Dariusz Kosiński (born 1966) – professor at the Chair of Performance Studies Department at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His key publications include Polski teatr przemiany (The Polish Theatre of Change, 2007), Grotowski. Przewodnik (Grotowski: A Guidebook, 2009), Teatra polskie. Historie (Polish Theatrums: Stories, 2010), Teatra polskie. Rok katastrofy (Polish Theatrums: The Year of Disaster, 2012). From 2010 to 2013, programme director of the Jerzy Grotowski Institute in Wrocław. Since April 2014, deputy director of the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw.
When Kordian, the title character of one of the most important Polish romantic dramas, written by Juliusz Słowacki, can't find the meaning of his life, lost in a human world, he desperately turns towards nature and exclaims:
Jak koń Apokalipsy szara leci chmura,
Jesiennym gnana wiatrem; a w chmurze myśl gromu,
Omdlała zimnem, iskry wydobyć nie może;
Więc co ma w łonie gniewu, nie powie nikomu?
I przepłynie nad światem… Z gromem myśli złożę,
Niechaj płyną nad światem zimne i bez głosu…
Pani – patrz tam na niebo… oto duchy Danta.
Tam się na starym drzewie wichrzy szpaków stado,
Zaleciały przelotem i do snu się kładą,
Wiatr przez noc będzie liście zbijał – one prześnią
Noc całą, drzew ginących kołysane pieśnią;
Anioł przeczucia śpiącym wskaże lotu szlaki,
A gdy się zbudzą, drzewo powie: «Lećcie, ptaki!
Nie mam już dla was liści, jam się zestarzało
Przez noc, kiedyście spały…» Juliusz Słowacki, Kordian, Act I, Scene 2, lines 364–381, in: Dzieła, edited by Julian Krzyżanowski, Chapter VI: Dramaty, edited by Eugeniusz Sawrymowicz, Wrocław 1959, p. 200.
A grey cloud runs like the Apocalypse’s horse,
Rushed with the autumn wind; inside the cloud a thunder’s thought
Fainted with cold, cannot bring a spark;
So what it has in the womb of anger, will it not tell anyone?
It will pass above the world... With thunder I will send my thoughts away,
Let them flow silent and cold, over the world…
My Lady – look at the sky... see Dante’s spirits.
There, on the old tree a flock of starlings is romping,
Birds stopped on their way and put themselves to sleep,
Wind will be throwing leaves overnight – birds will deeply sleep
All night, cradled with songs of dying trees,
The angel of premonition will reveal their flight routes
And when they wake up, the tree will say: ‘Fly away, birds!
I do not have any leaves for you, I got older
Overnight, when you were asleep...’
He turns towards nature to find its hidden meaning, hoping to cure his vagueness and uncertainty, tormenting him in his relations with other people and with himself. Nature is for him an incontestable reality and an undisputed source of truth, the deficiency of which he discovers in the human world with growing dismay and disbelief. Nature not only seems to know all the needful answers, but also to fill them with the value of undeniable rights. Because nature is not enslaved by the necessity of choices, it is independent of the will and beliefs and is an absolute. But when Kordian looks at the sky, trees and birds, he sees nothing but metaphorical images of himself instead of meanings, truth and rights. The Book of Nature turns out to be only a screen on which “a reader” only projects his own fantasies and phantasms. Instead of interpreting the truth transcending a subjective experience – as he hopes to do – he only confirms it, transforming phenomena of nature – flowing clouds, birds returning for the night – into sombre metaphors manifesting his own problems, doubts and despair.
The scene that presents Kordian looking at the Polish autumn evening sky above the palace park is very theatrical not only because it is a part of a spectacular drama dedicated to the great romantic stage, but also because it touches the whole complexity of a human’s perception of nature. And yet the perception (view) is just the basis and the essence of theatre that derives from the Greek verb thea – to view, to look. You might say this perception is double, bi-directional – not only is Kordian looking at nature, but nature reciprocally looks at him. Kordian’s perception transmutes into words, it’s the source of the lines he utters. Nature’s perception is silent yet intensively present: Kordian refers to nature and its phenomena because he feels exposed to nature’s gaze – still and indifferent yet imperious – like God’s gaze.
