Dance with Carlos Acosta

In contrast to the depressing news from Athens I have been reporting lately, a magical evening awaited us at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus,  where the star dancer Carlos Acosta and his company performed for one night only.

 

 

At the entrance to the ancient theatre a huge full moon greeted us—during the performance we could see it rising slowly above the stone walls.

 

 

Despite a brisk breeze which meant people were wearing jackets (the side effects of a weather front aptly named “Xenophon”), the stands were packed with an enthusiastic audience.

 

People still trickling in

The performance itself exceeded all expectations. The music was a mixture of contemporary, flamenco, and tribal African, and the repertory included works by the Belgium-based Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Cuban choreographer Marianela Boán and company member Raúl Reinoso. The last piece was accompanied by a medley of old Rolling Stones favorites, such as Little Red Rooster, Lady Jane and Play With Fire.

The 25-member Danza Acosta company is made up of a racially diverse group of young people who combine grace with unbounded energy and exude joie de vivre. They are agile, well-trained young Cubans, many of whom gave up good positions in prominent dance troupes to follow the call of a national hero. Acosta is undoubtedly the star of the show, but he didn’t hog the limelight. Everyone got their chance to shine.

 

 

Acosta was born in a very poor neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, on  June 2, 1973. He was the 11th and last child in his family, and grew up occasionally shoeless, with no toys. He was over-energetic and his father, a truck driver, was worried he’d end up on the street, so he made him audition for the national ballet school, which was state-funded and also provided students with a free lunch. From there he rose to the top, finally joining the Royal Ballet in Britain, where he became an international star. He stayed 17 years, and retired at 43, to form his own company—back in his beloved country, which he’d left but never forgotten.

 

 

We felt privileged to be there on such a beautiful evening, which was a rare reminder of the benefits of living in Greece.

 

 

Parts of the proceeds of the show will be donated to the organisation Coeurs pour Tous Hellas  (Hearts for All), set up in 2015 for Greek children with congenital heart disease, which has so far supported 106 children with the disease.

Awed by the abstract

When artist Zao Wou-Ki left China to come to Paris in 1948, his whole family gathered on the quay in Shanghai to bid him farewell. They were dressed in western clothes, the men in coats and felt hats, the women with Lauren Bacall hairstyles, flat shoes and leather gloves. His wife Lalan was coming with him, but they left behind their son with his grandparents, because they were only planning to stay for two years. By the time he came back to visit his mother, it was 1972 and his beloved father had died four years earlier.

 

 

Zao Wou-Ki had to wait two years to get his passport and visa, and months to get a passage—boats to Europe were rare. He disembarked in Marseilles after thirty six days of a voyage that filled him with boredom. But he was determined—he felt he had to get away from China or he would die.

 

Hommage à Claude Monet

 

Zao had been obsessed with painting since childhood, a pursuit encouraged by his father, a banker. At fourteen, he left home to study at the school of fine art in Hang-Cheou, 300km from home. But he felt stifled by Chinese art, which he thought mired in convention and rules. He wanted to free himself and his creativity. So he ended up in Montparnasse, where he remained. He did, however, travel extensively to New York and Hong Kong.

 

Le vent pousse la mer

 

In Paris, Zao was influenced by major artists of his time, such as Paul Klee, Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, and developed close relationships with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, among many others. But he was also inspired by poetry and music. Two of his best friends were poet Henri Michaud and composer Edgar Varèse. His work became increasingly freer, and he produced his marvelous glowing large works.

 

In memory of May

 

It is difficult to reproduce the depth, subtlety of color, and brilliance of these paintings in photographs, especially ones taken on a phone. But this is art to soothe and elevate the soul.

 

 

Across his career, Zao sought to create works that captured ‘the presence of nature’. He had rejected the classical conventions of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, but, by 1971, he returned to the brush-and-ink technique in which he was trained in China, with work that reflected its sources in Chinese traditions. Zao explained in a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, ‘Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.’ He added, ‘Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest origins.’

 

 

Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime. He died in 2013.

 

The temple of the Han

Exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris.

The silence of the girls

Greek children are brought up on mythology—the shenanigans of the gods on Mount Olympus, the battles of the Trojan war, the travels and adventures in the Odyssey. However, although I knew how the story ends, I really enjoyed this backstage view of the Iliad by Pat Barker. 

