The Dora Stratou Theater
The Dora Stratou Theater in Athens is an institution unique in its kind in the world, with varied activities, all centered around Greek dance. As a theater it differs from all other theaters and as a dance company it differs from the other dance companies.
The "Dora Stratou - Greek Dances" Society
This Society was founded in 1953 by Dora Stratou who remained its president until 1983. Ms Stratou was the daughter of a former Prime minister and sister of a Minister; she was a trained classical singer. She managed to mobilize state and private support in order to create "a living museum for Greek dance" which later expanded into other activities. She believed in the preservation of dances as a proof of the continuity of the Greek race since Antiquity.
Members of the Society are persons who have offered significant services to the Theater in their various professional, scientific or other capacities. Membership is less than 100, mostly academics of all backgrounds. The General Assembly meets every three years to elect a 7-member Governing Council, and every year to hear the Council's report. The President of the Council manages, represents and binds the Society with his actions.
Since 1987 is elected as president Alkis Raftis, graduate of four universities and former professor at the universities of Patras and Paris. He is President of the International Dance Council CID at UNESCO, the summit organization for all forms of dance in all countries of the world. Dr Raftis speaks six languages and has published more than twenty books and many articles in various languages. He is known world-wide as one of the foremost dance historians.
The costumes collection
The late Dora Stratou managed, by buying old costumes from the villages in the course of 30 years, to equip the Theater with the largest collection of its kind: over 2,000 complete traditional costumes from all regions, an important collection of folk jewelry, as well as a great number of various objects and accessories (village-made shoes, masks, swords, kerchiefs, bells etc.). Most of these costumes cannot be found to buy, nor copies made since the craftsmen and the fabrics do not exist any more.
This collection is at the same time the Theater’s wardrobe, requiring constant maintenance and security. About 1,000 costumes are worn on stage during each season. Dancers are taught how to put them on, how to tie kerchiefs in the various characteristic headdresses of each region and how to fold them properly. Wardrobe mistresses assist dancers to dress and ensure proper maintenance and storing. Some costumes are extremely heavy, others are embroidered with gold thread.
In Greek folk dance, steps are relatively simple but the style of execution varies from place to place and is difficult to reproduce. It takes an accomplished dancer years of dancing with good dancers who possess the local style and with good music, to become imbued with it. The leader of the line in a chain dance has the most important role, as his understanding of the idiom is transmitted to the musicians and to the other dancers.
While most folk dance troupes around the world have learned their dances by dance masters or choreographers, this ensemble has built up its repertoire by inviting groups of villagers to perform on stage. As each village was presented, the troupe's dancers learned the dances by dancing with the villagers. These original appearances were filmed and serve today as reference to check whether dances are still executed in the genuine style.
About 80 different villages, islands or regions can be presented, each one with its particular costume, music and dances. For comparison, an average folk dance group in Greece has a tenth of this repertoire. The total number of dances in the repertoire is over 300.
Another source of pride is the fact that the troupe has no choreographer and no dance master, it is simply composed of dancers. There is no major dance company in the world which can boast such a feature. All dances are presented in the same manner and style as they have been brought by the villagers. New dancers learn the dances the traditional way: they copy the local style by simply dancing during rehearsals alongside older dancers.
The main troupe is composed of 50 dancers, 25 men and 25 women. In addition, it has dancers from regions with a very particular style, such as Crete or Pontos, who perform only their local dances, as well as invited dancers from particular villages. There are 5 to 10 vacancies every year, for which about 100 applicants - who are experienced dancers from other groups around the country - present themselves each January. They dance with the troupe's dancers until finally the most competent ones are integrated in April.
The troupe rehearses every evening prior to the performance for 1 1/2 hour. During the winter season most dancers have several small groups where they teach. By dancing every single day of the year they improve constantly and keep in form. All dancers and musicians have a morning job for a living. The troupe has about 15 permanent folk musicians and singers. They play for rehearsals and performances every day; no recorded music is used to dance, in order to maintain the personal rapport between dancers and musicians, inherent in folk culture. Musicians have access to the archives of old field recordings, to verify the correct rendering of the particular style of playing characteristic to each region. Some of the dancers and musicians have been raised in the Theater, their fathers or even grandfathers having performed there. Many are married to fellow dancers and usually bring their children along because most of their evenings are spent there.
