A Search for the Oldest Songs in the World
Out of the crucible of modern Polish theatre comes Teatr ZAR, haunted by death, memory and the primal power of ancient song
By Jim O'Quinn
Songs grow directly from reactions to life's travails; they come from something "under the skin," something wholly organic.
How did Poland's Teatr ZAR set about rescuing the oldest songs in the world from the oblivion of history? And why has the Wroclaw-based company—currently on a U.S. tour that began last month in Chicago and continues this month in Los Angeles—made these rare archaic songs the generative element of its extraordinary, virtuosic performances?
Jarosław Fret, the 38-year-old actor and student of ethnomusicology who founded Teatr ZAR in 2002, has forthright answers to these questions. The richly harmonic liturgical chants and funeral songs that inspire his company's work were collected, he will tell you, during a series of group expeditions between 1999 and 2003 to historic religious sites in Georgia, Greece, Bulgaria, Corsica, Sardinia, Egypt and Iran, including forays into isolated communities in the remote heights of the Caucasus Mountains, where musical traditions date back 2,000 years. The songs that he and his collaborators collected on these expeditions, he says, became their primary material, their fundamental means of theatrical communication, a metaphor that "gives you a very deep, essential understanding of what the process and tradition of life, which includes death, is."
Teatr ZAR's performances—which consist so far of a triptych of low-tech ensemble pieces, none of them more than 55 minutes long—have begun to attract rapturous attention from observers around the world, not least from theatre practitioners engaged in thematically or formally similar work. But Fret's passion for the revelatory power of ancient music as a theatrical source is part of a larger historical picture involving that sometimes elusive sphere known as "laboratory theatre." And Teatr ZAR's new status as an international ambassador for the most influential branch of contemporary Polish theatre—that indebted to the multifaceted, sometimes paradoxical investigations of Jerzy Grotowski—makes this a telling moment to revisit (here and in Stephen Nunns's companion article, below) some of the seismic shifts in world theatre that the laboratory movement has generated.
Fret, who combines his role of ZAR artistic director with the leadership, since 2004, of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, has been a moving force in the most recent phases of that history. Under his directorship, the institute is in the process of expanding from its modest niche in the city's vibrant Old Market Square—the premises from 1965 to 1982 of Grotowski's Laboratory Theatre, where legendary works such as Apocalypsis cum figuris were first performed—to a spacious new multipurpose building (previously a rowing club for athletes) on Na Grobli Street along the treelined Oder River, scheduled to open next April. And when 2009 (marking 50 years since Grotowski became artistic director of what would soon be known as the Laboratory Theatre, and 10 years since Grotowski's death in 1999) was declared by UNESCO the "Year of Grotowski," Fret and the institute geared up to host an unprecedented slate of international programs celebrating Grotowski's far-flung legacy [see the May/June '09 issue of American Theatre].
It was at one of these events—a two-week festival in June somewhat ostentatiously titled "The World as a Place of Truth"—that I saw performances of the three works in ZAR's repertoire, one of which, Caesarean Section, made its U.S. debut at Chicago's Millennium Park in November. This month, West Coast audiences have the chance to see all three parts of the triptych when it plays Dec. 1—3 at UCLA Live in Los Angeles. At home in Wroclaw, even in the midst of a lineup of festival productions by the likes of Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Pina Bausch and Christian Lupa, ZAR's work made a singular, indelible impression.
The trilogy, on which ZAR has been working since its inception, begins with a somber, ritualistic piece called Gospels of Childhood: Fragments on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, developed over the course of three years before it debuted in Brzezinka, the forested haven 25 miles northeast of Wroclaw where Grotowski once conducted his paratheatrical research. (It subsequently had a successful run in Los Angeles as part of the 2007 UCLA Live International Theatre Festival, becoming the first and only ZAR production exported from Poland prior to the current tour.) Abstract in form and dimly lit, mostly by candles, some attached to hanging wooden wheels that become glistening chandeliers, Gospels draws upon the biblical story of the burial and resurrection of Lazarus, augmented by fragments of text from Dostoyevsky and Simone Weil. Its fluid and meticulous choreography replicates acts of childbirth, suffering, washing, communal mourning; its songs and chants infuse every image with an overpowering sense of the sacred.
Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, the second, more extravagantly theatrical segment of the trilogy, involves its seven performers in lissome feats of physical strength and endurance and adds live instruments—cello, violin, accordion, percussion—to its musical arsenal. In considering Albert Camus's famous formulation—"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide"—Caesarean Section, Fret has said, concerns "not only artistic freedom but real freedom, and the limits of your life." Its central visual motif is an illuminated river of glass that slashes across the length of the stage, around which the barefoot performers (including the remarkable Ditte Berkeley, wearing shoes on her hands), dangerously convulse and writhe, perhaps in pain, perhaps in ecstasy. With its intimations of a love triangle and its exhilarating physicality, this performance is cruel, beautiful, sometimes slyly funny and altogether inimitable.
The final segment, Anhelli: The Calling, still a work-in-progress when I saw it in Wroclaw, uses Byzantine and Sardinian hymns to pay tribute to Juliusz Slowacki, a Polish Romantic poet who journeyed to the Holy Land to write a stylized, Biblical poem (Anhelli) about possession by an angel. A deftly manipulated room-sized parachute of translucent cloth provides a phantasmagoric frame for this piece, which ends with the performers prone and silent beneath its folds (an echo, perhaps, of Grotowski's The Constant Prince, which ended with Ryszard Ciećlak in a similar posture).
Spectators' responses to these intricately detailed and passionately realized works, with their intimations of mourning and mortality, punctuated by unsettling interludes of silence and pitch-black darkness, will vary, but indifference is not an option. "This is unlike anything I've ever sat through," wrote Back Stage critic Wenzel Jones after seeing Gospels of Childhood in Los Angeles. "The audience, perhaps in thrall to the sanctified aura that's left, sits in utter silence, applause seeming too coarse a response." L.A.-based director Guy Zimmerman, a fellow guest at the Wroclaw festival, shared his impressions of Caesarean Section in a note to colleagues: "Performed with such fearless abandon the jaw drops. Humor here and there like dollops of blood. Halfway through, the ghost of Antonin Artaud shuffles in and sits next to the ghost of Grotowski in the back row, toothlessly grinning."
When we begin to catch the vibratory qualities [of an ancient song], this finds its rooting in the impulses and actions. And then, all of a sudden, that song begins to sing us. That ancient song sings me; I don't know anymore if I am finding that song or if I am that song. —Grotowski
The world of "laboratory theatre"—a term deftly defined by Italian theatre scholar Mirella Schino in Alchemists of the Stage (2009) as "a protected, separate place where it is possible to continuously explore in order to perfect one's art or craft, without having to make compromises"—stretches across the 20th century from the Moscow studios of Stanislavsky to the Odin Teatret of Eugenio Barba in Denmark to Joan Littlewood's London Theatre Workshop to the Japanese mountain retreat of Tadashi Suzuki, and even, in significant instances such as Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre, into ensemble work in the U.S. But it was Grotowski who pushed the laboratory concept farthest, into the realms of ethics, spirituality, the internal truth of the actor, "a meeting with oneself."
His well-known focus on the body as an expressive instrument is Grotowski's most evident bequest to posterity. But music—especially music retrieved from memory or from history—inspired him as well, especially in his later "theatre of sources" research. As Princeton-based theatre scholar Kathleen Cioffi has noted in her writing about Polish alternative theatre, there are a variety of groups now working in Poland that draw upon this research (conducted, ironically, largely outside their country) to combine Grotowski-inspired physicality with work on traditional or ancient songs—beginning with Wlodzimierz Staniewski's distinguished company Gardzienice, founded in 1977, where Jarosław Fret became a member at age 20 and worked for a year-and-a-half. He subsequently worked (as did his ZAR cohort Kamila Klamut) with the Wroclaw-based company Song of the Goat, another notable music-focused ensemble.
"It was Gardzienice that taught me how to approach the music, what it means to be inspired by traditional singing, and how to do your own dramaturgy related to it," says Fret, a handsome man with alert brown eyes and an unassuming manner. "Soon after coming to work there, I understood what I wanted to do."
