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Balancing Affirmations: The Hellenic Festival in the round

This article was commissioned by the  Korean Arts Management Services and originally published in Korean  for – a database website for the global exchange of performing arts, a project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Republic of Korea.

“In this atmosphere of uncertainty and decline, the Festival must join battle with more heart than ever before to ward off entrenchment and artistic isolation.”

Yorgos Loukos Artistic Director, Hellenic Festival

Prometheus in Athens, Rimini Protokoll, Photo: Charis Bilios

Whilst reviewing the programming for the Hellenic Festival, I was momentarily concerned that I might end up watching primarily non-Greek productions in Greece.   After all as Yorgos Loukos, the Artistic Director of the festival highlights the presence of “legendary cast” of international luminaries in the performing arts arena.  The impressive line up in music, dance and theatre including visual arts with the likes of William Christie/ Les Arts Florissants[i],  Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra[ii], Peter Stein[iii], Thomas Ostermeier/Schaubuehne[iv], Krzysztof Warlikowski[v], Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal,[vi] Trisha Brown,[vii] Catherine Diverrès [viii]and William Kentridge,[ix] instantly put the question of economy forward.  Faced with huge budget cut and economic aridity, one can only marvel on how this festival can possibly afford, what can well be equated as artistic extravagance in Greece’s current reality?

The polarity of my practical yet star obsessed mind was debating between scepticism and excitement. I am naturally suspicious of the continuous or recurring patronage of imported and gigantic productions (names) in various festivals as if no other artists have emerged in the past decade within the immediate environment in question. At the same time, like a global consumerist, I am caught with the dilemma of addiction wanting to follow certain seasoned theatre makers.  As a ‘trained’ spectator, there lies a tendency to go with the ‘familiar and tested.’ Following shows that have repeatedly awed the specialised audiences, general public and the media seem to provide a cushion of guarantee in one way or another.   After all, the demand for certain “stars” did not come out of nowhere. The prevailing question though is where does this place Greek performing arts/artists in the structure on such huge international endeavour? How can the yet to be known find their spot in the glaring presence of the well-known personalities in the frame of such a festival? What type and how much audiences can a festival with an extensive programming attract over a three-month period?

Nowadays, international festivals, such as this one, need not only be succinct in setting the bar for its artistic vision but also be bold in striking the balance with numbers. Numbers that are very much linked to statistical data imperative both for its short-term and long-term survival as well as reputation i.e. number and type of productions, bankable names alongside the emerging creators, inclusion or creation of a whole gamut of inter-disciplinary activities, audience attendance, media coverage, sponsorships, partnerships, and other points that can be noted as an achievement.  The combined Athens and Epidaurus Festival [x]definitely has loads of experiences to draw from its 55 years of existence in dealing with these concerns.

In pursuit of fostering genuine contact between artists and audiences; creating a ‘space for optimism among the doom and gloom,’ under the artistic leadership of Loukos, the festival wittingly put the most notably international names alongside the established and experimental Greek performing artists.  In his message to the festival fanatics, he notes “In this atmosphere of uncertainty and decline, the Festival must join battle with more heart than ever before to ward off entrenchment and artistic isolation. It must throw its weight behind contemporary artistic expression to stop the reduction of Greek cultural life to antiquities and the products of mass culture.”  Established as a limited company 1998 for the organisation of music, theatre, and other cultural events, the Hellenic Festival is investing on the efforts to be at par with the major European festivals. Thus, it is not the least surprising that amidst the economic crisis, it continues to invite reputable names from abroad to address the perceived need of the local artistic community and Greek audiences to witness developments taking place within the international performing arts scene.

The resources of the company are derived from the regular, budgeted funding of the Greek state, a proportion of the revenues of the casinos on Mount Parnitha and Corfu, sponsorships, performance revenue and venue partnerships. The Greek Ministry of and the Greek Ministry of Economy and Finance are its shareholders. For a period of three months, the festival runs its events at the following venues: Odeon of Herodes Atticus[xi], Epidaurus Ancient Theare[xii]; Ancient Epidaurus Little Theatre[xiii], Megaron, Athens Concert Hall, Lycabettus Theatre;, Irini Pappas “Scholeion,”  Rex  Theatre- Kotopouli Stage[xiv], Benaki Museum[xv],  Bios[xvi], Faliro Indoor Sports Hall[xvii], Porta Theatre[xviii], Peiraios 260, Michael Cacoyiannis Foundation[xix], Old Elefsina Oil Mill and Parnasos Literary Society.  This year, the Hellenic Festival succeeded in presenting 147 events including 51 theatre, dance and music productions. With ticket prices ranging between 5 to 50 Euro, it managed to attract 200,000 audiences from the broad sector of society.

The organisers boasts of the Greek productions of Vassilis Papavassiliou, Takis Tzamargias, Vico Nahmias, blitz company, Active Member and the 18 Beaufort Theatre Company that awed its audiences.  The festival proudly notes the sold out performances of Angels in America, directed by Nikos Mastorakis); Labour directed by Lefteris Vogiatzis and Xenia Kalogeropoulou’s Come on! As well as the performances by Greek musicians, Dora Bakopoulou and Vasilis Varvaresos, choreographers/dancers Marianna Kavallieratou, Maria Kolliopoulou and Katerina Papageorgiou that captured the public attention.