On the pine-covered Philopappou Hill, opposite the Acropolis, a 900-seat open-air theater was built especially for the "Dora Stratou" company. The stage was designed by famous Greek painter Spyros Vassiliou. The floor is very large in order to allow the free evolution of dancers, just like in a village square or dance-field. Within the 25-acre theater area, a hall was also built, used for winter rehearsals, courses and workshops.
Performances take place every day except Monday, at 21.30 hours, Sundays at 20.15 hours, from the end of May to the end of September. Until now 6,000 performances have been given, attended by 3,000,000 spectators. During the winter, the troupe sometimes travels abroad to perform, usually at government-sponsored occasions. The company has visited 22 countries and has been awarded many distinctions, notably by the Academy of Athens and the International Theater Institute.
From October to April there are dance classes for beginners, advanced and children. The course lasts 1 1/2 hours a week for three years. Instructors are choses among the most experienced dancers of the company. Recorded music is used there, chosen from the theater’s repertoire. Students receive educational material and take part in the other activities. Special workshops are offered to dance teachers on the methodology of research, the teaching folk dance and the staging of performances. Every week there is a lecture by an invited specialist. Subjects are relative to dance customs, music, costumes and various other topics related to dance - not only folk dance. Attendance is free and the audience participates in a conversation with the lecturer afterwards or ends up in the nearby taverna. Sometimes, instead of a lecture, a group of amateur musicians might be invited to play. Workshops are organized once every two months. A group of older people is invited from a village to present their dances, customs and local culture. They dance, sing, play music, tell stories and discuss with the workshop participants. They bring their old costumes, handicraft, photographs and musical instruments; sometimes they even bring wine and local food for everyone. A researcher with field experience in this village is in charge, giving the necessary background information.
During the summer season, dance workshops in English are held in the Theater. They last one week, 4 hours every afternoon, with lectures and visits to folk museums in the morning. Folk dance groups outside Greece either arrange for such courses, or invite dancers to give workshops there during the winter season.
Archives and publications
The Theater offices and the costumes collection are housed in a 5-storey historic building in Plaka, the old town of Athens. In the same building are kept the archives of recordings, films and field notes. There is also a library, a costume maintenance workshop, a showroom and a lecture hall. Publications include 50 records and a series of 30 books in several languages. Also programs, postcards, posters, videocassettes and tee-shirts. The Theater undertakes the fabrication of costumes, simplified copies of its originals made to order for folk dance groups. It also assists film and theater directors, choreographers and costume designers in the staging of performances with traditional character.
In the same building are located the headquarters of the Greek Section IOFA and the office of the President of CID UNESCO, the summit organization for all forms of dance, with members in 150 countries. The most notable dance professionals belong to this organization. The Greek Section has its own activities, such as publishing a color magazine and providing guidance to dance schools and companies around the country.
By recording and filming the groups of villagers who were invited to perform in the Theater, important archives have been initially constituted. It has been supplemented by recordings, photographs and notes taken during visits to other villages. These films and recordings are used today to verify that dancing and music in the performances do not deviate from the original. A library of 10,000 books and articles, as well as a collection of records with folk music continuously updated ensure that a researcher can find, gathered in one building, a unique wealth of resources.
A study group on ancient Greek dance functions independently within the Theater, offering courses, workshops and exhibitions. During the past few years, more than 40 research programs have been launched, using ethnograhic or sociological methodology, under the guidance of Dr. Alkis Raftis. They include several doctoral and postgraduate thesis, as well as diploma dissertations by students of Greek and foreign universities. In addition, many other students and researchers come to ask for resources or advice. Folk dance group leaders frequently call in to inquire on various matters. In this way the Theater is the focal point and crossroads of everyone involved in Greek dance.