Marta Górnicka in conversation with Krystyna Duniec “Everyone listens through their own ears”
“Everyone listens through their own ears” – interview from the book of Krystyna Duniec “Body in the theatre”, Warsaw 2012
Visual arts today mostly use the language of the body – this is what carries the meaning. Is it the case that in your project it’s not the soul that has a body, but the body that has a soul?
A critic from the Syndicat de la Critique in France said during a public debate that it is the voice that is the soul of performances by the CHORUS. For me, the body is a kind of voice. We start from the body. But for me the body has not so much a soul as a voice.
So you set the body’s voice free? An embodied voice?
I set it free? I reclaim it, perhaps. Then I use it at the same time.
So a body that is a voice. For Jerzy Grotowski, the voice was also extremely important – by resting it on the spine, he opened it to huge registers. In your chorus theatre project too, the voice has a vast scale. Do you use any vocal support techniques?
There’s a very specific philosophy of working with the voice/ body that I hold on to. I’d call it a chorus voice anthropology, because I make use of techniques from various cultures to form my own programme. I work with so-called directed sound in the body. And do this while creating special conditions for working with the voice on stage, which I call conditions of stable work. But it is extremely hard, and requires a great deal of training, to reach that level of reduced, liv- ing, intensive stability. My voice/body workshop strength- ens concentration and the presence of the body on the stage. The work starts at the point when the desire to go “beyond” is triggered in you, when you begin to think spatially about the body and voice… The basis is the breathing, and then extracting the sound with the movement of the body. Re- sounding with movement in the space – that’s the fundamental exercise of the chorus. We deliberately guide the voice in the body, in the haunches, the breasts, the feet. While maintaining a very intensive presence. Eyes, mouth, hands, feet, spine. It’s the self-aware, “effervescent” body that guides the voice. These are the basics, which you spend years develop- ing. On this basis the chorus can then speak in staccato, wheeze, sing in opera- or heavy-metal-style, whisper, screech or throw up words. I constantly work in contradictions: talk- ing backwards, stretching the body in the space, the quality that the vowels and consonants have, etc.
The starting point was regaining/producing a voice – not just the voice of women, but simply a living voice in a liv- ing body, with all its possibilities. It was about reclaiming the chorus for the theatre, bringing this huge, total force onto the stage. About truly triggering the force from which theatre began and which was forgotten and became redun- dant, marking the history of Western drama. I felt that it was necessary to start from what was the most mute and bur- ied deepest beneath the heaps of culture: from the Chorus of Women. That was my fundamental task, and at the same time the beginning of my work on chorus theatre.
Any artist, even the most innovative and pioneering, tends to try to define their own artistic roots. What are yours?
My theatre doesn’t derive from psychology. For me it’s like with Meyerhold – what’s fundamental is the dynamic/ex- pression of the body coupled with the voice. Articulation is the main means of expression, which is why actors’ mouths, but also their eyes, are so important – they are what TALK. In my theatre, words are never treated realistically or natu- ralistically! … Chorus theatre as a form did not come to be in Poland after the war, and as for the theatre that I came into contact with as a student, like that produced by Einar Schleef in Germany, I wanted to go radically further than it. Schleef’s theatre came about in the 1980s, and for me it was too one-dimensional musically. In formal terms it was very much a monolithic, mass chorus, and I distanced myself from it. What was also important to me was Sarah Kane’s thinking about language and drama. In her later texts I heard the voice of the type of chorus I had in mind.
The Chorus as the only or the main protagonist on the stage.
That’s what is revolutionary.
What matters most is the form…
The starting point for the CHORUS project was something else. The first thing was a sense of the tremendous potential a theatre chorus has. It was this need that gave rise to “CHO- RUS OF WOMEN – a modern tragic chorus” – as I called it. Then came the search for a form in which the CHORUS could exist on the stage, a search for a way of talking: this led among others to the rhythmic speech reminiscent of that of a computer or machine. I had to ask myself “How can a new language for women be created on the stage?”, “Where can it be taken from?”, “Does such a language even exist?” The one around us is so strongly ideological, so full of stere- otypes. I could only “use” the language, exploit it, demon- strate or expose its ins and outs. I decided on a mix of lan- guages, a pile of quotations. But I also felt that in unleash- ing this frenzy of language I could go a little further, that perhaps the power of the body/voice triggered in women would go beyond language, detonate the linguistic engine in whose gears we are stuck. But the goal was not naming, but rather acting on the language.
