The Great Tamer could be described as a magic show for the sober humanist. There are no cheap tricks; no rabbits pulled from hats. But there is plenty of illusion. A kind of illusion that finds magic not so much in the mystery of what we don’t see, but in what we do. Through a kind of allegorical refraction, we see bodies on stage – as recognisable as our own – become the site of a choreographic disassembling and reconstruction. It’s as dark as it is beautiful and, more than once, it will make you look twice.

The Great Tamer. Photographs © Julian Mommert

This is the genius of Greek director and designer Dimitris Papaioannou, whose credits include the 2004 Athens Olympic Ceremonies plus a significant repertoire of instantly recognisable stage works. Having originally trained as a painter, Papaioannou’s work is deeply rooted in visual design, creating worlds in which the narrative is told through aesthetics, not words.

His latest work, The Great Tamer, is pitched as a kind of inner excavation for meaning. Through the archaeology of memory, the work attempts to scrape away the filigree of personhood to uncover a shared sense of human identity. It’s a tall order, but through a collage of unadorned choreography, poignant symbolism and brilliant design, these themes slowly unravel.

In a literal sense, the stage is itself an excavation site. In an otherwise empty space, dozens of black plywood sheets form a sloped and uneven embankment, many of which are tossed aside or ripped up to uncover a world below. The performers (or sometimes just their naked limbs) frequently enter and exit the space through the floor in sequences reminiscent of a grotesque birthing or emergence from the underworld.

Aboveground, the bodies play out a series of peculiar vignettes. A woman’s torso floats atop the legs of two conjoined men wearing black stilettos who walk clunkily across the stage. An astronaut whose face is replaced by a digital ‘loading’ icon digs through rubble to pull a limp, naked woman from beneath the surface. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt is uncannily recreated, only for the cast to suddenly, and very realistically, feast on the corpse’s entrails.

These choreographic illustrations are at once macabre and beautiful. In any excavation for existential meaning, the gruesomeness of death looms large. But Papaioannou’s take on death manifests as a genuine curiosity about it as a state of being, and what death can illuminate in life. In typical Greek style, comedic relief is littered throughout the work as a counterpoint to the bleak and often tragic tableaux on stage.

For all this talk of death, the work is equally concerned with life. There are moments of extraordinary grace and intimacy, without drifting into sentimentality. In one scene, a young man covered entirely in plaster is broken free limb-by-limb in a series of forceful but tender embraces from another man. The action is simple and moving, throwing up questions about our shared humanity and the violence that we let pervade it.

Radically rearranged or distorted excerpts from Strauss’ The Blue Danube accompany much of the work. The sound is both recognisable and alien, offering comfort in the lighter moments and, at other times, unsettling us. Its repeated use borders on irritating, but, like the looped movement on stage, it underscores the passage of time – the ‘all tamer’ in Ancient Greece. Time links life with death and its constant presence reminds us of the futility of existence.

Through breathtaking visual design and ingenious choreography, The Great Tamer shatters then reconfigures one’s idea of unspoken storytelling. The ensemble cast are exceptionally talented and show a nuanced understanding of the work’s dramatic subtleties. Papaioannou is a master of spectacle in the truest sense of the word, and this latest piece is something to marvel at.

The Great Tamer runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth until February 12