid style, King offered him a contract. Yannis arrived in San Francisco in 1992 and danced with Lines for seven seasons.

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.

Once established in San Francisco’s cultural scene, Yannis pursued other passions. He was a principal dancer in the San Francisco Opera Ballet. He choreographed singers at Seattle Opera. He also taught dance, levels beginner to advanced, in schools all over the country. Teaching wasn’t something Yannis planned to do. It happened somewhat spontaneously.

One morning Alonzo entered class, and without asking me he said, “Today, Yannis is teaching.” I took the challenge. It was kind of an ironic thing. Later on, I became a professor of dance. That, I think describes a little bit my path and interest—definitely characteristic of learning by doing.

Lines Ballet. San Francisco, 2008. Photo Credit: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Yannis and Tomi re-joined forces in 1998, when they assembled a community of diverse artists and founded dance-theater collective Kunst-Stoff. The German name—meaning either “art stuff” or “plastic”—encapsulated the duo’s misson: to manufacture product from unrelated parts; to make one art from many sources. Together, they mounted site-specific, multimedia events, mixing every conceivable creative medium; synthesizing counterculture with subconscious dream state, and the impending new tech wave. Quickly, Kunst-Stoff became a Bay Area arts darling with performances popping up all over the place: from theaters to bars, back alleys to beaches, pizzerias to Burning Man’s mainstage.

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. It was completely open, and uncensored, and fun, and it was always presented in a very good quality.

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

With the turn of the millennium, as costs in San Francisco surged, Yannis took over Kunst-Stoff operations. His first order of business was to stabilize it, so he transformed the collective into a dance company. Tours, residencies, performances in formal venues—this was Yanni’s model. He ran Kunst-Stoff in this formation for thirteen years, attracting international attention.

Finally priced out of San Francisco, Kunst-Stoff’s curtain call became reality. November 2013 marked the company’s fifteenth home season and Bay Area farewell. I attended their three-night retrospective at ODC, then caught up with Yannis the following day. We met at Kunst-Stoff Arts, a sprawling second floor space above a Civic Center district Burger King. Yannis was a few days away from leaving the US for permanent return to his native Athens. Flying back, he’d stopover in Hamburg—exactly opposite the way he came. Yannis made sure to note that point. A mild smile set across his face. Even in the most melancholy times, symmetry is satisfying.

I’ve been living in the US for fifteen years, but I am Greek. That’s what my characteristics are, and that’s where the conversation is. It’s kind of crazy how much I’ve established out of knowing basically nothing.

It was the end of an era, an empire’s fall. We tripped nostalgic down memory lane. Decades of passion, sweat, and pain lingered on an empty dance floor. By that time, Yannis and I had known each other for a while. This may have been our last goodbye. He wasn’t quite ready to let San Francisco go, though eager to begin anew. “So, what’s your mission now?” I asked. The question wasn’t for our interview. True to form in his learning-by-doing way, here’s what Yannis said:

Photo Credit: Sacramento Ballet

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.

So the question was specifically, what’s my mission?
I think it’s understanding still.

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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