Before getting to work I drew up a list of specific formal methods, and described the ways in which the CHORUS would operate on stage in the “Rules document”, in which I imposed a concrete vision of the CHORUS.
The CHORUS’s dramatic statement is created at the level not of the text, but at the point where the text/language/ voice/body meet – it’s a multi-layered system. In my project the form and content become one and the same.
What is a word?
The way I treat the word in my theatre is a derivative of thinking about language. Of the belief in its political and oppressive nature…
The CHORUS demonstrates and presents language in its authority. The portatos, staccatos and glissandos break the necks of words, or split up permanent phrasemes. I always poke my tongue out at language! The chorus constantly points to the dramatic vibration of a word, its “in-between”
In speaking a word, the chorus/the choreute is always aware of this involvement.
I go beyond and question meanings, but I also look for the abstract meaning of a word, its sound which frees itself from the meaning, and perhaps opens it to completely different, non-discursive senses. Music doesn’t illustrate a word, but rather occupies its space. Nothing irritates me more than contemporary theatre that presents itself as “modern” and in which the language used by the actors on stage sounds like it’s from a soap opera. That kind of “contemporary” theatre is terribly old, dead, it can’t truly act, or move or change anything in me.
There’s no escape from language…
For me there’s no language, but there’s also nothing else apart from language… I work with that awareness: I try to slide myself into a kind of crack in between. I try to believe that I can encroach on language, disarm it, unleash the Tower of Babel. But at the same time I try to “reclaim”a new linguistic type – in children’s counting rhymes, in single, simple words, in foreign languages, in Greek.In the frenzy of the CHRUS’s speech/silence on the stage. In the poetic word. Using various strategies. There are always many layers…
Which is why in your theatre the group of women on the stage first show solidarity, then disperse, break up, and move apart?
There’s no direct, simple relationship between the language and the choreography. The movement on stage comes from such things as the drama of the scenes, and sometimes as a counterpunch. Above all, though, it comes from the phi- losophy of thinking about a group/team on stage. As I said, the “modern tragic chorus” project was thought of before work started. I had the sense that the chorus today was com- pletely diverse. Perhaps even separate, broken up. Lonely. A chorus of people who don’t hear themselves on the stage. There are a few such scenes in my plays. The choreutes in the chorus form something like a “collection of diverse par- ticles”. Languages mix together, the cultural texts they speak rub against each other. The meaning develops between them, in the crack, where texts join together, for example advertising, a Jelinek text and a classical text. Between these distant discourses something happens, a dynamite of mean- ings is formed. The movement follows the voice, the scenes counterpoint, and sometimes, like in the first project, strong symbols, figures are created. Again the body/voice/move- ment create a multi-layered system. The drama of the first project, This Is the Chorus Speaking: Only 6 to 8 Hours, Only 6 to 8 Hours… was based on a number of textual counter- points. The moment of extreme accumulation of languages comes in the finale of the show, when the language engine explodes, and the language is literally spit out, thrown up.
That’s what happens in the scene when the women are lying on the ground, without language.
Here a new form of speech is formed, as I wrote in the stage directions: “as if created to live”… Or dreaming of it.
Does articulation give and change the meanings of words?
Articulation, the way of speaking and its quality, is the main carrier of expression on the stage. But yes, by working with the voice, rasping, whispering, one can break a word, change something in it. I can say the words of the Mother of God, “I am national sainthood”, with reverence, or for example, yelp them, or rasp them like Darth Vader, and open up new meanings.
Musicality is a chance to go further. I like a phrase by Bar- thes, “language trembles on the verge of meaning”. For me it is the musicality that makes this trembling possible.
So the Chorus is a collective statement with a founding character…
I treat the Chorus as the nucleus of everything. The Chorus as the only or the main protagonist on the stage. That’s what is revolutionary.