Giortes Rokkas: The Cretan outback restarts with a festival
text written by festival researcher and TFA's alumna Giulia Alonzo
Full Moon Concert: The origin
Giortes Rokkas was founded in 2013, the brainchild of Panagiotis Simandirakis, who grew up in the villages of Rokka and Kera, where the festival takes place. These two villages with around 50 inhabitants are set in sheep-farming and olive-growing country just a couple of miles from the sea on the eastern side of Crete: the wildest part of the Greek island, where you can still get a restaurant meal for €10, where sheep cross the road in front of you and where the nighttime sky is so full of stars, they seem to fall down on top of you.
When Simandirakis was a child, the two villages were home to around 300 people, too few for a proper primary school: all the children from the area were taught in one large room. In a province where people only met up at funerals, Simandirakis – perhaps from boredom or seeking an escape – began listening to Radio 3, the Greek national radio station dedicated to classical music. The hours he spent listening to Mahler and Beethoven inspired him to devise a large-scale project to secure the future of his native land: the Full Moon Concert, a live classical music concert at the Rokka archaeological site on the night of the August full moon. Legend has it that here, in ancient times, a choir of women would throw themselves off the cliff after every performance; while a more recent myth, which reflects the stubbornly patriarchal society, states that couples who make love here are certain to have male children...
Simandirakis decided to bring the music of the great classical composers to this place that blends secular and sacred, in the light of the August full moon. He began travelling round Europe’s most important opera theatres to curry favour with conductors and musicians and invite them to take part in this magical annual experience. His only regret is that he is yet to convince the violinist Leōnidas Kavakos to perform.
In a village where virtually nobody knew who Mahler was or had ever set foot inside a theatre, the first negative reactions were not long in coming. But as the years passed, the initial scepticism faded away and trust in Simandirakis’ artistic direction grew: “At first it was something they did not know and did not believe in, but then they experienced the festival’s power”, one local inhabitant admitted, adding: “We miss the festival when it ends”.
The 2023 Full Moon Concert on 31 August brought the power of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to Rokka, conducted by Myron Michaelides on stage besides Maya Mourignelli (soprano), Antonis Koroneos (tenor), Angelos Chondrogiannis (baritone), the choirs the “Phonodia” Vocal Ensemble and the Choral Group of the Heraklion Music School (taught by Ioannis Idomenes), the Choral Ensemble of Heraklion (taught by Yannis Protopas), the Academic Choir of the Youth of Athens (taught by Nikos Maliaras), the Youth Choir of the Heraklion Regional Unit (conducted by Lena Hadjigeorgiou) and the Percussion and Piano Ensemble of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Athens (for those who missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuDwcJpBtPE).
In 2017, Simandirakis realised it was time to take the event to the next level, involving the village’s inhabitants not only as spectators but also as an integral part of its organisation, and transforming the single summer concert into a festival.
Turning a single event into a longer festival is not just about semantics; it also involves a change in its planning. The word “festival” comes from the Latin festum, which historically referred to moments of public celebration where people enjoyed time together, fostering public interaction that produced, shaped and transformed local knowledge. The first step towards adopting a festival format was appointing an artistic director. Greek choreographer, artistic programmer, dance practitioner and Chania resident Mety Panagiotopoulou was chosen for the role, and she is now the official face of the festival. It is clear from the statistics how much the event has grown: in this, its tenth outing (there was no festival in 2020 due to Covid), numerous public and private sponsors have taken the overall budget to around €130,000, with 1,500 attendees on the opening night, 900 spectators at the two day Kera A Stage event and over 6,000 people attending the Full Moon Concert. There are eight members of staff, while twenty local residents are among the most active volunteers, donating time, money and hospitality and helping to run the various events.
The festival is held in two separate villages. Rokka hosts the concerts, while Kera is home to the festival and various fringe events. The 15 festival venues include the archeological site, where the final concert is held, and Kera A Stage - 14 other locations among the village’s courtyards, gardens and terraces. After the opening concert, the main focus of the festival is two evening events, accompanied by ten days of cultural activities in the village, including workshops (such as pottery, recycling and dance), seminars and films. Every year, the final event coincides with the full moon.
