The actress, singer and director brushes the dust off the classical traditions of the choir with a revolutionary project that shows just how powerful the human voice can be
Actress, singer and director. Founder of The Chorus of Women.
"I treat words like music. I change language into voice, I make it explode from within", says Marta Górnicka. As the woman behind The Chorus of Women, a revolutionary production of 25 women who sing, shout and whisper to create a new voice for contemporary women across the globe, she brought her message across Europe and Asia throughout last year. This year she has taken the project further, incorporating the voices of men into her choir to create an even more robust sound with RequieMachine.
Górnicka, who received her theatre training at the Theatre Academies of Warsaw and Kraków, began evolving her conception of a contemporary choir three years ago, starting with a modest show titled This is the Chorus Speaking at Warsaw's Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute. The stage was filled with 28 women from all walks of life - professionals and amateurs younger and older.
This is the Chorus Speaking was ultimately a collage of various cultural texts, including fragments of Sophocles' Antigone, combined with the writings of Elfriede Jelinek and the philosophical works of Barthes, Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, with a smattering of everyday language, publicity slogans, culinary recipes, quotes from films and fairy tales. "The starting point for the libretto is the rhythm of language, which leads me in a particular direction and commands the dramaturgy. Everything can be an inspiration: newspaper clippings, the buzz of a computer, the forgotten noise of an old television, stories, songs", explains Górnicka in an interview with Culture.pl. She continues:
I wanted for the choir to be a hero, not as a mass, but as a collection of personalities, even when they express themselves in unison. The choir gives a commentary on reality. From the beginning I knew the choir would go against the system, it would be sharp, political, weighing uncomfortable issues. We deal with stereotypes, social, religious and economic norms. One of the first questions I had to ask myself was: what sort of language can the choir use to speak to the contemporary audience? Language is ideological, it imposes a form upon us. I believed that a good strategy would be a combination of languages, a theatrical Tower of Babel, a libretto build upon phrases, sentences and words that illuminate each other.
The hoarse Madonna
The chorus' second production, Magnificat, was put together in 2011 and staged in Poland and abroad, even winning three major prizes at the Mess International Theatre Festival in Sarajevo. Here, the chorus confronts the primary female image in the Catholic Church - the image of the Madonna. Quotes from the bible and fragments of culinary recipes from British celebrity chef Nigella Lasson intermingle, clashing with parts of Eurypides' Bacchantes and punctuated by the flashbulbs of reporters and news clippings from the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. The prophane of pop phrases faces off with the sacred. As Górnicka says,
For the choir, a significant means of expression is the silent scream. The moment when we try to say something, but our voice gets trapped in our throat, unable to escape. I critique language as a tool of the authorities, but I'm constantly in pursuit of a new language. I find it somewhere "in between", in the clash of words, in lullabies and echolalia. Treating the word with music carries meaning. The sentence: "I am national sainthood", words spoken by Mary, can be expressed with due reverence, but they can also be spoken in a hoarse voice like Darth Vader's. Language trembles on the verge of meaning - I really like this idea of Barthes', it expresses my sort of thinking about language, as it is transformed and performed. The choir can speak in staccato, it can groan, whisper, wheeze, sing in opera tones or heavy metal, or literally spit the words out. Experiments in language are meant to shatter stereotypes, to be provocative and I think we accomplish this aim.
Chant of womanhood
The choir's productions were swiftly held up as a phenomenon of the Polish theatre scent of recent years, a breakthrough for contemporary culture. "It's screamed, chanted, sung and whispered, in parts, as a choir and sola, a womanly protest against imposing a vision of womanhood. A protest that is constructive", wrote reviewer Aneta Kyzioł in Poland's Polityka daily. Following the premiere, playwright Piotr Gruszczyński also expressed his admiration for the strong character of the show and its members, writing:
This is what is most remarkable about the choir, that is explodes from within... Each one of the singers takes on their own identity, each one begins to steal the audience's attention. In spite of the fact that they sing in unison, it becomes polyphonic and we look at it with great faith in each member having regained her own voice. In this choir, thanks to the choir. This is why when they lay down on the ground after their powerful singing and begin humble, one-word solos, we see clearly that the choir is both present and absent. That it really is a collection of individuals coming together for a cause. This types of choirs and extraordinary. We can excuse the rest.
Such a positive response on the part of the public and critics naturally led to international tours and prizes. The choir's shows have been staged across Europe - in Germany, France, Switzerland, Ireland, Czech Republic, Bosnia and Ukraine - as well as Asia - in Japan and India. At home it won the Jury Prize at the Kontrapunkt Review of Small Theatre Forms, the Main Jury Prize for Direction and Popular Choice Prize at the M-Theatre Festival in Koszalin, as well as three awards at the Mess Festival in Sarajevo. Several months ago Górnicka took home the First Prize for Directing at the FastForward European Festival of Young Directors in Brunswick for Magnificat. The choir's libretto has been translated into Czech, German, Ukrainian, Croatian, Japanese, French, Flemish and English.
Rythms of the ancients and the tango
The success that the performance has had abroad underlines the significance of Górnicka's endeavour. As she says, "Performing before an international audience demonstrates just how much of an impact a theatrical choir can have and how it can affect people beyond language, culture and geography. The reception, particularly in France and Germany, has been enthusiastic. My performances are seen as great humanistic essays, as fables on humanity". Yet she also says she finds it surprising and humbling at the same time as she wrote Magnificat with Polish audiences in mind, based on Polish reality. "And then the performance was very well understood by the European public, it struck some chords. I recall conversations with audience members in Berlin. These were young punks with mohawks sitting in the front row and crying. The choir is a powerful force!"
Yet before Marta Górnicka took the stage as a director, she was an actress and singer herself, with a diploma from the Chopin Music School in Warsaw in her pocket. While her experiences in training her voice were formative for her early years in theatre, she soon found her calling as a director. She says, "Directing brings together all my creative pursuits: music, acting and my experiences in solo and recording projects - all of this began to speak through the voices of many men and women".
She debuted on the stage of Warsaw's Roma Musical Theatre in 2004 with Tango 3001, transporting audiences to the cultural roots of Argentina through the tango houses of the poorest district of Buenos Aires. She was led along this path by Astor Piazzolla and his masterful tangos sung to the lyrics of Horatio Ferrera, Jeana Claude Carriere and Jorge Luis Borges, translated by writer Jacek Dehnel especially for the show. As Górnicka recalls, "The music of Piazzolla is energetic and full of contradictions, with a great revolutionary potential. After all, tango was born in the poorest areas on the edge of the criminal world. But tango is always an escape. Something that is able to slip through. It is based on this experience that I am building the choir today". Her work on Piazolla's music led to the release of an album of the show's music by Polish Radio. She has also acted in films and on the dramatic stage, working under star director Robert Wilson on a local production of Symptoms /Akropolis. She has conducted voice workshops in Salzburg, Tokyo, Kiev, Berlin, Rome and London. Today she is preparing her third show for her chorus.
Chorus of unemployment
Górnicka's latest production is being staged in cooperation with the National Theatre in Strasburg. This time the show has a twist, casting men among the women of the choir to create a powerful collective voice on the human experience of unemployment in today's times. RequieMachine is "a sort of essay on the modern system of labour, on people caught between the terror of unemployment and total exhaustion. The show is built around the writings of poet Władysław Broniewski, which are, as has become tradition, countered with publicity slogans and ancient texts". She says her approach to theatre has always been radical, explaining,
I believe in the power of the choir. I believe that the choir brings about change, challenges taboos, that the voice of the choir moves the audience, speaks to him or her. In forgetting about the choir contemporary theatre has gotten rid of something very important and full of strength, of tragedy and the possibility to enter into a dialogue with reality. Today, theatre without a chorus is dead, it becomes a mere spectacle, entertainment. This is why I chose the choir. Because it is a tool for change that draws upon the strength of rhythm and the knowledge of the Antiquity. Because it speaks about something that is significant.
The premiere of RequieMachine takes place on the 24th of March 2013 at the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw. In the months to come it will go on to tour France and Germany. For more on the chorus and the Theatre Institute, see: www.instytut-teatralny.pl
Author: Anna Legierska, March 2013. Translated by Agnieszka Le Nart. Video produced by Katarzyna Łuka, Marek Sokołowski, March 2013.