Welcome to Thiasos-Ancient Greek theatre




This essay begins with a brief introduction to Gardzienice, the Polish theatre company led by Wlodzimierz Staniewski and founded in 1977. The essay ends with the suggestion that Staniewski has created a corporeal language that resonates across a multitude of cultures and political climates and situations.

This would be for the following four reasons:
1. The emphasis laid in the training on mutuality—that is on a dialogic language between actors’ bodies which links text music, audience and surroundings.
2. The centrality and remarkable fluidity of the chorus.
3. The engagement, throughout Gardzienice’s history, with the customs, and performance traditions of communities from all over the world—remotely rural communities as well as urban ones.
4. The fact that Gardzienice is rooted in a Polish theatrical tradition where theatre is inextricable from other artistic expressions, such as music and painting, and where artistic expression is in turn inextricable from the political and philosophical striving for freedom (regardless of how this freedom is conceived at different times).

Focusing on what Staniewski calls cheironomy—an alphabet of gestures derived from ancient Greek iconography and from reconstructed fragments of surviving Greek musical notation—I hope to provide some clues as to how these—‘units of language’ multiply and mutate into the rich theatre performances and films such as the Iphigenia at Aulis at Delphi (2008).

Reanimating Antiquity
Gardzienice, the name of the theatre company is also the name of the village in south eastern Poland near the Ukranian border where the theatre is located.

Central to Gardzienice’s work are explorations and close mutual exchanges of performances known as 'expeditions' and 'gatherings',. These have involved communities from Gardzienice's neighbouring Euro-Asian cultures –Jewish, ethnic Roma, Ukrainian, Lemo, Bielorussian ethnicities –and from places as remote as Lappland, Brazil, South Korea and Sierra Madre. The company also receive visiting performers from a variety of cultures and traditions on home territory.

This process of sowing and gathering is structured around the themes of Gardzienice’s performances which have very long gestation periods—sometimes as long as 7 years. Movement, music and scenarios are permeated by indigenous rituals, community songs and dances and involve painstaking research.

In Gardzienice’s creations, philosophical and literary ideas are often actualised in physical movement. When life and history present Staniewski with a new theme and a new aesthetic, the basic physical language changes accordingly and each new project generates its characteristic ‘gestus’ : so for instance in The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum (1983), (excerpts from the priest’s biography combine with Orthodox religious imagery, antiphonal singing from Mount Athos and alternating wild and calm pagan rituals) a low bowing ‘gestus’, expressing both submission and defiance, was retrieved from the religious icons and based on viewing the body as an allegorical cross.

For the last 13 years, Staniewski has been exploring classical Antiquity and has so far produced Metamorphoses (1997) based on Apuleius’ Golden Ass , an adaptation of Euripides’ Elektra 2002, Iphigeneia at Aulis 2007 and is currently preparing Iphigeneia in Tauris. The basic ‘gestus’ is cheironomy.

Though there are significant differences between the three pieces in its use (the use of cheironomy), Greek vase iconography is the defining source for the creation of the movement language in all three.

Here are some examples of these sources from Gardzienice’s CD Rom – A Theatrical Essay


The Elektra opens with an upstage screen projection of a second-century BC papyrus from Euripides’ music for the Orestes. An actor points to the screen reading out the words and, as the reconstructed music is played, the company sing and relate arm movements to the sound heights depicted graphically on the inscribed music.


Subsequently the chorus leader cries out words  relating to poses that constitute the alphabet:  ’beautiful!’, and the chorus members cup their breasts; ‘muscles!’, and they flex their muscles —each move mirroring gestures from a Greek vase- painting projected onto the screen. And the still movements pick up speed and develop into a vigorous dance.


The Elektra’s semiotic lecture and Gardzienice’s training exercises based on Greek iconography (of which I will show you an example] suggest a deceptively simple correspondence between image, sound and gesture. The correspondence is infinitely more complicated.

To quote Staniewski:
‘ the postures on the vases came from a forgotten line of life within ourselves - the desire to dance. They are not frozen, static postures: these figures are running, spinning dancing flying”

the process of setting ‘antiquity dancing’ involves of course also music. An alchemy is created between the iconography the ancient musical fragments through multifaceted engagement with living performers and performance traditions from several cultures.
'Music’, says Staniewski, is 'at the core of everything I generate…a vital energy and life-force…[it is] my co-director'. Before entering the world of antiquity with Metamorphoses, Elektra and Iphigeneia, Gardzienice had generated their performances in close association with indigenous musics, rituals and dances of communities from all over the world.   In every instance the music had been live—it could be heard and felt—and the organic link between gesture and sound could be directly experienced.