Kera A Stage - Fairytale: 4th edition
The Festival Academy, an initiative of the European Festivals Association (EFA), has launched a new programme ‘Festival Visits’ that involves visiting festivals in rural areas or remote regions. Giortes Rokkas was the first stop on this tour. The programme is open to the alumni community of The Festival Academy to strengthen the community and offer next opportunities for networking among festival makers who participated in different programmes of the Academy. The visit offers a renewed thinking and imagination around curation and organising festivals who take place in unconventional locations working with alternative resources and infrastructure. The festivals selected for the visit have a strong community focussed approach, environmental awareness as well as a priority on care for artists and their (individual and collective) creative processes. This pilot edition gathered a group of festival organisers and managers Nima Dehghani from Iran/US (Reconnect Festival); Alba Fieira Vilariño from Spain/Germany (SiSONS project), Ruth Cross from Spain/Uk (Rural Regeneration and Social Arts micro festival), Sahba Aminkia Iran/US (Flying Carpet Festival), Jin Yim from South Korea (Project DARI - producers’ collective), Ireri Mugica from Mexico (Festival Morelos Danza), Camila Provoste from Chile (Festival Internacional de Teatro del Biobío & Festival Cielos del Infinito), Antoniya Kishev from Austria (MAS Cultural Management), and me Giulia Alonzo from Italy (TrovaFestival Association), guided by The Festival Academy team Inge Ceustermans and Mar Sebastià Casanova, and was hosted in Crete on 17–22 August.
The group, which I also joined as an observer, arrived in the village of Kera for the ritual pre-opening dancetheater event Kera A Stage. The point of reference of the artistic direction of Mety Panagiotopoulou was the transformation of Kera village into a grand theatrical stage, with the original project Kera A Stage in 2018. The whole village became the live stage where the spectator, with his map at hand, attended theatrical acts and short interpretations of a versatile and diverse group of artists. In its 4th edition, before the event opens officially, the team, technicians, artists, villagers gather for a dress rehearsal showcasing one work after the other so as to make sure that all artists can witness each other’s work as well as to sort out final details out of the productions. In the next few days the performances run simultaneously and play for multiple times during the evening.
The programme of events is shared not long before the official opening, so the evening’s events remain a mystery, but the passion of those who are putting so much energy into the event is contagious: we know very well how it feels in those last few moments, when absolutely anything can happen. The evening is structured as a medley of performances lasting a total of around three hours, all connected to the theme of fairy tales, the fil rouge of the 2023 performance edition.
All guest artists were invited to create special site-specific productions for the festival, and are asked to go and see the other works too, so they can experience the sense of community and understand the context for their own performance. The village is spread along the main road, which is closed for the occasion, becoming an enormous stage, with its houses and inhabitants as extras.
Dimitris Prousalis, the renowned Greek storyteller, is entrusted with beginning the marathon. He performs in Kera’s main square, accompanied by Georgina Tsontaki on the accordion and five teenage dancers from a school in Chania. Prousalis starts with a story entitled How the Storytellers were Created, explaining that storytellers are people who want to make the world a better place through their tales: an excellent omen for the tenth Giortes Rokkas festival.
We then move to the courtyard of a house, covered by dense climbing vines, which shield our eyes from the day’s final rays of sun: Three Narrations are folk tales brought to life by Theoni Koutsounaki, Ioanna Simantiraki and Christos Stratakis, who combine the art of storytelling with music and circus skills.
Continuing on our walk, in the middle of the road we encounter Two Travellers, a dance show staged by Manos Katsiadakis, Giannis Protopapadakis and Stamatia Kokolaki that presents a meeting with another person as a reflection of our inner self.
Crossing the main road and passing a group of houses with verdant fruit trees, where the temptation to steal a plum is hard to resist, we stumble across a scene not often encountered in the Crete countryside: a ballerina in a tutu and en pointe (Anna Fytila) waiting for three lyre players (brothers Alexandros and Panagiotis Tzanakakis and Babis Tyrakis) to start dancing like a nymph in a ballad that recounts the long history of the lyre in Crete, The Lyre Player and the Nymphs.
When I meet the artists at the end of the event, the musicians tell me they would never have imagined themselves playing for a ballerina: initially it seemed like a risky pairing, but ultimately they decided it was an original idea, not least because it provided a way to make classical dance accessible to the villages’ inhabitants.