It may seem that nature and theatre – an artificial creation, mostly closed in the European modernist tradition within the walls of a separate building – are two opposites. Yes, theatre tries to imitate nature, often setting it “to the letter” on stage paintings or even elements of nature, but theatre itself is an emblem of something artificial, designed and separated from the natural, innate world. In Northern Europe, in countries like Poland that do not benefit from a mild climate and long periods of warm, sunny weather, this contrast seems especially distinct. When it is warm outside, theatres usually break for the summer season. They start again when autumn comes then close again late in spring. During these long weeks and months, going to the theatre is an evening and night activity. Nowadays, when cities are brightly lit and there is a lot of artificial light, this experience is not so obvious. In the past, especially in the 19th century before the electrification era, this contrast between dark streets and illuminated theatres, full of people and sound, was particularly striking. On the city's night map, a public place such as a brightly illuminated theatre was particularly inviting. This contrast of natural darkness outside, associated with shorter activity of the sun, and artificially extended day was at the same time an effect and a symbol of human civilization challenging nature, liberating itself from nature’s influence and becoming independent from nature’s power and rhythm.
This particular contrast had an obvious political aspect, connected with groups of people who established urban civilization and for whom institutional and public theatre was their creation and synthesis. Standing up to the laws of nature, from the simplest ones defining the rhythm of a day and a year, characteristic of rural life, meant in fact taking power and imposing their own laws and rules. These laws and rules determined basic indicators of theatre environment, time and space, but they mostly determined the last, irremovable element of nature present in theatre – a human body. Stage-playing conventions, obligatory in bourgeois theatre, were mostly of an aesthetic and moral character. The human body was disciplined in a particular way, according to arguments referring to beauty and public morality. In fact, this discipline was rather a kind of political message – actors and actresses personified model bodies, exposed to public overview and subjected to the power of collective beliefs, dictated by more or less hidden masters of the show. Desirable as alive and natural, they were presented for watching only within the frames of certain imposed conventions that under slogans of “beautiful nature” formed sets of inviolable rules.
“Everything beautiful is natural, but not everything natural is beautiful”, proclaimed the rule formulated by Antonina Hoffman, one of the preeminent Polish actresses in the second half of the 19th century. This rule, recognized as convenient to stage aesthetics, was in fact a rule of power, which bourgeois theatre was trying to impose on nature. While Kordian, desperately searching for the truth in nature, was losing hope because he wasn't able to find anything else beside his own projections, the institutional, municipal theatre – with full power, characteristic of the capitalist industrial civilization that created it – was trying to impose its rules on nature and to use its authority for its own purposes. By overusing the term “naturalness”, it appropriated the reality and indisputability of nature, in order to strengthen while simultaneously hiding its power.
