The chorus of the alive and dead – Arno Widmann in conversation with Marta Górnicka
GORKI SPIELZEITHEFT, 01.01.2021
Marta Górnicka re-invented the chorus theatre in Warsaw ten years ago: as a grand aesthetic and political utopia spanning theatre and society. It’s designed to defy Covid as well.
Today is Friday November 27th. Tomorrow there are big protests taking place in Poland.
I’m excited for them, I’m going. It’ll be a powerful demonstration against the colonisation and nationalisation of the female body. It was 102 years ago that women in Poland won. Isn’t it horrifying that women still have to take to the streets to defend their rights? We will take to the streets during the pandemic to defend our rights to our bodies. We’re no longer speaking politely, we’re using expressions that are very clear: »We are at war«, »Piss off«. We are making sure that the men who govern our country cannot ignore us anymore. That’s fantastic.
You’re hopeful about the future for Poland?
Today I’m thinking about the revolutionary women that will take to the streets tomorrow. When I look further into the future, the thought crosses my mind that it’s possible that nothing will change. Not a nice thought. But it keeps cropping up in view of history and the balance of power as well. But now I want to belong to the chorus that will fill the streets of Warsaw tomorrow.
Still Life is your latest project at the Maxim Gorki Theatre. What are you planning?
The project is inspired by wall of diversity from Museum of Naturkunde Berlin. The most beautiful and in the same time the most horrible Still life in the world. This is for me the metaphor of our time. Dionizos in front of the biggest Still life in the world. It could be a call for the creation of a new society. It’s designed to include everyone, animals and plants as well, everything that lives. A radical new world of relations should appear. Today that’s especially difficult, of course. Corona has separated us from one another. Corona is against communing with other people, corona is against my art. Corona is against the chorus.
You regard animals and plants as citizens of this new republic?
That’s the dream of course: a community of all forms of life.
Virus and bacteria are part of it. They are obviously cleverer than we are. This is a thought experiment. How do we expand participation? Perhaps not everyone will belong, but we will always be connected to them. I really mean all of that, but of course I also play with these explanations. At the moment we’re torn between our need for connection with nature and our need for technology.
What does that have to do with your artistic discipline: chorus theatre?
The chorus is the collective of our bodies that holds us all together through breathing as one. By breathing we connect ourselves to all of nature. The coronavirus is transmitted through the breath. It’s an element that’s vital for our lives, and at the same time it brings us death. That is the end of the chorus, one could say. Covid destroys the fellowship of breathing bodies. But I’m not giving up. I will incorporate the digital into the chorus. It no longer stands in contrast to technology. It integrates it. The chorus begins with lip synch and exists between a digital and a natural voice. This is what I call the new ritual/digital chorus. I’m using this compulsion as a liberation from old habits. Covid has led us to doubt the purity of bodies. They are no longer utopias per se.
So Covid is not the end of the chorus.
The virologists tell us that the chorus is the most dangerous form of being together. So we have to be especially careful. At first I thought about the one-person-chorus as a solution to this dilemma. In October we performed Community: An App for One Person at the Maxim Gorki Theatre. At that point we were questioning the possibility or impossibility of the chorus in times of social distancing. How can a world of relationships be created beyond relationships? How can we find an air to breathe together when breathing the same air has been forbidden? My answer to the pandemic connects to experiments we had already conducted with the Political Voice Institute before the pandemic. Expanding the chorus with digital participants was now more than just a welcome enrichment – characters from cartoons, computer games, the sound of sorting algorithms for example – the starting point of the new chorus.
Do you like that?
I’m fascinated by the alternation, the field between real and digital breath and voice. We’re mixing many different tones. It makes me think of the old Hebrew word magrepha.
What is that?
Originally, it was a shovel. It was used to dispose of the ashes from sacrifices. In the temple in Jerusalem, there was also an organ called magrepha. Every single one of its pipes was said to be able to produce 100 tones. That meant the entire instrument could create thousands of voices. The chorus was always augmented with technological tones. Magrepha did both things: It gathered the ashes and it multiplied the voices of the living. We’re attempting something similar today. Of course, that’s difficult. But we must confront our situation, must look for solutions. If we don’t find any, the chorus, the community will die. We experiment in chorus theatre, just like we are all experimenting in our lives at the moment, with the new relations of closeness and distance. That is my complicated answer to the pandemic. But the situation is itself complicated as well.
How did you come to work with choruses? Did you discover it in opera, in rock music or in the works of the tragic poets of antiquity?
When I read the texts from antiquity, it was immediately clear to me that I had to start from the beginning again. It was clear to me that the chorus has to be the main character. It has the most power. But it wasn’t clear to me how it could be turned into that today. I had to re-invent the body in a way. It also required a new language, a new music. The bodies needed to be trained in a completely different way. I felt the great power that lay in the chorus. But at the same time, it was buried. The chorus theatre that I knew from Poland and Germany made people uniform, made them into machines. I didn’t want that. And a return to antiquity wasn’t an option either: at that time the authors were men, the actors and the chorus – all men. Just the fact that it was all women in my first chorus was an enormous innovation.
And with that you changed everything at once ten years ago.
At the beginning there was this grand gesture. I thought I was very revolutionary. The language of the tragedies of antiquity is full of violence. I needed to change that. Soon I noticed, however, that I’m not a poet. I’m not capable of writing a new poetry for this new chorus. That’s how I came up with the idea of mixing different languages, styles, ways of speaking. Newspaper language needed to slam up against high poetry. There is no single tone. There is a multitude of contradictory voices. That’s exactly how it needs to be: instead of being the one that sets the tone, I cannot just set one. It’s about politics. My art is a political art. To bring new protagonists to the stage and create a new language for them. That leads to confrontations. Not only on stage, not only with the authorities.
But in the minds of every member of the audience as well?
That’s what it was and is about. The audience is supposed to be baffled. That’s how it begins to consider, to rethink what it used to take for granted. The task of the chorus is to make society aware of its subconscious and to deal with the brutality that our world was established with and which we run the danger of adapting ourselves to. The chorus reveals this situation and our behaviour within it. How? With the composition of words and physical movements. Music plays an important role in this. Music helps me transform words and produce those ambiguities without which a new society cannot exist. That sounds complicated but …
Do you like it when it gets complicated?
Complicated is more interesting and closer to reality than simple. I don’t copy anything, I construct my own things. That is my strategy. I must use everything because I dream of a grand ensemble in which all living beings have a voice. The clans of the living and the dead. That is an ambiguous utopia. But to me it finally seems possible as well, not least thanks to digital achievements. We must work on a new world today that connects us all.
Interview: Arno Widmann