Beyond the above-noted statistics, the festival can take credit for its remarkable choice of commissioning the Berlin-based theatre collective, Rimini Protokoll [xx]to work on the production “Prometheus in Athens.” It represents a highly provocative action that reflects the current situation in Greece through the different faces and members of its society represented in the project.  While it zooms in to the internal marrows of Greece, the production directly fulfills collaborative opportunities for young Greek theatre makers to be exposed to fresh methods employed by foreign directors, and vice-versa.  It exceeds the festival’s promise of bridging the artists and the audiences as it added a new layer that actively involved real-people in the society.

Backstage with the Greeks

Photo:Vanini Belarmino

A day before the premiere of the documentary-theatre production “Prometheus in Athens” led by Rimini Protokoll, I found myself observing the sleepless yet enthusiastic young Greek staff members as well as some of the 103 “real-life” actors backstage.  The Odeon of Herodus Atticus is an amphitheatre located right below the Acropolis serves as one of the 15 stages of the festival.  Under glaring 37-degree heat, taking momentary shield in the air-conditioned dressing room among those who have spent 72 hours working (with occasional naps) in the theatre I took note of the unperformed lines off-stage with the set designer, Guy Stefanou and one of the assistant directors, Christina Polychroniadou.  When I enquired about their feeling about the whole process of working with foreign directors within the context of the Hellenic Festival, Stefanou says, “I feel that I just learned how set-design should be done.  In Greece, you have to look for everything.  The cost of the sets is equated with the number of seats in the theatre. With the Germans, at least with Rimini Protokoll, you can work the way you want.  In comparison to the system here, ideas that you work on often turn out or remain only as ideas.” Polychroniadou supports this statement by saying, “Everything is open. We can discuss things. And it is not only between us.” The committed yet underpaid Greek team, who worked on the nitty-gritty of the production from research to casting, production and stage management to the realisation for five months together with the Berlin-based artistic team, expressed their satisfaction on finding another perspective on looking at Greece, more specifically on country’s capital.  Both expressed their optimism towards the significant approach of working with foreign directors.  The conversation continues with Stefanou adding, “They have a great talent to deconstruct everything. They believe in the people and this gives them the power.  In many cases, directors are very pushy and egocentric.  And it’s out of control.” Before rushing out of for a production meeting, Polychroniadou comments, “They know how to manage and keep them together.”

With only four rehearsals prior to the actual performance, the air of camaraderie and pride that developed amongst the people taking part in the production was quite powerful.  Backstage one can find Athenians from different walks of life, varying ages, sizes, profession, political views, orientation, and so on.  One of the performers, Anne Marie, a humanitarian working with women who are victims of trafficking shares in excitement “I am extremely proud that they have a voice in this performance (referring to the abuse women she works with).”

As the Greeks have been raving about the work process that has been greatly attributed to their German collaborators, I asked Helgard Haug, one of the directors of Rimini Protokoll on how she views the cultural nuances within the production. She answers, “There is no specific culture for such staging. This opens up existential questions towards the sense of life. Making them look at their society, making them confess not in a negative or conventional way but to have a voice and have an audience.”

On the day of the performance, a crowd of over 5,000 people gathered in the theatre and applauded their own personal stories embodied in the 103 Athenians: 48 males and 53 females; 100 registered and 3 not registered.  It was a theatrical piece presented in an ancient stage, performed by life experts: an architect, prison guard, civil servant, nationalist, activist, astrophysicist, human resource manager, cleaning lady, humanitarian, lawyer, mothers, fathers, elderly people, disabled, children and even babies. The cameraman documenting the performance comments, “It’s the first time that Prometheus came to me and it’s not in the ancient times.”

The audience of Rimini Protokoll’s “Prometheus in Athens” at Odeon of Herodus Atticus. Photo: Charis Bilios

Prometheus, known in Greek mythology as someone who brought fire to the mortals and severely punished for his action, came to life to a wave of people at the closing of the Athens Festival 2010. It rightfully succeeded in lighting the fire for its artists, audiences and general public altogether, a promise that endings mark only fresh beginnings. As Greece stands with a long cultural tradition, it is only fitting that such festival is sustained to amplify its image as a leading innovator in propagating a progressive performing arts community in dialogue with the society and the rest of the world.

About the Writer:

Vanini Belarmino is a Berlin-based producer and curator specialising in interdisciplinary exchange and cross-border collaborations. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Belarmino&Partners, an international project management and promotions consultancy for arts and culture  <



[i] William Christie/

[iv] Thomas Ostermeier/Schaubuehne <

[vi] Pina Bausch/Tanzwuppertal<

[x] To read more on the history of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, visit<

[xii] Epidaurus Ancient Theare<

[xiv] Kotopouli Theatre

[xix] Michael Cacoyannis Foundation<

[xx] Rimini Protokoll<

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