Interview: Xenia Aidonopoulou on bringing Skydiver to Dance Umbrella 2023, ‘They appreciate the ‘imaginary’’

This month sees the world premiere of Xenia Aidonopoulou’s family show Skydiver which tours London as part of Dance Umbrella 2023. For children aged 3-5 years, Skydiver will visit venues around London on the Orbital Touring Network, which celebrates its 10th year.

The multi-sensory dance experience offers a magical journey for children, providing them with an experience of movement, sound and visuals that bring whimsical characters to life in an enchanting encounter in the skies.

The show is created by Aidonopoulou, a Greek dance artist, dramaturg and director, who makes visually compelling dance-theatre works filled with wonder and imagination that will captivate even the youngest audience members. She has worked in dance for the National Theatre of Greece, Athens and Epidaurus Festival, Thessaloniki Concert Hall and Onasis Stagi and her work has been presented in venues including Sadler’s Wells, Polka Theatre, South Bank Centre and Royal Opera House, as well as being a member of the UK Dramaturgs’ Network and Artist Development Troop at Cambridge Junction.

Ahead of the tour, we found out what led Aidonopoulou to create Skydiver and the story behind the show.

Q&A with Xenia Aidonopoulou

Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to creating work for children.

I am a dance artist, director and dramaturg from Greece, creating dance theatre works that are defined by a distinctive visual language. I have a theatre background. I received my BA in Dramaturgy and Performance from the Drama Department of Aristotle University in Greece, where I later completed my PhD in Performing Arts. I also hold an MA in Theatre Directing from Middlesex University . However, at a very early stage in my career I was invited to work in the field of dance and from then on, I never left it.

I have worked extensively in dance for the National Theatre of Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, the Greek National Opera and smaller art institutions, mostly for large scale productions and for a general audience. In parallel I have worked as an associate director on productions for CYP and as an Associate Lecturer I have taught the subject of Theatre for Children and Young People at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. My work experience also includes teaching drama in schools.

I always found the idea of creating work for young audiences attractive, but only when I moved to the UK in 2018, and after a career break, I finally had enough time for reflection. That’s when I decided to focus and develop my idea of a trilogy for early years. I was lucky enough to be introduced to incredible Creative Producer Lia Prentaki, who specialises in dance for early years and from the very first moment she encouraged me to move forward and supported me in developing my work. She is also the person that helped me understand the UK creative environment and since 2019 we have an ongoing collaboration.

What is it about creating work for children that you enjoy?

I am a big fan of fairy tales and fantasy; I thoroughly enjoy being immersed in imaginary worlds. As an artist I love making up stories happening in places that don’t exist and creating characters with mythical dimensions. I feel that young audiences are more open towards this kind of concept. They are also more alert and ready to dive into the ‘surreal’ without the need of too much explanation. You just give them a hint of something and their imagination is so strong and wild that they automatically immerse themselves in your story.

They appreciate the ‘imaginary’ as opposed to the ‘real’ and this is a good reason why I enjoy creating for this audience. I’m afraid adults can’t experience the ‘imaginary’ -and I refer to myself as well- with such intensity and excitement.

Skydiver. Photo: RosiePowell

Tell us about Skydiver – where does the inspiration come from?

Skydiver is a poetic duet, happening in the skies, surrounded by the cosy-snugly fluffiness of clouds. To conquer the sky, to defy gravity and to fly is a dream as old as humanity, and this is the main inspiration for Skydiver. As a Greek artist, I am utterly fascinated by the myth of Icarus and my desire is to somehow present his dream on stage. Only this time we will make it come true.

Skydiving is also a choreographic reference for the piece. I have seen a lot of relevant videos and even to watch people experiencing this absolute feeling of freedom while skydiving, is so captivating. Actually, one of the amazing performers (Philip Hulford) I collaborate with is a -real- skydiver!

This work is the second part of my trilogy for early years, following Underwater, a dance theatre show for babies up to 24 months old that I co-directed with Georgia Tegou in 2021 and is still touring. The natural environment and the elements that surround us -water, air, earth- are another source of my inspiration. For Underwater the audience were immersed in the slow deep ocean, with Skydiver we will be transported to the wondrous sky.