Continuing the tour, we arrive at the setting for The Skeleton Woman: the garden of a detached cottage on the village’s main road, its walls lit up with blue, red and green lights. Arguably one of the festival’s most intense pieces, it describes a woman who is reduced to a skeleton as a result of her father’s insults, but who, through love, rediscovers life and a willingness to move on. Narrated in Vania Stampolaki’s warm voice, it is accompanied by Aria Stamataki’s dancing and African percussion from Giorgos Fasolis, Lambros Koukounas and Margareta Pavlou.
Leaving this apparition behind us and heading down a side street, performers Vasiliki Doudoulaki and Maria Latinaki take us on a journey to the savannah. The Story of the Little Palm Tree is a dance and theatre show that describes the discovery of an oasis in the middle of the desert, a metaphor for how one can draw strength from any challenges one faces.
Continuing down the village’s lanes, I sneak a peek through the windows of some of the homes. Some people are eating, while others return my gaze and smile at the Italian accent of my “Kalispera”. We enter another courtyard for storyteller Dimitris Prousalis’ performance of The Two Mice in the Well, an exhortation to ignore the desperate and destructive voices around us. We should keep our faith, the storyteller reveals, even when we think nobody is there to help: there is always someone who can lend us a hand and get us out of trouble.
Continuing down the hill, and arriving at the edge of Kera’s woodland, we watch The Talisman of Love featuring Io Asithianaki and Stella Tripolitaki: the talisman in the title has the job of protecting a young couple’s love, but conveys the message that equality and respect are the best forms of defence.
The final part of this marathon journey is also the most experimental, including its use of microphones and lighting. The Secret of the Dream with Elena Stavropoulou and Androniki Marathaki is dedicated to the mystery of dreams, which are deeply personal but also shaped by the people around you.
As well as the shows involved in the dress rehearsal, the village also hosts recycling, breakdancing and pottery workshops. A group of artists create a mural that will remain for the community to enjoy. And there is a homage to storyteller and musician George Fountoulakis – simply called Fountoulogiorgis, a great supporter of the festival, who died last year. He used to open up his house to sing and tell stories, but this year his terrace would have remained silent. The artistic director therefore decided to keep this space alive by inviting Valentina Papadimitraki and Leonidas Maridakis’s company to perform Little Songs, a children’s show featuring classic Greek songs, which was the festival’s only non-site-specific work.
Like a cultural pilgrimage, each stop along the way provides a new discovery, with its own theatrical style and artistic and aesthetic language. Each tableau can be enjoyed on its own, or seen in sequence: each spectator can build their own drama, and so become both a creator and an actor in the performance.
The entire tour takes over three hours and ends in the square overlooked by Kera’s church and cultural centre. At the start of the evening it was deserted, but now it is full of laid tables, people from the village have prepared a meal for everyone, with local residents beginning to take their seats. Seemingly endless courses arrive one after another, and enthralling music begins to play, curated by the people from the village. And here we witness the unparalleled community-forming ritual that food and a festival can provide.
The village that becomes a festival
Giortes Rokkas provides an interesting case study at various levels.
The first of these is the ritual dimension created by the involvement of both local inhabitants and external communities in the event. Festivals – as pagan ceremonies – have both a symbolic and a social function. According to Durkheim (1912), rituals can provoke states of “collective effervescence”, creating and supporting a community’s sense of identity and making the community stronger as a result. However, for the creation of that social ritual value to achieve a recognised cohesive collective identity, the ritual must also have an individual function, relating to the wellbeing it offers participants. In other words, it must be able to turn the social unconscious into something visible, and reveal the myths that have shaped humanity.
The link between humanity and nature is particularly evident in this, the tenth Giortes Rokkas festival. The common thread of the storytelling harks back to its origins in Greece, the cradle of civilisation and culture. And it does so through myth, recalling people’s limits, weaknesses and fears when faced with the enormity of the unknown and of nature (and their own interior abysses). The festival, as a collective ritual, therefore takes on a social function and a symbolic meaning for the community in which it is held. As Victor Turner (1982) highlights, people in all societies feel the need to dedicate certain amounts of time and space to shared creativity and celebration, by playing out the great game of beliefs and mythologies.
The second dimension is a theatrical one. This level does not solely involve the performances; it covers the entire Giortes Rokkas experience, as both the self – the village – and the other – in this case through storytelling – are constantly depicted, thereby helping to build a collective identity and create a temporary community. Without realising it, each spectator becomes part of a collective creation, becoming both the author and the star of their own performance. The festivities turn the entire village into a stage and bring it back to life, exemplifying how a festival can represent an escape from everyday life and the formation of a temporary community.
