Wendy and I were invited to visit Wroclaw (which through the oddities of Polish pronounciation is vr-ah-tsw-ah-v) by Joanna Klass, who is organizing the Year of Grotowski for 2009. Joanna is a theater producer from Poland who has lived in Southern California for 15 years and brought cutting edge theater to major L.A. venues and alternative places like the Getty Museum.
In Wroclaw, we were treated to a tour of this beautiful city, which became Poland as part of the Post WWII division of territories between Germany, Russia and the Eastern Bloc. We were told by other Poles that Wroclaw has a unique flavor partly due to the fact that all the Poles who live there were “assigned” to this home after the war and so share that unusual uprooted background.
One of the stunning features of the city is an architectural phenomenon by Max Berg, the largest dome of its time made of formed concrete for the 1912 World Exhibition. The structure was so controversial that 4 different sets of authorities required evaluation and sign off, and the construction crew refused to remove the supporting scaffolding — forcing Berg to start the removal himself with passersby whom he snagged to help.
The theater in which drama revolutionary Jerzy Grotowski worked before leaving Poland is now the Grotowski Institute, which houses the performance space, an archive of Grotowski’s writings and photographs and administrative offices. The Institute is the base for the year of Grotowski, which will include a festival in Wroclaw during June of next year.
We viewed two parts of a triptych in progress from the Institute’s resident theater company, Zar. The work was directed by Jarek Fret, who knew — but never worked with — Grotowski and is in the generation of theater-makers who were both influenced by the master and have an independence from his technique. The evening consisted of unrelated one-acts which were presented in reverse of the order they will hold in the finished triptych, according to Fret. The first, Cesarian Section, was an unsettling dance of love, loss and transcendence. The in-the-round production began with music of a string ensemble with piano, two glasses of wine and a plywood floor divided in two by a 4-inch trench of shattered glass. The lights went out and in the dark, the sound of smashing wine glasses shattered the room. When the lights came back up, there ensued a beautiful interplay between Ditte Berkeley, Kamila Klamut and Tomasz Bojarski that had them playing powerful visual metaphors around, in, and straddling the now lit-from-below stripe of broken glass; wine as blood; running without breaking free and destruction as a response to frustration.
The second part, Gospels of Childhood, resulted from primary research in the Caucuses Mountains, where the group investigated lingering forms of early Christianity and learned songs used there that have their roots in the beginning of the Common Era. The resulting piece is a cross between bible reenactment and authentic ritual that the director later told me aims to fulfill the same purpose as a religious practice, activating spiritual energy through the intercession of art.
The music in both pieces (the first a mix of Satie, Balkan-flavored accordian and Corsican song; the second polyphonic church sect music of the Caucuses), and the musical and physical talent of this young troupe, is superb. Gospels of Childhood comes to its end with a song accompanying the miracle of Lazarus raised from the dead. In complete darkness with the sound of shovel and dirt and mourning wails, the funeral song type called “Zar” from which the company takes its name, fills the air with a potent prayer that is followed by the lighting of four suspended wheels of candles. These primative candleabra are pushed to swing the piece to its eventual dissolution. In both pieces the audience remained silent at the end; in the case of the latter many of us watched the candles swing for five minutes before leaving the magical space.
Save the date for the festival in June 2009 and Zar’s performances in L.A. in Fall 2009. Both promise to be fantastic.