Fret had direct access to Grotowski as well, first meeting him as a teenager in 1991 when Grotowski was presented an honorary doctorate—"I was listening to his speech in this very room at the institute," he remembers with a smile—and later assisting him organizing projects and productions. "I talked with him often, and worked with many of his collaborators. But the most important thing was watching theatre here, experiencing 'poor theatre.' Eventually this became the only work I could imagine."
It is astonishing work to watch. Rather than attempt to evoke the rarified atmosphere of ZAR's performances—which require studio-sized rooms with a limited number of spectators (in Wroclaw it was 40 or so)—let me recount (with the assistance of eloquent notes from my festival colleague Barbara Lanciers, co-director of New York City's Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf) what I saw at a lecture-demonstration that Fret and his 11-member troupe offered visitors during the course of the festival.
It began with a slide show of images from ZAR's seminal research excursions, with Fret narrating: "At a Greek Orthodox church in Tblisi, there was one choir of old men, one of boys, and one mixed"—there they are, figures seemingly out of time—"each representing a different tradition. These choirs date back to the 10th century in Georgia, and the churches even further, to the 6th century." Other images are sparer and greener, showing the Svaneti region, in the highest reaches of the Caucasus, where the homes and churches are shaped as towers. "Svaneti was our deepest meeting—it was there that we heard zar, the lamentations sung by a huge choir of men over and over for hours during funerals. We decided to name our work ZAR—not just the group but the work—as a recognition that we are just one element in an unbroken chain connecting us to our ancestors."
The oldest of the Svanetian songs, Fret explains, have archaic words and syllables that are no longer understood by the singers themselves, but continue to be performed. Many have pagan roots. "We heard a song there," he says, "whose purpose was to stop the rain, one to call forth the sun, one to send souls to heaven."
Fret calls the company forward. They are barefoot, the men in white shirts like college youths on a Sunday outing, the women in plain black or maroon shifts with dancers' body suits underneath. In semicircles or clusters, they begin to sing, avidly listening to each other's voices, sharing the polyphonies and rhythms of these mournful, yearning songs with gentle arm and body movements, conducting themselves with a focused intensity.
The songs roll from syllable to syllable, austere and thick, often with a gasp at the end of a phrase, sometimes coalescing into a shocking, piercing unity on a single note. The wall of sound fills the brick-walled studio space like liquid; then, above the aural mass, the wail of a single female voice streams high, like a bird above a storm.
The song becomes the meaning itself through the vibratory qualities; even if
one doesn't understand the words, reception
alone of the vibratory qualities is enough. —Grotowski
How does this remarkable music relate to the equally remarkable physical score in ZAR's performances? "Simply performing the songs was not enough—we went on to create movement and theatricality," Fret tells me later in an interview over coffee. "A song is like a journey, with a beginning and a destination. Parallel to the patterns of rhythm in the songs, we began to develop physical training, integrated work for physical action. Every single action must be found in the practice of singing, and only at the last phase do the two come together.
"We are all singers—first we share that. We establish relationships with one another based on patterns of breathing. When we sing, we have common feelings and perceptions—the next step is to open ourselves to actions, breathing together as one organism. The physical score is prepared out of improvisations, inspired by fragments of text, themes, perhaps poems. Putting it all together is a unique fusion of energy. The physical score acts in strong counterpoint to the music."
As absorbing as the company's physical virtuosity may be, it is sound that Fret gives pride of place. "Theatre is more than something to be seen—to be heard is more essential. First we are listeners, secondarily we are seers. Human beings are much more deeply attached to sound than to sight—even in the womb, we hear speaking, singing, vibrations. We can even see each human being as a vibration, a unique sound."
Critics have alluded to the church-like aura of ZAR's performances, but Christian symbology is not what interests Fret. "Yes, I grew up in a Christian society, a very strong Christian family. But many in ZAR are not Christians....that is not the point of our work. Meeting with these songs means meeting with people whose details and differences you respect."
Perhaps Fret's modulation of his Grotowskian inheritance amounts to a distancing from both his mentor's insistence on the heroic "holy actor" (on the laying bare of "the most intimate layers of his being and his instinct," as Grotowski put it) and from his eventual rejection of the audience, in favor of a certain communal utility in the meeting of performer and spectator. "The only task for us as human beings is to remember," Fret suggests. "Our body has its unconscious memory, and the highest means for its discovery is art."
