I propose to discuss the representation of Greek chorus in WÅ‚odzimierz Staniewski’s production of Iphigenia at Aulis (2007). I will begin with a short clip representing Iphigenia’s death and draw attention to the male and the female dancers’ frenetic movements in the background. Still photographs from the performance of the play in Warsaw (2009) will be used to illustrate further the company’s effort to reconstruct the movements of ancient Greek choruses as recorded on vase paintings. Staniewski’s work was recently the subject of Yana Zafiri’s (2010) enthusiastic description. My goal is to open a discussion about the intellectual and ethical implications of Staniewski’s effort. In order to do so, I will first outline the rationale for his strategy, sketching the history of the company and historicizing Staniewski’s comments on the Greek past and on the actor’s body.
Inspired by Tadeusz Grotowski’s “para-theater” (Allain 1997: 44-60), Staniewski founded a Center of Theatrical Practice in 1978 in Gardzienice, a village located in a culturally diverse part of southeastern Poland. The center’s mission was to create an opportunity for dialogue (in the Bakhtinian sense; cf. 1968) between theater practitioners and rural communities (Filipowicz, 1983, 1987). Actors obtained rigorous training in dance and song and plied their trade during “expeditions” to remote locations and “gatherings,” not only performing, but also learning dance, music, and ritual gestures from their hosts. Soon, “expeditions” meant to enrich the troupe’s bodily erudition went abroad, as far as India and North America, contributing to Gardzienice’s international reputation.
With their staging of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (1997), Staniewski and Gardzienice turned the technique that they had used to dialogue with living cultures to the study of ancient Greek theater. In his recent book (2004), Staniewski often evokes “the Greeks” as a source of inspiration. Upon close reading, it turns out that Staniewski’s debt is mostly to Werner Jaeger (1962) and his concept of paideia (2004: 47). Two examples will suffice here. To Jaeger, Greek culture was the sublime expression of the universal human spirit, so that “men who realize the deeper values of the human spirit must turn […] to the original forms in which it was first embodied” (1986: XVIII). This is what Staniewski has in mind when he refers to antiquity as “the childhood” of humanity, which artists endeavor to remember (2004: 124-5). Jaeger argues that the Greeks discovered “how to represent the human body […] by learning the universal laws governing its structure, balance and movement” (1986: XX). Staniewski echoes this view when he asserts that, when imitating the figures from Athenian vase paintings, he was able to “retrieve primordial gestures” he and his actors “found that the postures on the vases came from a forgotten line of life” (2004: 128-9). Thanks to this connection, the body becomes a means of transcending one’s culture and connecting to “that which is old, ancient, forgotten, and hidden, which can mean somehow universal” (2004: 97).
Staniewski’s use of dance inspired by Greek vase paintings is thus based on the assumptions that 1) the actor’s body is endowed with a supra-cultural memory of its own; 2) Greek culture represents a universal ideal that can be brought back to life through embodied memory. This position, at once universalist and Hellenocentric, contradicts the original premises of Gardzienice, renouncing the company’s initial awareness of and openness to cultural difference. The aesthetic merits of Staniewski’s work (past and present) notwithstanding, it is important to keep in mind that the corporeal mysticism motivating his use of chorus reveals more about early 20th century ideas of Greece than it does about ancient Greece itself.