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.
The second piece, Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, is a physically and emotionally powerful work whose raw, wild energy animates prodigious feats of dance amid another intoxicating arrangement of music, now accompanied by live instrumentation. It amounts to an emotionally wide-ranging exploration of freedom and the human condition on the brink of self-annihilation.
Finally, the third piece, Anhelli: The Calling (which was still being developed when I saw it in 2009) is inspired in part by Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki and his journey from Naples to the Holy Land, in which the ensemble made use of a large white sheet in its evocation of an expanse as forbidding as it was liberating.
These pieces, which can be seen on separate nights or all in one go between two venues on Potrero Hill (the perfectly suited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church hosting parts one and three, and the nearby Potrero Hill Neighborhood House hosting the more volatile and frenetic Caesarean Section), stir up a range of feeling with their arresting amalgam of liturgical song (with a smattering of modern airs from the likes of Erik Satie) and the power and precision of ZAR's accomplished ensemble. Use of natural light, live instrumental accompaniment, and simple stage properties (simple but strikingly arranged, as in a glowing shaft of broken glass that cuts across the floor in Caesarian Section) meanwhile train a low-tech, premodern set of theatrical elements toward addressing the fundamental facts of life and death. The deep relationship between theater and religion rarely feels this palpable.
But it starts with the music, which as Fret told me in Poland in 2009, gives the path to all that follows, both as a direction and foundation. "Every single action [in Gospels of Childhood] was put on a solid footing because the music was very solid; music is so precise, a structure of breathing. "
That structure, says Fret, is a tool applied to life, just as theater is a tool. "In the extraordinary vibratory qualities of the zar, we saw a column of breathing. It is 2,000 years old. Even the Svaneti people don't understand it — in that there is no [semantic] meaning — but they have not forgot the ritual function of it, related to the funeral ceremony, to saying farewell, to fulfilling that moment when the coffin is lowered into the earth, sending the soul somewhere. For a moment a society breathes together. This is the most important and central function of singing, to breathe together. The main message of life and of art is a pattern of breathing. We can use emotion to direct our breathing. We can also use some tools, like song, to harmonize, not only in terms of technique but also with what's inside. The performance is a huge 'partitura,' or score, of breathing."
TEATR ZAR: THE GOSPELS OF CHILDHOOD TRIPTYCH
Part of the SF International Arts Festival
Thurs/19–Sat/21 and Mon/23–May 25;
7 p.m.(part one); 8:15 p.m. (part two); and 9:30 p.m. (part three)
$12–$25 ($48 for all three parts)
St. Gregory of Nyssa Church (parts one and three)
500 De Haro, SF
Potrero Hill Neighborhood House
953 De Haro, SF