Memory, of course, is both personal and collective. Fret mentions that his own grandfather, who died when Fret was 17, was once a funeral singer, and that the final song in Gospels of Childhood is a kind of Polish zar that moved him deeply when it was sung at his grandfather's funeral. In a darker vein, he talks broodingly about Poland herself, which lost more than 5 million citizens during World War II. "Death is close to us here—the ground beneath us is made of bones and ashes," he remarks simply, as if to validate the emphasis in his work on mourning and redemption.
Barbara Lanciers asked Fret a fundamental question—"For you, what is the purpose of theatre?"—and the answer he gave seems more empathetic than the words Growtowski might have uttered on the subject: It is, Fret said, "to fill this void or emptiness, and share not only our pain with others—because pain is the only evidence that we live—but also the feelings and experiences of living...what it means to be alive."
Jim O'Quinn's trip to Poland was supported in part by Philip Arnoult's Center for International Theatre Development.
Ludwik Flaszen and the Pragmatics of Grotowski
The legendary director's one-time partner talks about the secret politics of the Polish Laboratory Theatre
By Stephen Nunns
"I am astonished that all of this happened during my life," says the short, white-haired man, peering into his steaming cup of tea as though he expected some revelation to materialize there. "I am trying to understand it all—everything that happened."
For the past 50 years, Ludwik Flaszen has lived and worked in the shadow of his one-time friend and artistic partner, the theatre director/guru Jerzy Grotowski. While the cult of Grotowski has grown apace since his death in 1999—notably in the "art as vehicle" projects that consumed the last decade of his life and continue to be explored at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy—the 79-year-old Flaszen has been largely ignored. But, in fact, had it not been for Flaszen, a critic and dramaturg, the work of the legendary Polish Laboratory Theatre—on which Grotowski's theatrical and post-theatrical legacy is largely based—might never have happened.
Now, sitting in the offices of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw—the home of the company that created and performed the trio of works that are at the center of Grotowski's reputation (Akropolis, The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis cum Figuris)—Flaszen is attempting to set the record straight.
The Institute has braced itself for a "year of Grotowski," a series of high-profile international events marking the 10th anniversary of the director's death, which continue through the end of 2009. "There are many old people who are coming to these events," Flaszen observes with a laugh, setting his tea aside. "A lot of historians will breathe easier after we're gone, because the witnesses and participants of history are not wanted by people who write history. History is more confident the farther it gets away from the event."
Flaszen, it seems clear, is trying not only to reinsert himself into the history of Jerzy Grotowski, but into that of Poland as well.
It will be an uphill battle. Grotowski left Poland after martial law was declared in 1981, heading first to Haiti and Rome and then to the United States before finally setting up a permanent base in Italy. The director did return a couple of times to Poland, but the visits were brief, and—as Flaszen notes—"always incognito." After Grotowski died, it became known that he had designated Richards, an American, and Mario Biagini, the Italian actor and associate director of the Pontedera Workcenter, as his designated heirs. For all intents and purposes, the director had turned his back on his homeland.
In a certain sense, Grotowski had rejected his heritage long before that. By the time he left Poland, Grotowski had already brought to a close—and more or less dismissed—his "paratheatrical" stage (the semi-ritualistic, participatory events, famously described by Andre Gregory in the film My Dinner with Andre, that Grotowski oversaw in the Polish forest outside Wroclaw); he was moving into the "theatre of sources" phase, in which he tried to locate theatrical/anthropologic examples of Jung's archetypes—rituals and performances that could represent the notion of a collective unconscious. He had also embarked upon a simultaneously spiritualized and authoritarian approach to the work. Fed up with theatre, he had begun to explore more completely the intersection between performance and religion.
Grotowski made it clear that he was not religious in the traditional sense of the word. Still, there was an ascetic quality to Grotowski's post-theatrical persona, exemplified by the physical shift that took place around 1970. Gone was the chubby, chain-smoking, dark-haired dude in a black suit and Ray-Bans; he had been replaced by a gaunt, monastic figure in flowing cotton and sandals, with long hair and a scraggly beard.
And though Grotowski remained suspicious of organized religion, he read about it voraciously and dabbled in performative aspects of ritual and the occult, ultimately finding a synergy between theatre and faith, even if it was only in the fact that both were on their way out. ("The theatre and the church are dying," he declared in 1970. "Although the two phenomena are very different, in spite of some affinities, I feel that in both of them something is drawing to an end.")
This spiritual aspect of Grotowski's work and persona has, for many years, been the focus of pointed critical attention. Clearly, it was part of the image he cultivated. It was not for nothing that the critic Jan Kott referred to Grotowski as a guru and noted that he always had a copy of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim with him.
"It is religious," says Flaszen of his late colleague's worldview, "but it is without sacrament. It is about how not to be a slave to your conditions. It's not to escape reality, but to face it.
"Now," he adds, "the mystery can be shown."
Flaszen's relationship with Grotowski dates back to the mid-1950s in Kraków, where the latter was finishing up his studies at the State Theatre School. (Grotowski had gotten in by the skin of his teeth, virtually failing the performance portion of the entrance exam but acing the written essay, which addressed the question, "How can theatre contribute to the development of socialism in Poland?") Flaszen, meanwhile, had been a theatre critic and literary director of the Slowacki Theatre in Kraków. But he had lost his job, thanks to his open criticism of the government.
"In '56 there was strong opposition against the regime and against totalitarianism," Flaszen remembers. "I was the author of a pamphlet against the official culture in theatre. So, I became an outsider, a fighter against the regime. And Kraków was not my place anymore."
The '50s-era government of Władysław Gomułka was a peculiar (and very Polish) mixture of Soviet autocratic rule, Polish nationalism and vaguely liberal cultural and economic tendencies. In art, this meant a kind of constant schizophrenia: While it was officially difficult to escape the constraints of Socialist Realism, the spirit of the Polish romantic poets was never far away. And there was a grand tradition of the Polish avant-garde, exemplified by the work and theories of writers like Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.
"We were watching the beginning of the new theatre in Poland," says Flaszen. "In the period of Socialist Realism, theatre was seen as something heretic, forbidden, because it was such an autonomic art."
And its artistic ambitions were not limited to the main urban centers of Warsaw and Kraków. In early 1959, authorities in the southern city of Opole approached Flaszen to see if he was interested in taking over a small, new experimental venue called the Theatre of Thirteen Rows.
"The name was very suspicious," says Flaszen. "I told them I was indeed interested, but they needed a theatre practitioner. And I suggested Grotowski."
Flaszen knew of Grotowski mostly through his work at the theatre school. ("I was friend of his professors at the theatre academy—they wanted to drink vodka with me because I was a very serious critic.") The fact that he suggested Grotowski for the job might seem surprising, as Flaszen had recently given the young director a less-than-enthusiastic, sarcasm-laced review for a production of Uncle Vanya. "There was a risk, because people believed that he was untalented," says Flaszen. "They thought he was an erudite."
That being the case, Opole was a perfect venue for Grotowski—here the studious director would have none of the pressures of Kraków. Grotowski and Flaszen negotiated a fine financial arrangement from the Opole People's Council, and a promise of complete artistic autonomy from the city fathers in the bargain. Off the cultural radar, financially supported and with little pressure to produce traditional theatrical fare, Grotowski was free to embark on a variety of experiments, including the development of what eventually became famously known as "poor theatre."
Theories come out of practice, so it shouldn't be surprising that a notion of "poor theatre" would emerge from Poland after the Second World War. The war had devastated the country; more than five million Poles (three million of them Jews) had been killed. Most of the larger, urban areas had been leveled either by the Nazis (during such offensives as the Warsaw Uprising) or by the Soviets. After the war, the Allies betrayed the country at Yalta. And the subsequent Stalinist attempt at collectivization in Poland was such a complete economic disaster that it was actually abandoned in the mid-1950s—something unheard of in the Eastern Bloc. There were labor disputes and shortages of basic goods and services.