 

 

The tale is told from the point of view of Briseis, a princess who becomes a slave, awarded to Achilles as his prize after he sacks her city, slaughtering her father and brothers. She ends up in the camp of the Greeks besieging Troy, together with many other women. This is their voice, their side of things. 

Pat Barker is a master of writing about war, as evidenced in her Regeneration Trilogy—the reek, the noise, the far-flung effects on everyone involved, however remotely. Here we are placed firmly in the camp—we see the cooking fires, smell smoke and roasting meat, unwashed bodies. We are inside the weaving huts, where the women are shut up and made to work all day, or the hospital hut, where bloodied and maimed men are brought in after the battle.

The women’s situation is horrifying, and their treatment at the hands of the men is appalling, yet Barker manages not to veer into one-sidedness. The men are not one-dimensional brutes, but have a human side, and some passages are from their point of view as well, since they are the ones fighting the war.

The pace is kept up throughout, so that I found the book unputdownable. For anyone interested in the lives of the Ancient Greeks, give it a try.

Highly recommended. 

Amazon link here

Cola tins transformed to art

I think these are marvelous! It’s fantastic when artists use their imagination to overcome shortcomings such as lack of funds or other materials. This type of recycling is done a lot by African artists such as El Anatsui, about whom more to come.

Art Scene Athens

christidou

IN THE age of the Greek crisis, some artists look further towards alternative methods of creativity and materials. Most traditional art materials are expensive, but there are also options that are free, and everywhere: arte povera was a movement that pioneered this approach in a conceptual manner, back in the Sixties and Seventies. Today,  Lefki Christidou has found some contemporary ‘poor materials’ of her choice, using them in a more decorative style, especially the Coca-Cola tin, which adds a slightly more pop aesthetic to her work.Christidou2It’s also in line with how artists today combine the art process with recycling. She manages to transform this everyday object into flowers, cats, people, landscapes and more, at Athens’s Gallery 7, in an exhibition entitled ‘Debt relief programme – developments’. Opens on September 25 (runs till October 13).

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From Sepolia to the NBA

After yesterday’s post about a boy who went from being a refugee to playing basketball in the Greek A1 league, I could not avoid mentioning our ‘Greek Freak,’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis is not an immigrant himself, but his parents were. They are Nigerian, and came to Greece from Lagos via Turkey, in 1991.

 

 

Three years later, on December 6, 1994, Giannis was born in Athens. Even though he and three of his four brothers were born in Greece, they did not automatically qualify to receive full Greek citizenship. For the first 18 years of his life, Giannis had no papers from Nigeria or Greece, and only officially became a Greek citizen in 2013.

Antetokounmpo grew up poor, in the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia. Like many other immigrants, his parents struggled to find work, so Giannis and his older brother, Thanasis, helped out by hawking items such as watches, bags and sunglasses. But Antetokounmpo’s father, Charles, was a former Nigerian association football player, while his mother, Veronica, is a former high jumper. Giannis was tall and athletic, and loved basketball, and by 2009 he was playing competitively for the youth squad of the Greek team Filathlitikos. 

 

With his family, in Sepolia

In 2012, Antetokounmpo joined the senior squad of Filathlitikos and played for them in Greece’s second-tier basketball league, the Greek A2 League, during the 2012–13 season.

In December 2012, just days after turning 18, Antetokounmpo signed a four-year deal with Spanish club CAI Zaragoza. However, he never ended up playing in Spain, nor with the Greek A1 league.

He made himself eligible for the 2013 NBA draft and was selected 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Since then, he’s set many personal career heights.

 

 

At 22 years and 74 days old, he became the youngest player in franchise history to start in an All-Star Game. He also became the first Greek NBA All-Star,  and his special talents earned him the nickname ‘Greek freak.’ The awards he has collected are too numerous to mention and he has legions of fans.

Giannis is very family-oriented, and his brothers are all athletic. Despite the problems he encountered in his childhood, he lauds his adopted country wherever he goes, and has represented Greece multiple times. He served a reduced military service, as all Greek men who permanently live abroad are allowed to do.

Here’s a peek at what Giannis can do:

 

Is there a moral to this? Only that a lot of us have ancestors who had to move, due to different circumstances, such as poverty or war, to another country, leaving behind all they knew. Most countries owe a lot to immigration, and totally closed societies die off eventually. At the moment we are facing an unprecedented crisis, and, in my opinion, it is up to us to deal with it in a way that will enrich our communities.

