Włodzimierz Staniewski photographed by Grzegorz Podbiegłowski / Gardzienice

Founder of the Gardzienice Theatre Association - Centre for Theatre Practices (OTK) in 1977, creating an experimental style of anthropological theatre which has earned international recognition and acclaim for their power to bring the traditions of ancient theatre to life in the present.

Włodzimierz Staniewski was born in 1950 in the village of Bardo near Kłodzko. He was a student of Polish Studies at Jagiellonian University and later at Wrocław University. As a student he joined Krakow's Teatr STU. He worked with Jerzy Grotowski's Laboratorium theatre in 1971-1975. Before founding his own theatre centre, he travelled extensively throughout eastern Poland in the 1970s. His ethnographic research trips were aimed at finding a new, natural environment for creativity, a new, "uncontaminated" audience, and at creating theatre in which the line between low- and high-brow culture would be obliterated. In the 1980s, he organised a number of international symposia attended by representatives of the humanities and theatre around the world. He also gave lectures, including at U.S. universities: Dallas, New Hampshire, New York as well as Mexico City and the Theatre Academy in Paris.

Rejecting the "rationalist" theatre art practised in large urban centres, they implement a programme Włodzimierz Staniewski calls "a covenant with life". The Gardzienice group continues to run its theatrical workshops and training sessions, along with expeditions to distant places where the actors discover primary forms of performance. In accordance with the idea of Mikhail Bakhtin, they treat folk culture as the source of all art. The group's most important research trips have taken them to Finnish Lapland, Mexico, the United States, and South Korea. From the start of their activity the group gained world-wide acclaim and were welcomed abroad for performances and training programmes. In 1997, the courses taught by the group formed the foundation for the Academy for Theatre Practices.

The group places their focus on indigenous and ancient musical traditions, the powerful physical and vocal techniques of their acting work, the natural environment of theatre and the and musicality. In recent years the group has focused its attention on Ancient Greece as the source of European culture. They present forgotten acting techniques of Ancient Greek theatre, drawn from existing iconographic and literary sources, also turning to relics of Ancient Greek music and ideals of physical fitness. The idea is that Gardzienice's practices resurrect tragedy from the spirit of music.

Warsaw University Anthropology Professor Leszek Kolankiewicz writes:

Staniewski's theatre has made a truly original contribution to the style of contemporary avant-garde theatre. A new genre of visual arts was born at the Centre for Theatre Practices. The result is surprising and evokes associations with mediaeval performances. European theatre was probably born twice: in Antiquity and then in the Middle Ages, each time from the spirit of music.

With each new performance, the Gardzienice Theatre offers a direct reference to the iconography of a particular historical period, reviving it through existing ethnic traditions. The performances are the fruit of lengthy research, bringing to life fragments of ancient music in relation to irregular rhythms of speech, song, and dance originating in the Carpathian Mountains and Ukraine. The texts, musical notation, and imagery do not come from read sources but are retrieved through "a forgotten line of life inside ourselves". Gardzienice's actors have given life to static postures and fragments of music. As ancient texts are brought back to life with innovative sound and movement, the audience is drawn in through a sort of mystical prodding at the core of humanity.

Staniewski explains:

Our training is drawn from this realistic inspiration. I select the moves, turns, curves, and dynamics which have the most impact. Later on, working with the tempo, rhythm and changes in the dynamics, I make use of the same gesture, but try to transform it into an allegorical language that breaks through the realism.
 

Gardzienice's first production was Spektakl Wieczorny / An Evening Performance (1977), which made use of folk songs, excerpts from François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, part II of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve, the Latin version of the hymn Bogurodzica / Mother Of God, Old English songs, and tales heard from people in nearby villages. This was an outdoor show played at dusk, comprising a series of acting etudes, each time slightly altered, improvised, composed in a rhythm to which the music, dance, acting, and words were subordinated. As Zbigniew Osiński wrote in Radar (1979, No. 12), 

You absorb it, through its ecstatic flow and dynamics, yet also through its images and associations. With all its specificity and sensuality, it is symbolic. And ostentatiously theatrical. This theatricalisation is extremely possessive, it aims to encompass everything and everybody. It acts more on the senses and emotions than it refers to the intellect; it affects the imagination more strongly than it does the mind.