Not surprisingly, opposition to bourgeois theatre and to its rulers grew since the end of the 19th century and one of its main slogans was “returning to nature”. Literally, In Poland, as in all of Europe, the myth of an antique amphitheatre under the open sky and of performances that included natural phenomena was still very intense. The myth of folk performances and rural theatre strictly connected with the rhythm of nature and natural phenomena was alive, as well. In 1916, Mieczysław Limanowski, one of the remarkable artists in Polish theatre and a professor of geology, published a short text Rok polski i dusza zbiorowa Mieczysław Limanowski, „Rok polski i dusza zbiorowa”, in: Był kiedyś teatr Dionizosa, edited with introduction by Zbigniew Osiński, Warszawa 1994, pp. 125–137. (“The Polish Year and a Collective Soul”), in which he described a sequence of festive performances of traditional rural culture as a kind of drama, ruled by the power of the sun. Nodal points and, at the same time, external manifestations of this annual cycle were cultural presentations: spring fertility festivals, great celebrations of the shortest night in a year, harvest festivals, autumn days of the dead, winter performances greeting the birth of new light. Reconstructing this image of a traditional dramatic and performative life, Limanowski formed the myth of culture not separated from nature, but remaining in harmony with nature and its rules, which – according to the romantic pattern – he perceived as transcendent. Limanowski was also a theosophist fascinated by hermetic and alchemic traditions. He was focused on learning and experiencing “eternal” laws and principles that rule the entirety of the world and with which one should remain in harmony in order not to live life in exile, in the house of bondage. He did not perceive these laws and principles as a kind of a statute book. He felt them and therefore described them as harmonies – certain kinds of musicality, which one may discover in nature but also educe throughout artistic activities, especially in theatre. Limanowski regarded theatre as the microcosm, appointed to enable capturing the harmony of the world, the harmony that governs the macrocosm; then acting in tune with it and offering this experience to those who come to see performances. The team of such a theatre could not function within the artificial environment, separated from nature – one of Limanowski’s ideas was to tune the repertoire with the respective seasons of the year and with the festive calendar. In this sense, he promoted and created an ecological idea of theatre – not opposing nature but remaining in harmony and somehow transferring its laws and principles to the world of art.
In 1919 in Warsaw, Limanowski, together with Juliusz Osterwa, an actor and theatre director, founded the first theatre lab, Reduta. Among the various experiments and innovations undertaken by this team, first attempts to conduct theatre activities in the natural environment took a prominent place. The Warsaw theatre community ridiculed these attempts – such as rehearsals in parks, on the grass. Holiday excursions to the Mazovia region's forests by team members and students were perceived as rather astonishing. Theatre which went beyond the city limits seemed a whim. But Reduta started the tradition, in existence to this day, a tradition of theatre that distances itself from urban culture and searches for another “natural theatre environment”.
In the 1970s, a young actor, Włodzimierz Staniewski, was also searching for this new “natural theatre environment”. He founded the Centre for Theatre Practices “Gardzienice”, located in a small village in Eastern Poland, far from big urban centres. Before this happened, Staniewski had cooperated closely with the director Jerzy Grotowski for several years. He was one leader of the so-called paratheatrical period that began at the end of 1970, when Grotowski announced that he would never again create theatre performances. It was characteristic that this “leaving the theatre” meant, in fact, leaving the city and going to the woods. These paratheatrical activities took place mostly in the “forest seat” of the Laboratory Theatre, near the village of Brzezinka, some 35 kilometres from Wrocław. The works were carried out mostly, though not exclusively, outdoors and in relation to the natural environment. While developing these activities step by step and turning them into a project called the Theatre of Sources, Grotowski even began to speak of them as “the practical equivalent of ecological thinking in the field of culture”.Jerzy Grotowski, Hipoteza robocza, in: Teksty zebrane (Collected Works), Warszawa 2012, p. 685.Since his early youth, Grotowski had been fascinated by the possibility of solving dilemmas of modern man and of his “secular salvation” through experiencing oneself as a part of the universe that “is immortal”Jerzy Grotowski, Teatr a człowiek kosmiczny, op. cit., p. 123.Jerzy Grotowski, Teatr a człowiek kosmiczny, op. cit., p. 123. He was searching for performative tools and for courses of action that were able, in a synthetic, comprehensive way, to recognize and experience the eternal changeability and the harmony of contradictions that creates the universe. This was perhaps the most advanced attempt to fulfil a romantic dream of finding in nature – human nature as well – an unquestionable grain of sense and certainty. Grotowski was not as naive as Kordian and was not deluding himself that this “grain” could be easily accessed or that without difficulty and effort it could be recognized and included in a communicable form. He worked for many years in a dialectical tension between nature and culture, avoiding a simplistic opposition between them. With maniacal stubbornness, he repeated that the discipline of forms is the condition of “organicity” (and thus of acting deeply in accordance with nature).