Sometimes there is a happy end

The statistics on the refugee crisis are horrendous. The death rate for migrants attempting to reach Europe has risen even though the number of people trying to make the crossing has fallen. While in 2017, there was one death for every 42 migrants attempting the crossing, for the same period in 2018 the number is one death for every 18. More than 1.600 people have died or gone missing this year.
Meanwhile, there are over 4.000 refugees amassed in the island of Samos, of whom 3.817 are piled up in a facility meant for 648 people. In Lesbos, too, 10.454 migrants, mostly having arrived from the Turkish coast, are packed in the camp of Moria (and this is just in Greece—I didn’t check the numbers for Italy and Spain, where lots of people cross over from Libya.)

However, in a few cases, there can be a happy ending. It is from the Lesbos hotspot that young Christ Wamba has moved to the basketball courts of Aris, a top class team based in Thessaloniki, in the north of Greece. He was introduced to the public as their newest player, to enthusiastic applause, at this season’s opening ceremony. ‘His life could be made into a film,’ said the presenter.

 

The not-quite-18-year-old lived with his family in the Congo until three years ago. Their situation was dire—he often had to go to bed on an empty stomach. He loved basketball, but knew he had to leave home to achieve his dream. At 15, he crossed half of Africa alone, and managed to arrive in Turkey after many adventures. From there, he found himself confined in the Lesbos camp, where he remained for a year and a half. It was there he met social worker Michael Poulimas, member of an NGO looking after unaccompanied children on Lesbos. Michael managed to get him into an apartment with some other youths, and observed his passion for basketball—Christ could seldom be seen without a ball in his hand, and lost no opportunity to play.

Michael helped him make an asylum claim, and in 2017, he was moved to another camp, in Sindos, in northern Greece. There, George Balogiannis, head coach of the local basketball team, noticed his talent and took him on. Christ started practicing for 8 hours per day, in order to improve and take his skills to a new level.

 

Meanwhile, a teammate had helped him post his profile on Athlenda, a worldwide basketball network site known for the discovery of new talent. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Christ applied for a job opening with Aris, a well known northern Greek team, the head coach recognized his unique talent, and he earned his spot on the roster. He started training with the squad a few months ago (the deal was officially announced earlier this week).

A fairytale come true and an inspiration for other kids hoping to attain their dreams. However, one cannot help but wonder how many people with similar talents and ambitions still remain stuck, with little hope for the future.

 

No cause for celebration

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras hailed it as a ‘day of liberation ‘ and the ‘end of a modern day Odyssey’: after about nine years of unbearable austerity, Greece has exited the bailout program.

“Greece has managed to stand on her feet again,” the prime minister’s office announced last week, describing receipt of a final €15bn bailout loan as “The last act in the drama. Now a new page of progress, justice and growth can be turned.”

However, celebrations are premature: not only in my opinion, but according to several experts, the bailout was a disaster for Greece, since the loans were designed to help Northern European banks, not the Greek government, nor the Greek people.

 

Photo from Benaki Museum Archives

 

If their purpose was to support the Greek economy, the emergency loans must be considered a failure. Greece is now the fourth poorest country in the EU behind Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. In an economy that has contracted by 26%, a fifth of the working population – two-fifths of young people – have been left unemployed, while about 500,000 people have fled, mostly to EU member states in Europe’s wealthier north.

Although Greece might be now able, after many years, to borrow again at market rates, and Tsipras is at pains to play down outside supervision, we will still be subject to a regime of enhanced surveillance. Further pension cuts are in store.

Also, a return to borrowing has been made much more difficult because of market turbulence caused by financial problems in both Italy and Turkey. In the midst of his triumphant pronouncements, Tsipras has nevertheless warned of “fresh battles ahead” as the country prepares its first budget measures following the end of its international bailout.

The country faces decades of austerity since, contrary to widely held beliefs, less than €10 billion or a fraction of less than 5% of the overall programme went to the Greek fiscal budget. In contrast, the vast majority of the money went to existing creditors in the form of debt repayments and interest payments. Athens will be repaying a €322bn debt mountain for next 42 years.

Scary? If you talk to Greeks who’ve had to sell their house, whose kids have left for a better life abroad, whose businesses have gone bankrupt, who have zero faith in their leaders, I can assure you not many of them will be opening the champagne just yet.