1981 saw the production of Gusła / Sorcery, inspired by parts II, IV and I of Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve. The group took Mickiewicz's drama and distilled the primary ritual from it, juxtaposing the literary Dziady / Forefathers' Eve with folk rites honouring the dead. Gardzienice's third project was Żywot Protopopa Awwakuma / The Life of Archpriest Avvakum (1983). The plot was inspired by the story of Avvakum Petrovich, a 17th-Century religious fanatic. The actors' actions were the result of training based on analysing the arrangement of figures in icons and studying the principles of Orthodox singing. Zbigniew Taranienko wrote in Konteksty (2001, No. 1-4), 

The meaning of 'Avvakum' emerges from the sum of complementary, diverse, often conflicting actions, gestures, behaviours, and songs. The text has been structured in the same way. Staniewski has proposed a new way of adapting prose. He has effected a kind of translation of the content into theatrical language, without mechanically transferring the story of Avvakum, or the events. He has blended all the elements into a single vocal and movement whole, creating a total, artistically cohesive image.

The performance Carmina Burana was set to the 19th-Century music of Carl Orff, was prepared in 1990. This time the group took 12th- and 13th-Century love poetry and juxtaposed it with the legend of Tristan and Isolde. As is often the case with Gardzienice, this performance refers to the famous myth of the European culture that sets out to influence the audience with symbolic images and unusual singing. It invoked the poetics of mediaeval performances, the world of goliards and jugglers. The performance was held in an enclosed space. The central element was a humongous Wheel of Fortune. Zbigniew Taranienko wrote in Konteksty (2001, No. 1-4), 

First Tristan then Isolde were tied to the Wheel of Fortune placed in the middle. The two were turned by fate. The King towered over everything. The result was a rigid, visually expressed hierarchy. Accidents of fate toppled the characters, though - often onto a floating barge, a ship without a rudder. The toppled figures were encircled by parades, processions, dynamic action. This led to their rebirth. They stood up to fight. Then new conflicts arose, actions caused reactions. The space in "Carmina Burana" became a place where the fundamental cosmic forces were at play. Entangled in all this was the human person, in search of their own self in closeness to and at a distance from others, striving for love, wealth, power. ... The music in "Carmina Burana" - the richest among all of Gardzienice's performances - has been treated like the most flexible material. It breaks with its form, escapes from erstwhile rules, it absorbs songs from different times and places with impunity.

The world premiere of Gardzienice's Iphigenia at A... took place on October 7, 2007 at New York's legendary La MaMa theatre as a work-in-progress directed by Włodzimierz Staniewski based on the play by Euripides. Previously, it was presented at the Stary Teatr in Kraków during a review entitled "re_wizje/antyk" in May 2007. In this work Gardzienice restores ancient literature to the stage in its primary form and brings it to life anew. The show continued to be staged at Teatr Polski in Warsaw and enjoyed a guest performance at the OMIX International Theatre Festival in Greece.

In 2010 Staniewski was invited to lead a series of master classes and workshops in the harbour town of Vigo in the north of Galicia, Spain. In 2012 he staged Ibsen's most significant works - The Master Builder in India at the Dehli International Ibsen Festival, together with the Padatik Theatre in Calcutta. 

Major awards:

  • 1990 - Diploma from the minister of foreign affairs for the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices for its great contribution to promoting Polish culture abroad
  • 1991 - Konrad Swinarski Award for Włodzimierz Staniewski and the group for the establishment and activity of the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices
  • 1992 - Award of the Lublin province governor
  • 1996 - Critics' and audience's award for Carmina Burana at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre
  • 1999 - First prize for the performance Metamorfozy" / "Metamorphoses based on Apuleius, at the MESS International Theatre Festival in Sarajevo

Original text: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora (July 2003). English version edited in November 2012 by Agnieszka Le Nart.

For more information, see: www.gardzienice.org