A Search for the Oldest Songs in the World: Out of the Crucible of Modern Polish Theatre Haunted by Death, Memory Comes Teatr ZAR, and the Primal Power of Ancient Song

By O'Quinn, Jim | American Theatre, December 2009 | Go to article overview

A Search for the Oldest Songs in the World: Out of the Crucible of Modern Polish Theatre Haunted by Death, Memory Comes Teatr ZAR, and the Primal Power of Ancient Song


O'Quinn, Jim, American Theatre


  Songs grow directly from reactions to life's travails; they come from
  something "under the skin," something wholly organic.
  --Jerzy Grotowski

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 Angles--made these rare archaic songs the generative element of its extraordinary, virtuosic performances?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Jaroslaw 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, page 31) 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. …

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