What has it been like creating a piece of work with and for children under five?

Creating with and for children under five is a very exciting and fruitful process. During the first phase of the project, I travelled with Lia and two of my dancers, JJ and Yu-Chien, to different parts of the UK and worked in various early years settings that are related to the Little Big Dance partner organisations (South East Dance, Dance East, Yorkshire Dance and Take Art). In all cases, the very young children we worked with were so open and so generous in participating or watching us presenting some initial ideas. Their reactions and responses to stimulations introduced in the space have been great feedback for us. It was also a very valuable experience for the performers to get to know and interact with children under five and they certainly gained a better understanding of their world.

It’s a rare opportunity to be able to actually spend time with your potential audience -in my case, with under five-year-old children- before entering the rehearsal studio. The Little Big Dance research process helped me deepen my relationship to this very special audience, made me feel more confident about my creative ideas and the means I use to communicate them.

What’s the story behind Skydiver?

So, Skydiver is a mythical character that masters the skies and controls all flying creatures. He has a companion. For me this companion is not real, it could be a shadow or an imaginary friend. But Skydiver is very powerful, and out of his shadow he creates a Flock of Birds, the second character in my story. After the ‘creation’ scene, Skydiver and the Flock can fly together, play and have fun, travel and explore adventures. It is basically a story about companionship and togetherness, of dreaming and experiencing together.

In my work I always like to have a very solid and clear starting point. I create storyboards with a lot of visual references that I share with my performers and very soon we move forward together, towards directions that support the vision for the work but are also open to different interpretations.

You’re working with some high-profile creative collaborators on this production. Who are they and what have they brought to the piece?

I am so lucky to be collaborating with many inspiring and talented artists, and I am more than thankful for their trust.

Jonny Pilcher, who is composing the music for Skydiver has such a vast experience working in Film, Theatre and Dance. I love his music and I invited him in this project because I knew he could bring a cinematic element that really works for this piece, as well as find a way to incorporate the lyricism of nature in his composition.

Mayou Trikerioti is a well-known designer with many prestigious collaborations across Film and Theatre and she is the costume designer for Skydiver. She has an amazing ability to ‘translate’ stories into visuals and I really admire her aesthetics.

Alison Alexander is the puppet designer I collaborate with for this production. Puppets and objects are an important part of Skydiver’s world and support the story in a most magical way. Alison is very experienced in her field and also, she has worked extensively for early years. Her designs are impressive and truly sensitive.

An essential element in my work is lighting. This time I decided to design it in collaboration with Chris Burr -who is also the production manager for the show. I have a long professional relationship with Chris and I admire his skills and passion for lighting. I trust he will realise my crazy ideas and enhance the magical element of Skydiver.

I would also like to mention the four amazing performers I am collaborating with, Lydia Walker, (JJ) William James, Yu-Chien Cheng and Philip Hulford. All four of them are exceptional movers and super talented artists that really understand my vision for the work; Skydiver would not be possible without their creative input and powerful energy.

What do you want children and their families to take away from the experience?

I really hope they will get carried away by the ethereal atmosphere of Skydiver, and -even for a moment- lose themselves in it. I would like children and their families to follow Skydiver and the Flock in their journey, and experience it with all their senses. I also wish the audience will be inspired by the show and be tempted to create their own Skydiver stories at home.

What’s next for you after the Little Big Dance tour of Skydiver? 

Following our tour to the Little Big Dance venues and partner venues and the presentation with commissioning partners Dance Umbrella, we are planning a UK tour of Skydiver in Spring Summer 2024 including return of my work to Cambridge Junction, The Lowry, Gulbenkian and The Egg.

In the near future, I also plan to develop the third part of my trilogy, Landscapes (working title). We will need to land on earth for this part. Though I am not sure what this earth will look like! I really hope that for Landscapes I will have the opportunity to create a large-scale production with a lot of magic for this very special audience of under fives.

Skydiver tours London from 21 October to 29 October.