Sunday, January 21, 2001
By Julia Whitworth
With lips nearly touching, two women sing into each other's mouths - their soaring voices blending and clashing. they are singing what members of the Polish experimental theater group Gardzienice believe is an ancient delphic hymn.
Another woman writhes, her eyeballs rolling up, her agonized song rising to a dizzying pitch. She falls to the floor and passionately caresses a man-turned-donkey. Soon, the three women and two others begin to spin in ecstasy, their long hair and white robes flying, as they cry "Euoi bakchai!" ("Praise Bacchus!").
The performance, which took place last August in the village of Gardzienice in southeastern Poland, was of "Metamorphosis", based on the story of "The Golden Ass" by Lucius Apuleius, the second century Roman satirist. Beginning Wednesday through next Sunday, the hour-long sung through work, a combination of Roman narrative, Polish and Balkan folk tradition and reconstructed ancient Greek ritual, will be presented by ten members of Gardzienice at La Mama E.T.C. (The company, which takes its name from the village in which it resides, will also tour with the piece: Feb.2 and 4, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Feb. 17, Double Edge Theater, Ashfield, Mass. - Double edge and Gardzienice run a joint training program, The International Consortium of Theeater Practice; and Feb. 27 and March 1, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.)
Gardzienice pronounced gar-zeh-NEET-zeh) - the company's formal title is The Staniewski Center of Theater Practices - last appeared in New York in 1988 at the first New York International Festival of the Arts. Since then, with the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Poland has emerged as one of Central Europe's leading cultural producers. Gardzienice is both part of this "new Poland" and the continuation of the tradition of the seminal Polish theater directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. Although members of the group have taught and performed at theaters around the world, Gardzienice has a strong Polish identity and is regarded by some as the nation's most important contemporary theater company; enthusiasts travel to the remote village near Lublin each time it performs.
Wlodzimierz Staniewski, 50, the company's artistic director, worked with Grotowski from 1971 to 1977, the year before he founded Gardzienice. He called Gardzienice an "association," a term that not only evaded the government censorship but aptly described its mission: broadly cultural with performances based on anthropological and historical research. The process takes time; "Metamorphosis," which required delving into the nature of ancient Greek music and dance, is only the fifth production in the company's 23-year history.
Over time, the troupe, the troupe has made many expeditions, as they are called, to rural communities in central and eastern Europe, where songs, dances, rituals and oral histories are exchanged with people whose cultures were nearly annihilated in the 20th century and are now fast disappearing. During these travels, Gardzienice members have learned performance forms from Jewish, Gypsy, Ukrainian and Belarussian, among others. The actors themselves train regularly in acrobatics, running, dance and singing.
For "Metamorphosis," Mr. Staniewski has adapted the only work of fiction to survive in its entirety, "The Golden Ass," also known as "Metamorphosis". But rather than the story of the adventures of a man temporarily turned into an ass, the director's real interest is in the parallels he sees between two eras of transition: Apuleius's time - when pagan deities like Bacchus were abandoned for the new Christianity - and the present. "The old Greco-Roman systems were falling apart," Mr. Staniewski said recently by phone from Poland, "and the new systems - of law, culture, politics, religion - were being initiated. We, in Poland , are living in a similar time of transformation, of metamorphosis."
Mr. Staniewski said he looked to ancient Greece for the "spiritual sources" of Apuleius's satire. Examining musicologists' transcriptions of stone carvings from the fifth century B.C. to the second century A.D., he and Maciej Rychly, the work's composer, determined that Greek music was sung and danced in a way similar to the folk traditions that Gardzienice had explored for years. Because there is no record of the rhythms of ancient Greek music, Mr. Rychly used traditional Balkan music from the Carpathian Mountains region, where, some scholars believe, ancient Greek influences remain. Meanwhile, the actors developed dance movements based on Greek vase paintings and etchings.
Attempting to incarnate ancient Greek theater's energy, the company employs music and movement to explore extremes of human emotion. The result is what Mr. Staniewski calls a "theatrical essay" on the mysteries of transformation, memory and spiritual crisis.
Issue Date: Sunday, January 21st 2001