2,000 years in the waking

Poland's Teatr ZAR brings its singular songs and theater to the SF International Arts Festival 

The Gospels of Childhood Triptych will be performed six times at the San Francisco International Arts Festival.


One night in 2009 I found myself climbing a stairwell to the second floor of the Grotowski Institute's historic roost at Rynek-Ratusz 27 in downtown Wroclaw, Poland, with maybe 30 or 40 other people hailing from a variety of countries. We entered a modestly large room, plain and hushed like a Quaker meetinghouse, with several ascending rows of benches against opposite walls — the same room where Jerzy Grotowki's Laboratory Theatre had performed Akropolis in 1965, someone whispered. I was jet-lagged and might have been the one whispering, for all I could make of this somnambulant excursion. But when the performance began, all sleepiness dropped away and one of the most memorable encounters, in a trip filled with impressive theatrical events, began to unfold.

The encounter was with Teatr ZAR, a Wroclaw-based ensemble company founded in 2002 by Jaroslaw Fret (also since 2007 director of the Grotowski Institute) whose unique work arises from years-long investigations into primordial music from the Orthodox Christian world — some of the oldest examples of polyphonic music, culled from a series of research trips to Eurasia and North Africa, including early Christian sites in Armenia, Bulgaria, Corsica, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, and Iran.

"Zar" is the name of the 2000-year-old funeral songs still sung by the Svaneti tribe in the remote reaches of the Caucasus Mountains in northwestern Georgia, which Fret and company visited between 1999 and 2003. Fret and Teatr ZAR rigorously absorb such ancient and distinct religious music (via cultural exchange with practitioners and the adoption or invention of various techniques of notation and transmission that would likely merit an advanced degree in musicology) and then thoughtfully rework it amid movement and themes (some text-derived if not exactly text-based) over a significant gestation period. This concerted ensemble practice, in line with Grotowski's own "laboratory theatre" approach, has produced three startling theatrical pieces, each lasting roughly one hour, grouped as a triptych under the title Gospels of Childhood.

Many of us in the room that night had come to Wroclaw by special invitation of Philip Arnoult's Baltimore-based Center for International Theater Development in conjunction with the Grotowski Institute, which was hosting the Grotowski Year 2009, on the 10th anniversary of the death of the internationally renowned Polish prophet of "poor theatre." (Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Grotowski Year coincided with two major theater festivals, including one built around the EU's prestigious European Theatre Prize, that year bestowed on the great Polish director Krystian Lupa.) We had all, therefore, been treated to the same buzz about an unusual company working with ancient songs. But it would have been difficult to anticipate the effect on the audience of the intoning voices and thrilling harmonies that filled the room, or for that matter the moody intensity, bounding athleticism, brooding and ecstatic movement, and the quasi-liturgical atmosphere of these exceptionally deft and well-crafted performances.

In a remarkable Bay Area debut this week, the entire Gospels of Childhood Triptych is being performed six times as a must-see showcase of the eighth annual San Francisco International Arts Festival.

The first piece, Overture, which was the original inspiration for the group, is a gorgeously subdued, candle-lit, almost ceremonial work, arising from a shimmering chorus of voices and invoking the cycle of life and death in its fleet and lithesome choreography. It developed from Fret's interest in Gnostic thought and intertwines the story of Lazarus from the perspective of his two sisters with the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who holds a particular place in Gnostic traditions.

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