In the paratheatrical era of the first half of the 1970s, these artists quite often exposed themselves to nature’s action, also literally: they exposed themselves to the weather. In 1977, the team of Grotowski’s young collaborators, led by Jacek Zmysłowski, completed The Project: The Mountain, part of which was the activity called The Way. It was nothing but a two-day hike through Lower Silesian forests to the Grodziec Castle, where the main part of the project was held. Participants walked through the forest, led by guides, regardless of atmospheric conditions. They slept in the forest. They consciously gave up the safety of urban shelter. During the activities in the castle, within the part called The Mountain of Flame, they gave up regular circadian rhythms applicable to everyone, opening themselves to organic impulses of action and seeking experimental liberation from culturally imposed norms and standards. For some of them, it turned out to be unbearable.
At the same time, on the opposite side of Poland, Włodzimierz Staniewski began his research and exploration. Inspired by the idea of the philosopher-critic Mikhail Bakhtin, he left the urban environment and under the slogan of “searching for the new theatre environment”, went into the space which, according to his opinion, did not place false divisions between high and low, everyday life and holiday, nature and culture. Along with Bakhtin, another patron of this return to nature and rural culture related to nature was, of course, Mieczysław Limanowski.
Moving to Gardzienice meant literally exposing the team to extremely difficult living conditions. While hiking, Staniewski and his team exposed themselves to variable, often unfavourable weather. It was all done in order to somehow “de-urbanize” the art of theatre. In short, we might say that these trips for the new “natural theatre environment” were kind of specific returns to times and places before the birth of urban bourgeois theatre. Then the aim of the “Gardzienice” team was to discover forgotten and left behind or inadequately developed opportunities of evolving various ways and forms of theatre activity, including other institutional forms (the “Gardzienice” team was acting as an association, offering an alternative to the state institutions predominant in communist Poland). The basis of their actions was an idea of theatre ecology, meaning strict and close links between art and life and their connection with the rhythm of nature and features of space. One basic idea of Staniewski played a very important role in their work (and in these connections): the idea of musicality, partly deriving from antiquity, partly from Polish romantic tradition, as well as from Limanowski. Even though “Gardzienice” referred in performance to various important literary texts and certainly did not disregard nor neglect them, their works were always composed in a musical way. Not only because various kinds of songs and sound compositions were and still are the basic matter of a performance, but mainly because Staniewski – as he puts it – experiences the world through music. If, as he claims, being is musical and if “spirit is musicality”Odczynianie świata, Zbigniew Taranienko interviews Włodzimierz Staniewski, Konteksty. Polska Sztuka Ludowa 1991 nr 3–4 (215), p. 49., then theatre as the art combining body and spirit must obviously be a space of musicality. Even more: only theatre is able to provide an unlimited sphere dedicated to working on musicality, with theatre more musical than music because it uses not only sounds but also the harmony between bodies, emotions, presence, space and time. A performance understood and completed in this way is a musical event brought to life, an experience of musicality, not only something that affects a doer but also something that concerns almost equally audiences and the world around them.
When, at the end of the 1970s, Staniewski was leaving town, though it was not associated with any political declaration, his gesture had some political significance. Aldona Jawłowska, a sociologist studying alternative social projects, mentioned “Gardzienice” in her book More than TheatreSee: Aldona Jawłowska, Więcej niż teatr, Warszawa 1987.as a team that was accomplishing some social project, which, though not openly hostile towards the communist regime, stood against it by “sneaking out”, slipping out from control. It's not by chance that this particular theatre movement (which sometimes annoyed its creators) was called “alternative”, as it was recognized as a practical contestation of the dominant power.
