A single performer on a chair at the centre edge of a vast, dark stage. His body dwarfed by enormous silks billowing most magnificently to define the stage sky, lit a heavenly silver and fogged into formation by smoke machines working with soft precision. His eyes watching each of us enter and take our seats, watching now impassively, now wryly, ever patiently, quietly alert. The moment we settle, his chair is kicked away – yet he maintains his seated posture unperturbed, his body taking on its form in highly disciplined tension. He straightens, he stands, he brushes powdery dust from his shoulders, and we watch as it slowly rises to join the smoky-white sky above.

This first series of moments characterise Still Life as an experience of small gestures against monumental forms.

Performers struggle to prevent a wall from collapsing onto them, its dense foam swallowing their bodies and confusing one another’s limbs while its brittle plaster surface continues to crumble. A clear perspex board of human scale is manipulated into a resonating waveform, distorting the body pressed between it and a series of bodies relieving one another of the task. Large rocks are carried, balanced, let fall perilously over feet and toes. Hundreds of metres of adhesive tape are lifted conscientiously, choreographically from their stage floor configuration, creating lines of darkness against the plaster-powdered floor. The four legs of an austere dining table, reminiscent more of Phineus than Sisyphus, are balanced on the heads of four performers, interchanging the duty with great care before setting it down in front of the stage – and finally, resting together to enjoy the meal set out for all to share.

These are the acts, starkly articulated, but it’s the series of still moments that make this work truly magnificent. Bodies suspended in formal composition, relieved for just those moments from relentless struggles. Bodies revealing the form of other bodies by holding, climbing, undressing, stretching, tensing. Bodies reconfigured into new forms, the torso of one, the limbs of another. Bodies showing us that, in its absolute physicality, this is what collaboration is. This is what it means to work hard, to do it together no matter what, and then, to take good time around the same table, to exchange and to share.

This is a work about work, about force and futility, about generosity and perseverance. A work about πόνο, meaning both effort and pain. Is work a drudgery or a virtue? On what basis do we exchange our labour? Who sets the terms? Who decides its value? How do we understand its meaning? When our work is done, how do we negotiate between our exhaustion and our satisfaction? What if our work is never done?

Perhaps these questions haunt us; perhaps, they are rarely considered. In today’s Greece, however, they are ontological.

Dimitris Papaioannou‘s own career is a history of confident reinvention across the spaces where discipline meets artform. He makes work with his hands, his body, his strategy and his insight. A painter, a graphic artist, a comics writer and illustrator, a choreographer, a director, a performer, a creative producer at great scale. Small scale, epic scale, Olympic Games opening ceremony scale. Works such as KK, INSIDE and PRIMAL MATTER have established him as a maker of arrestingly visual works that eschew artform fidelity for impact. Papaioannou’s work is rigorous, visceral and highly original.

The plaster-crusted wall is dragged across the stage, its broad sweeping powder soon to be remade into new geometries as adhesive tape is torn away from the stage floor. The garments of performers are adjusted, soiled, removed, confused for one another’s as arms become legs and heads become table-legs. The cycle of work and life, life and work, meaning and reward, effort and pain – as performance, as duration, as craft. Is life to be prized most highly as still moments, as arduous process, or as virtuous meaning? Can we speak of its beauty?

And how are we left, as the time comes to move away from this space? Some of us leave early, unable to persevere no matter how passively within a room kept so very warm to maintain the fog’s dense form. Others are left confused, not knowing whether and when to clap, not understanding the weight of the rock and the lightness of the meal, not knowing what it means and when it’s all over. It’s complicated, it’s arduous, it’s painful, it’s ultimately pointless, but it’s still life.

IMAGE: Performance stills photographed from the Still Life program. Still Life was presented at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival.