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CHORUS MATTERS
from an interview with Yana Zarifi
 


Why do you concentrate exclusively on classical Greek theatre?

It wasn't really a conscious decision, more something that happened gradually. However, I think that it boils down to the fact that I am Greek and my mother tongue is Greek. Because I spent most of my life abroad, in Egypt and in Britain, I looked to the language and the literature of Greece as a sort of faraway home. I did visit Greece every summer and a passion for myths and legends linked images and landscapes of modern Greece to its distant past. Producing plays is a way of creating a space in which one wants to be. The chorus is invariably the centre-piece of Thiasos productions -- in fact, in the Hippolytos, the spoken parts have been entirely replaced by masked dance and narration leaving only the choral dance/songs.

Can you tell us a little more about such choices?

Yes. Whenever I saw productions of ancient drama in western Europe and even in Greece itself, I was disappointed not to find anything of the sense of ritual and ceremony that prevails in the country festivals of today. (There are of course notable exceptions, such as Karolos Koun's Aristophanes plays). Being present in Greek church services and village celebrations alerted me to the power of choral performance in general -- being amongst a group of people dancing and singing the same thing at the same time gives one a spiritual lift which is hard to describe. If you add the intellectual content and poetic density of the classical dramatic texts to that numinous quality of choral performance, you can begin to have an idea of what the presence of a dancing, singing chorus of a homogeneous group of people (whether young women, old men or young warriors) would have meant to the public of all those years ago.

You seem to be equating the chorus in an ancient Greek play with groups of people singing and dancing in village festivals. Surely the circumstances of performance are very different?

Not really, but yes, very. The circumstances are not different because the choruses in tragedy tend to represent categories of people who are identifiable groups in the community, or who have identifiable functions: for instance, young unmarried women, young married women, slave women, elder male citizens, sailors, libation bearers. 'A group of young married women from X (whether Corinth, Troezen or Troy)' identifies a fair proportion of the known tragic choruses. If you look at the national folk costumes worn at weddings and festivals in the various island and mountain regions of modern Greece you will find differences in costume that reflect differences in the marital status of women whether married or unmarried, or with or without children. When you observe gatherings of women dressed according to their status it has a visible impact on the way people behave and interact. Young unmarried women, for example, tend to be 'on display' as possible brides; comments and comparisons are made regarding their looks or singing and dancing skills. One finds songs in ancient Greek sources that describe an almost identical ambience. A theatre audience in 5th C Athens was not going to the theatre as we know it in the West End of London, but to a religious community festival to honour their god Dionysos. They may well have been attending the Greater Dionysia in maybe not too different a spirit from that of the modern Greek churchgoer attending a three-day festival to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is more, just as in today's community festivities, the members of the chorus in ancient Athens would have been friends or acquaintances of the audience whose only distinction was to have been selected to perform in the chorus. However, there are crucial differences. The chorus in the theatre are characters in a story. I believe that they are central. To begin with, the chorus were there first -- it was the protagonists that grew out of the chorus and not the other way round. It is only because of subsequent developments in the history of drama that we think of plot, action, and character in the way that we do and that we consider actors and outcomes of events as central. (Also it is easy to forget how pivotal the chorus is when you are reading a play rather than watching a performance where 12 or 15 people fill the acting area singing and dancing most of the time). However -- to get back to our comparison -- there is a crucial difference between the chorus in the festival of Dionysos at Athens and choruses elsewhere in ancient and modern Greece: this lies in the degree of impersonation which is emphasized by the use of masks and by the fact that in the case of a female chorus in what is usually known as Greek theatre (rather than just another form of ritual) the roles of women are played by men. Another important difference that is relevant to the choreography of the chorus lies in the representation of ritual through song and dance (as well as visually). The spectators of the time could instantly draw parallels between, say, the libation bearers (who give their name to the second play of Aeschylus' trilogy, The Oresteia) and the familiar sight of women taking offerings to a tomb In the same way, songs sung and danced by the chorus to honour Aphrodite, for example, in the Hippolytos, the Medea or in the Trachiniae, had familiar wedding motifs. The form of such songs was very probably similar to the form of songs sung at actual weddings by choruses of young women. But here again we have the element of impersonation: the young women of Trozen (played, as I said, by male citizens of Athens) in the Hippolytos are performing a wedding song/dance not as part of a wedding ceremony but as part of another religious ceremony, in honour of the god, Dionysos. What is more, the performance of that particular song which is full of allusions to weddings, takes place during a time in the play when the Queen, Phaedra, is hanging herself from the beams of her wedding bed. What I want to emphasize at this point is that although the contexts are different, they are, in both cases, religious. Also, and especially when one is thinking about possible choreography, the ritual motifs-wedding, funeral, athletic victory, sacrifice, offering, invocation-remain similar whether the particular ceremony is being portrayed in the theatre or whether it is being performed on other ritual occasions. However, one of the ways in which Greek tragic choruses differ from other choruses is that many of the songs and dances in tragedy are in fact syntheses of dances and rhythms from choral performances taking place elsewhere in the community on different religious occasions. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, for instance, the chorus prays for deliverance using an amalgam of prayers to different gods, a healing prayer, lamentation and a curse. You could easily find equivalents of these in modern Greek folk songs and ritual.

But only one Thiasos play has Greek motifs -- Aristophanes' Ploutos and one version of Euripides' Medea that you put on at Camden School -- the choreography of the Hippolytos is Javanese and that of the Medea at King's College is borrowed from India. What prompted you to adopt the dance styles of cultures that seem so different to the culture of ancient Greece?

There were very detailed and specific reasons for setting the choral odes of the Hippolytos to a Javanese dance called Jaipongan, and the odes of the Medea to the classical Indian Bharathanyata dance. However, let me say more generally that the folk traditions of modern Greece are only one of many possible sources for borrowing dances. For example: both Indonesian dances and Bharathanyata are associated with Hinduism. There are a great number of traditional dances in Southern and South-East Asia associated with Hinduism, any of which could enrich the choreography of the Greek tragic chorus.

Why do you single out Hinduism as being somehow compatible with ancient Greek traditions?

I do not feel that it is Hinduism as such that is relevant to ancient Greek theatre performance. What interests me most about dances associated with Hinduism is the linkup between dance and deity. Ancient Greece -- as, for example, also Bali -- was a temple culture, and dance was a widely prevalent way of honouring the profusion of gods worshipped at the time. Another aspect of Hindu-associated dances that exists in dances from many parts of the world is that they are charged with symbols and are, to a greater or lesser degree, coded and stylized. We know that ancient Greek dance in tragedy and comedy was also elaborately patterned and that it was largely mimetic (it imitated concrete actions of animals or plants or human qualities). Javanese, Balinese, and many dances of India also consist of coded gestures with meanings whose precision varies according to the particular culture. I also think that stylized theatrical traditions work better aesthetically because there is an underlying compatibility in the way dance and song relate to society. I was trained as a sociologist I'm afraid. Although many dances in Indonesia, India and most other countries now are also performed for the entertainment of tourists, they still retain links to events sanctioned by local communities, such as harvest celebrations, or circumcision ceremonies.

So, are you in effect saying that some traditions are more suitable for adapting to Greek drama than others?

Yes, I tend to look for religious associations, a systematic language of gestures and symbols and a communal aspect. The question of adaptation for modern performance is at the heart of Thiasos' raison-d'être. What brought Jamie, Jiggs (M.J. Coldiron) and myself together was a desire to steer away from a certain kind of naturalism because we wanted to emphasize the performability of Greek tragedy and comedy today.

If I am not mistaken, there is a lot of information on ancient Greek society and Greek theatre, so why don't you attempt to reconstruct plays from whatever know-how is available?

First of all, the audience is not available. Secondly, there is something leaden and dead in trying to bring information to life. However sophisticated the information, it is always 'about' something rather than the thing itself -- it remains an academic exercise that cannot touch your spirit. Also you have to concoct movements and styles where the information is completely lacking. This individualistic 'filling in' is invariably heavy-handed and sterile compared to the innovations that emerge from living traditions evolving through performance in time. I speak from experience as I have tried (like many others) to reconstruct dances from Greek vase paintings in a version of the Medea at Camden School. Some tableaux were quite pretty, nice and easy to identify -- but the dance does not flow. This is something I have a gripe about. Choruses always look marvelous in still photographs or freezes. The trouble starts when they begin to move. Another thing to bear in mind when one is considering the compatibility of various traditions is to look for fundamental principles rather than superficial resemblances. One such principle is that the original choreography was composed as part and parcel of the music and the words. Movement, poetry and tune were one. This is extremely rare. In fact I can't even think of this happening at any other place or time at the moment. But it probably does. Anyway, all this is to say that movement is inextricable from sound and meaning.

How do you set the choruses to dance then?

Well, I can only say a little about how we have gone about it in the past. As I've said before, we found something already existing. In the case of the Hippolytos I was very taken by Balinese dance and spent a while there with Jiggs and the designer, Christina Pappageorgiou, researching dance, masks and costumes. We abstracted what we thought were defining characteristics of costume, natural surroundings and mask and attended several ceremonies looking for comparative material for Greek rites. But the music was a problem -- Balinese gamelan and Greek choral rhythms did not sit well together. Not surprisingly, the dance presented similar problems. Not a single Balinese dancer could adapt to the music. However, I came across a Javanese dancer, Untung Hidayat who brought his extraordinary skills to bear on this and after several months with trained dancers we arrived at the Hippolytos choral dances. I divided up the Greek choral passages into units of meaning -- phrases that could be translated with varying degrees of accuracy into Dayad's (as Untung Hidayat is known) extensive gestural language. Dayad, having been taught dance since he was 2 by his grandmother, had an enormous repertoire of movements and was familiar with several types of Javanese dance. My contribution was less creative as most of my efforts were spent in looking up names of gestures and discovering their sources. Even though the analogies between units of meaning in the Greek and Javanese hand, head, leg and body mudras were only rarely precise, a surprising harmony emerged. We could, for example find definite mudras for love, death, making offerings to the gods, certain kinds of walking, but we cheated utterly in borrowing moves that looked like, say, washing clothes by the stream but had a much more abstract significance in the Javanese dance. Occasionally the units of meaning were abandoned for longer portions of narrative. These short narratives, such as the episode of Hippolytos' horse-drawn chariot being destroyed by a bull emerging from the sea, were even more satisfyingly rendered by Javanese dance. The elaborate symbols for rough seas, earthquakes, bull and death gave that central event in the Hippolytos a sense of heightened vitality which no contemporary account in words could have done -- however eloquent. I hope to get more opportunities to understand how this works. Another bonus of Javanese dance is that its symbolism extends to formations of the dancers in the performance space. Choreographing patterns made by the positions of the dancer's bodies added another dimension of meaning to the relations between protagonists and chorus as well as to the relations between the chorus and the space itself. Strangely enough, the Bharathanyata dance of the King's Medea was more compatible with the Greek units of meaning than the Javanese classical, martial or Jaipongan styles. The Bharathanyata mudras include not only fine nuances of meanings to describe emotions, but also refer to a large number of nouns such as hair, husband, night, well, water. We were very lucky to work with a Bharathanyata dancer who was also a classics student. The performers however were busy university students and we were not able to explore the possibilities of Indian classical dance to the full. A rich area of exploration, however, was my use of highly stylized still tableaux changing with the reactions of the chorus to the surrounding events . The chorus did not have a single unchoreographed moment. This, I felt, both structured and intensified the musicality of the play. Greek plays need punctuation. Aristophanes' Wealth was very different. My inspiration came initially from drawing a parallel between times of hunger in Athens of 388 B.C. and Athens in the 19th century. I found many of the motifs and themes that I had been looking for in the shadow puppet form of Karagiozi : typicality of puppets, frequent entrances and exits that so often characterize the second part of Aristophanes' plays, the division between country and city, and a strong 'rags to riches' motif. Abdel Farrah designed costumes and set drawing from both the style of Karagiozi and Greek folk costume. He succeeded in preserving the transluscent quality of shadow puppets. The set showed parallels between Old Comedy and Karagiozi while also being a shadow-puppet tent. The chorus of Old Farmers in the Ploutos is exceptional. Apart from the usual entrance, the chorus perform only one song/dance -- an intermezzo, consisting of parodies of a dithyramb and the theme of Odysseus and Circe, arranged as abusive exchanges between the slave, Karion, and the chorus. Jamie set the original Greek to music. We had a different choreography for each production of the Ploutos -- in Exeter, London and Texas. By far the most successful was the choreography by Christian Darley for the Hellenic Centre in London arranged for a very agile and robust group of actors from L.A.M.D.A. Christian and the actors, being specialists in movement, used all the techniques of improvisation which only work if the dancers already have a bag of tricks readily available in their bodies. The dance combined exotic movement, such as leaps from the Kenyan Masai dances, imitations of animals and suggestively obscene patterns created by outsize vegetables. The entrance and exit dances of the non-chorus characters were choreographed in imitation of Karagiozi puppets. These dances, like the music and the make-up were blended and exaggerated in accordance with the natural movements of the actors. But that takes me away from the initial question of choruses.

What has been the most difficult aspect of staging the chorus?

Training dancers and actors to sing in ancient Greek while performing mostly very vigorous dances. But I think we have cracked it. In fact, I don't know of any other examples of lively dancing and singing in (what is to many of our performers) a complex gobble-dee-gook language. Something which is not necessarily very difficult but which happens to have been awkward in our productions is the concept of strophic dancing. The structure of the verses of choral odes is symmetrical: the odes are divided into pairs of verses which mirror each other in terms of their metres or rhythms, and each pair is rhythmically unique in all of the extant works of Greek drama. The composer/playwright must have intended that the dancing should be likewise symmetrical. There can be no other explanation. I think we have failed to achieve this so far because we have been following the meaning of the words in the songs too literally. In fact, if one accepts the symmetry as an absolute rule, one should use that as a clue to figure out the sort of movement that is integrated with the language. If one has to find a movement common to two different phrases in the song, then a whole range of possible movements and expressions are excluded. What is more, if one is looking to an existing dance style, such as Bharathanyata, only a very limited number of mudras will cohere with the text. This is not easy to describe in words!