The unfinished story of “Gardzienice” is, in Polish theatre, perhaps the most complete and most consistent attempt at combining weather, music and politics into a theatre ecology project. Its ups and downs are worth careful and critical thinking over, as they reveal the complexity of this conjunction of seemingly distant components, as well as possibilities and impossibilities in this attempted connection. It's enough to say that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, after several changes in the team, some key members returned to towns and worked in Wrocław (the Song of the Goat Theatre of Anna Zubrzycka and Grzegorz Bral) and in Łódź, a city tremendously effected by the post-communist crisis and industrialized (the Chorea Theatre Association of Tomasz Rodowicz). Their activities have retained to some extent ideas and practices of “Gardzienice” but are now developed and realised in an urban environment. Especially Rodowicz felt that leaving town is a form of escape from contemporary problems and challenges, which occur in the city and impact people who live in the cities. When I conducted an interview with Rodowicz, after he had left Staniewski’s team, we decided to give it the title The End of Shelters (Koniec azyli)Koniec azyli, Dariusz Kosiński interviews Tomasz Rodowicz, Didaskalia 2007, no. 77, pp. 62–65..
It seems that returning to the city, taking up the challenge of facing problems of people living in post-communist, post-industrial Łódź, was an important political act, which strongly connects the work of Tomasz Rodowicz and other artists of various generations with important trends in contemporary Polish art, but also with political activism. It is only an apparent paradox that modern ecological movements, including performative artistic activities inspired by these movements, have developed primarily in cities.
After all, it is in cities that we may observe a constant process of destruction, where the last preserved, natural common spaces are sold to developers though their public, open and non-commercial character is in evident opposition to the capitalistic logic of consumer use. The 19th century’s opposition of nature and theatre is implemented today as the opposition of parks and shopping centres – an illusory public space ruled, as with the former bourgeois theatre, by hidden regulations disciplining all gathered bodies. No wonder contemporary urban activists combine in their actions specific political programmes with preserving the remains of nature in cities. They believe that their acts of resistance against appropriation of these remains are significant gestures of opposition against dominant models of behaviour. Among various examples of this kind of commitment I'd like to recall one – simple, perhaps not widely known, but very characteristic. A Kraków artist group, the Maculinea Collective, organized a protest against the sale and planned development of a landscape park around the lake in Zakrzówek, a Kraków borough. Since this area is a natural environment of a protected species, the Maculinea butterfly, its blue wings became the inspiration for a sign of this action. As a result of the action, popularized through social networks and workshops organized in Kraków, several hundred people made blue wings and wore them. First, they took part in a special movie then they “flew” to the city hall, demanding a change in land-use planning. Their protest was successful – Kraków authorities change their decision in fall 2011 and, consequently, the developer withdrew from this project.
This action – initiated by Cecylia Malik, a performer and activist, along with a group of people also combining artistic and social activities – is a small and simple example, and may be even a bit naive. Yet it seems typical for modern tactics focusing not on global revolution and rapid or radical change, but rather on specific actions related to specific places. Here we are, on the opposite end of a romantic “coup” aiming to decipher “a code of nature” or to tune in with nature in cosmic harmony. Nature takes on political significance. Instead of philosophical or mystical, its preserved remains become the space of resistance against economic thinking and the capitalist logic of profit, the dictatorship of which we are today the subjects. “Revitalisation” processes that take place both in large and small cities, often consisting of mindless actions like paving streets and squares or “organizing” parks in recreation areas controlled by cameras, make the fight for preserving relatively “natural” areas a political issue that gains growing significance.
Who knows, perhaps very soon this issue may become a dominant subject in political debates, in Poland as well. It was somehow announced by the weather, which was always “political” in Poland. One of the significant, even symbolic manifestations of the free market and, at the same time, of the Polish government’s performative policy, was the construction of big sport arenas – stadiums built for the Euro 2012 Championship. The National Stadium in Warsaw, a huge red and white basket, is considered the most important among them. Just before a very important match between Poland and England, heavy rain flooded this beautiful, newly opened arena because the retractable roof didn't close in time. The playing field was entirely under water. The match had to be postponed. As politicians and journalists furiously searched for perpetrators, some fans presented their own mocking, rebellious performances on the grass, splashing in puddles and sliding across the wet field on their bellies. Improvising, they took advantage of an unexpected chance for a political manifestation, provided by rebellious yet charming nature.