The music of antiquity offers no such immediate access. With the disappearance of the ancient performers, the only surviving remnants are the rhythms contained by the song-words of lyric poetry and drama, images of musicians and dancers, and fragments of an elusive musical notation on papyri and stone.  So, departing fromapproximately half of the fifty surviving musical fragments, Staniewski and the composer Maciej Rychły set about 'making the stones sing'. The musical fragments included the First and Second Delphic Paeans inscribed on the outer marble wall of the Athenian Treasury at Delphi and musical notation thought to belong to Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis.
Rychły assigned melody lines to the musical signs and built on rhythms of ancient Greek poetry through chanting what seemed like meaningless syllables until, together with the emotional impulses generated together with the Gardzienice performers, they built a musical draft. Balkan and Peloponnesian rhythms and songs from the Carpathian and Bulgarian mountains were gradually blended with the Greek paeans, hymns and dramatic fragments to create the treasure trove of Metamorphoses' songs. The ethnic songs used to release the energy in the ancient Greek reconstruction had been chosen on the basis of their function — for instance, lamentation, invocation, wedding celebration. In Staniewski's words: this was in order ‘to pour the still fermenting wine into the dry jugs of ancient relics
’. Actors responded to sound heights and lengths of the music with their arms, hands and entire bodies and audible and visible rhythmic breathing was woven into the overall texture.  (An extraordinary coherence developed as surrounding sounds of birds and barking dogs were incorporated into the music.)The whole company always rehearsed in unison, constantly integrating the composer's material and thus creating a collective experience that was more than its individual parts - as Tomas Rodowicz, (then part of the Metamorphoses musical project) remarked: ‘there was no room for private breathing.’



Iphigeneia in Delphi

In the summer of 2008 Gardzienice took Iph at A… and Metamorphoses to Delphi in Greece.
Iphigeneia’s journey to Delphi forged the Company’s intimate correspondence with Greek tragedy For the Iphigeneia penetrates even deeper into ancient Greek territory than the previous two productions. For the first time, Staniewski uses the entire Euripidean text and a unifying score by the composer Zygmunt Konieczny. The music is pervaded by a Slavic lyricism with a rich emotional texture.  

The cheironomiae in the Iphigeneia have by now become thoroughly incorporated into Gardzienice’s body language through refined training and several years of re-performances.



 (from the end of the play as Agamemnon -played by Mariusz Golaj- prepares to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia played by Karolina Cicha)

      Identifiable gestures emerge time and again, either in flowing movement or with an avowedly semiotic purpose to underline, parenthesise or contrast with the prevailing dramatic mood.  For example, the harrowing sorrow of Clytaemnestra (Joanna Holcgreber) is expressed almost entirely in gestures of lamentation culled from Greek vases but with a depth of feeling and fluidity which cannot be attributed to simple imitation. Conversely, as Agamemnon is sharpening his knives to sacrifice his daughter, male members of the chorus standing firm at one side of the Corycian cave perform a fast narrative sequence in almost pantomimic sign language while the chorus sing to a different and more melodious tempo. This sinister side show, has a distancing effect which, paradoxically, only serves to bring the violence closer. As so often in Staniewski, the grotesque, rather than undermining or lightening the        

In the next clip, the chorus use cheironomy to perform a war between the sexes to the accompaniment of a choral song sung partly in ancient Greek.
The song's theme is the destruction of Troy following Helen's forsaking of her husband and comes after a marital argument between Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra.

AGAMEMNON: “a wise man should keep his wife at home”.  
CHORUS: "Pergamus with walls of stone, Phrygia's town,
He [Ares, the god of war] will encircle in bloody battle,
Cutting the defenders' throats."

The chorus splits to perform a war of the sexes as the female half side with Clytaemnestra and the male half with Agamemnon over the issue of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice.  Parts of the choral ode are also distributed to Iphigeneia and to a messenger figure played by a well known Polish actor Krzystof Globisz.
You might recognize the  cheironomia designating ‘towers’ and ‘temple’:“Then from the citadel’s top peak to earth/He will sack all the dwellings in Troy city…”


I would like to end by reintroducing the question of an ‘original’ source or performance text:
Staniewski’s productions are informed by a huge amount of scholarly research and by a ceaseless striving to excavate, to come close to the very real, but ever-elusive spirit of antiquity. How do we assess the value of any insights gained by the audience and actors in the course of this researching and performing? If they are of value, how necessary is this illusion of antiquity being within what Staniewski calls a ‘touching distance’? And why is it that so often, the engagement with ancient material is at the same time an engagement with our present and our future political questions and ideals?

Yana Zarifi for the Open University International Research Conference—Classics in the Modern World—a Democratic Turn?’ held at Milton Keynes 18-20th June, 2010.