In Opole, while Grotowski focused on the play selection and actor training, Flaszen took over the position of literary director ("an absurd title, as our theatre was not supposed to be a theatre of words," he recollects with a laugh). "We decided to work together in secret revolt," as Flaszen puts it. "We were underground—before the revolution. We were conspirators. Of course, I'm being a little ironic. But, in fact, we did have the ambition to make a revolution in the theatre."
One of the cagier moves on the collaborators' part was to create the notion of a Laboratory Theatre (which is the name the group assumed when it left Opole for the larger, more Germanic city of Wroclaw in 1965). The idea of turning art into a scientific exploration—something conducted in a laboratory, not in a studio—fit nicely with the 1950s Cold War-era interpretation of Marx. (After all, historical materialism was supposedly scientific.) Since his theatre pieces were constantly in development, Grotowski was able to deftly avoid the kind of state censorship that other Polish artists inevitably had to contend with.
"This was the political genius of Grotowski," Flaszen avows. "The Laboratory Theatre was a country in a country. It was independent. It was like a small kingdom—like Monte Carlo. It was totally autonomous, because it was a laboratory."
Even when the Polish authorities watched a performance, the level of metaphorical content was such that it was often unclear whether that they knew what they were really looking at.
"In Grotowski's performances and in our thinking about the theatre, there were many political elements," Flaszen clarifies. "If you take The Constant Prince: The presentation of the royal court in that play was a nomenclature of the communist government. For example, the court kills the prince. But afterwards, they cry. It's like Stalinism after Krushchev. But the commentary was not clear—it was better presented as a mystical theme. Yet it was in fact an art play about independence of the individual under state oppression."
The historical and political circumstances surrounding the creation of Grotowski's art—and critiques of those circumstances—were never too far away from the work, via representations of political torture in Pedro Calderón de la Barca's The Constant Prince and Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, or the manifestation of Auschwitz's ovens (located only 60 miles away from Opole) in Stanisław Wyspianski's poetic nationalist text Akropolis.
It had been less than a decade earlier that Grotowski had embarked on what one critic referred to as "a short but tempestuous adventure" of political activism, joining the Central Committee of Socialist Youth Movement and founding an academic outreach of the Union of Soviet Youth. He even went as far as to write at the time: "We want an organization that will teach people to think politically, to understand their interests, to fight for bread and democracy and for justice and truth in everyday life. We must fight for people to live like humans and to be masters of their fate."
For his efforts, Grotowski was brought before the Kraków authorities to explain his political activities. By all accounts, the questioning did not go well, though the authorities released him with a warning. He would later be dismissive of this period of his life ("I was so fascinated by Gandhi that I wanted to be him"), but the lesson of the cost of forthrightness was not lost on Grotowski; from then on, the director's viewpoints on Poland and her politics would be couched in metaphor, performance and poetry.
"Of course the performances were political," Flaszen confirms, "but we never talked about this. For him, real politics was the basis for personal liberation. It was a little Gnostic—it was about how to be free from politics but at the same time not escape from it. It was a spirit of fighting for the freedom of a single human being.
"Grotowski's passion was to know how to be alone," he adds, "how not to be an institutional man, a man of the masses. How not to follow of religion or ideology. But also not to lose the warmth of human community—even while being alone. That is a revolution without end. It is a process. And it never ends."
Now, as our hour-and-a-half interview wraps up, the tea Flaszen set aside is cold, and the current director of the Grotowski Institute, a robust young director named Jarosław Fret, helps the older man on with his coat. Fret treats Flaszen with deference and respect; it's an acknowledgement that the Institute, the "year of Grotowski" and perhaps even a big part of Polish theatre as we know it would not be in existence if it weren't for Flaszen's decision 50 years ago to establish a partnership with a young, bookish theatre director in a provincial Polish town.
"I'm very interested in what would have been if I hadn't met Grotowski—and where I would have been?" Flaszen wonders out loud as he wraps a natty yellow scarf around his neck. "When I am on the other side, I hope that Grotowski and I will speak of this.
"But," he adds, "I'm not in a hurry."
Stephen Nunns is the director of the graduate acting program at Towson University in Baltimore, Md., and a former staff writer for this magazin