Community on stage
Our group was also included in this community. From the second evening, faces began to become familiar and people began telling their stories. The driver, Andreas, was working in cinema and marketing in Athens, and had approached the festival as a way of remaining in this environment: they needed a driver, and he adapted to the role. The barman loves rock and pop music: he likes the festival, but every year requests more music in the programme and every year is disappointed. The photographer has a passion for mountains. He is at the festival because he has to take any work available that vaguely appeals, and he succeeds in capturing people’s inner spirit, but his eyes light up when he shows you the photos he has taken up among the peaks. The social media manager is a student in Athens who only comes back to Kera for the festival. And then there are the local residents, who work for free and open up their homes for the festival.
We had the opportunity to speak to them around a table on the final evening. It was an informal meeting, featuring 11 residents (of whom only two were women, neither of whom spoke for the entire evening, perhaps a legacy of the persistent patriarchal culture) and five members of staff, including the director, who also acted as an interpreter and moderator.
We asked questions, and they responded. Their passion for the project emerged straight away: indeed, it provokes year-round animated discussions during the entire planning and implementation process, when the small cultural centre is used for community celebrations and festivities where everyone comes together to eat and dance.
“Italy? I lived there for two years. In Turin I had a Fiat car. Then I moved to Ancona. I stayed there for a while too, then I returned home. But Italia bella”, and he puts his thumb up as a sign of appreciation, accompanied by a half smile, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
This is immediately echoed by another participant: “Italy, beautiful! I visited Matera with my family, my wife and daughter”, then he pulls out his mobile and scrolls through dozens and dozens of the Sassi, the cave dwellings for which the 2019 European Capital of Culture is renowned.
The final evening before heading home is always like that, with a last-day-of-school atmosphere: everyone is happy to have shared a wonderful experience, but also sad to be leaving the community that has formed over the course of just a few days. In Rokka Giortes Festival you cannot help but get to know everyone – inhabitants, performers and guests – from the very first evening.
The residents complain that none of the organisers live in the villages: they are all in the city, the planning is done on Zoom, and although every so often one of the organising team comes to the village, they do not understand how difficult it is to stay there when, after the festival, the lights are turned off and the silence returns. Both the inhabitants and organisers have other jobs, and it can be difficult to balance the two, but everyone does their best. The two key words are trust and listening. The festival has also helped to cement bonds in the village: before the festival was founded, some people did not even talk to each other, because they had never had an opportunity to get to know one another. One of the inhabitants remarks, with touching professionalism, that Rokka’s success stems from three things: 1. Someone with a vision who understands what is going on and who people trust; 2. Having a shared objective; 3. The financing and support.
With my final question – already on my feet, ready to go to dinner – I ask whether the festival has made them curious about theatre or classical music or brought them closer to those worlds. Before the festival, none of the residents had ever been to the theatre or listened to classical music. Only Stefani, being a musician, had listened to some classical pieces, but even he had not been to the theatre. However, some of them admit that in recent years they have been to Chania to watch a show at the theatre. Then, at the end of the evening, Theodor Paraskakis tells me that one of the inhabitants adores classical music, but did not want to say anything in front of the others.
Beeing part of The Festival Academy is for Giortes Rokkas one more step towards making it more international. Up to now, it has been designed predominantly for inhabitants of the local area, or for Cretans With the exception of the final concert, where the music has a universal language, the texts are in Greek with no translation. Apart from the local audience, which does not need translation, for the foreign ones, it would be important to receive the texts and programs in advance in order to be able to help them navigate the performances on offer.
But the Greek hospitality and the warmth with which we were welcomed into the community broke down any cultural or linguistic barriers.
Mety Panagiotopoulou add, “This festival visit offered as the opportunity to realize that we face familiar challenges and, in order to evolve, we need to exchange tools, ideas and experiences. The network we have now created will reinforce our festival making. As for our vision for the next decade for Giortes Rokkas, is to transform this festival into a meeting point for artists and creators from all over the world. Focusing on the highest expression of art and the creation of a holistic experience for the spectator in a way that the limits between theater and life, art and reality are interweaved.”
Joining the Academy is perfectly in line with the spirit with which Simandirakis launched the project in 2013. Repopulating the village is perhaps an unachievable dream, but during the festival its roads, squares and courtyards come back to life, showing that other pieces of the world can find a home in a small, secluded village in the Cretan hinterland.