Monday 31 August 2020

Body / Memory/ History - A Report on Retroperspektywy Festival 2020, Łódź

The organisation of a theatre festival - particularly one as audience-inclusive and interactive as Teatr CHOREA's Retroperspektywy was when I attended it for the first time last year - seems a challenging, not to say a foolhardy, endeavour in the current climate. 

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

"Social distance" is the antithesis of the ethos of most live events. And it's certainly so at this festival, where performers make close contact with audience members not just during the intense, highly physical shows, but also at Q&A discussion panels, and other events held at the converted factory buildings that make up the great Fabryka Sztuki complex in Łódź.

Festival Opening (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

But this most creative of companies pulled off the daunting challenge of this year's Festival in a grand manner, with a rich and diverse programme made up of a mixture of online events, recorded shows, film screenings, VR spectacles and live performances. Audience contact details were taken before each event; masks were mandatory; hand sanitiser provided; and if social distancing was not strictly adhered to at every moment, the Festival still provided a solid model for how to go about the creation and execution of such an event in the disturbing, disruptive times of Coronavirus. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The title of this year's edition - Body, Memory, History - set the tone. The body is always central to the work of the Grotowski-influenced CHOREA, which mobilises the physicality of the performers on stage in totally distinctive, dynamic ways. Teamwork is key to the group's process and output, which seeks to draw on the power of collective expression while never sacrificing each performer's individuality. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

The premiere of the company's Schulz: Skrawki (Schulz: Scraps) proved a superb opener. The writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is probably best known outside of Poland for Street of Crocodiles (itself adapted for the stage to much acclaim by Complicite and the NT in 1992), and a selection of his stories provide the inspiration for this new work. A combination of installation and physical theatre, the piece presents its six performers - Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, Joanna Chmielecka, Michał Jóźwik, Majka Justyna, Małgorzata Lipczyńska, and Tomasz Rodowicz - occupying separate spaces (including a bath, a chair, and a table) as the audience enters a silent, darkened auditorium. In stillness to start, the six gradually stir into movement, each engaged in a separate task or overlapping action, as director Konrad Dworakowski intones Schulz's prose live. 

Schulz: Skrawki (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A thematic concern with the transgression of matter and the human body emerged, and was vividly evoked thanks to Dworakowski's background in puppet theatre, with strings, wires and sticks integrated into the performers' movements. Enhanced by a perfectly tailored score composed by Paweł Odorowicz, the effect was thrilling and hypnotic: all the more so for being the first encounter with live performance for many months for most audience members.  

In a generous gesture, Schulz: Skrawki was filmed by Hollybaba / Rami Shaya and made available on YouTube for some days after the live premiere. The same was true for all the other shows, including Warsaw STUDIO Teatrgaleria's Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (More than One Animal), a hilarious parody of the anthropomorphising tendencies of certain nature documentaries. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

At times coming off as a wryly avant garde take on Cats, the show presented the antics and behaviour patterns of its indeterminate creatures with the aid of a deadpan voiceover delievered by Agnieszka Podsiadlik (the tricky matriarch of Kuba Czekaj's Baby Bump) and wonderful physical work by the cast: Sonia Roszczuk, Vira Hres, Błażej Stencel, and Agata Tragarz. 

Więcej niż jedno zwierzę (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

A ludic, absurdist tone - accentuated by some brilliantly funny songs delivered by the duo of Robert Wasiewicz and Marcin Miętus - was sustained. But the show also makes serious and subversive points on issues from community to climate change, while a poetic visual flourish at the mid-point was a beautiful surprise.

iGeneration? (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Also exploring the issue of community, but within the context of young people's engagement with online culture, was iGeneration?, directed by Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, which was presented in a filmed version. The influence of Mariusz Grzegorzek's unforgettable student-developed extravaganza Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever) was felt here, with dance, direct address, phantasmagoric sci fi elements, and songs by the band Mojo Pin incorporated into the show. 

iGeneration? discussion (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Like the Biedrzycki-directed recent piece Rój. Sekretne życie społeczne ("The Hive: Secret Social Life")iGeneration? doesn't fear didacticism in its explicit critique of over-consumption and technology's detrimental effects on human connection. But the messages are conveyed via theatrical means that are exciting and surprising, such as the presentation of the web as a seething mass of bodies and masks called "the Great Tangle." In defiance of the numbing and dehumanising effects of the Internet, the show ends with a vivid and invigorating defence of emotion delivered by its excellent young cast. 

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Mortality was a theme in several shows, including Ukrainian company Golden Gate Theatre's Did You Love Me, Dad?, which was presented in a video performance, and the dynamic dance piece Salto Mortale by Majka Justyna and Joanna Jaworska-Maciaszek. Another powerful solo female production on the topic was Monika Wachowicz and Arti Grabowski's W zawieszeniu (Suspended), in which Wachowicz gave an astonishing, exposing emotional and physical performance as a cancer sufferer coming to terms (or not) with her prognosis. The apparent effortlessness with which Wachowicz moved from heightened emotional states - one minute crawling across the stage, gurning and grimacing - to casual, relaxed audience address was prodigious.

W zawieszeniu (Fot Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Based on the words and real life experience of theatre practitioner Marta Paradecka, who died of cancer in 2018, age just 39, and also taking inspiration from Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, the show was an unsettlingly intimate experience, with some haunting sequences. One such made use of Full Metal Jacket's version of the "Mickey Mouse March" on repeat, as the protagonist, caught in shafts of light, used a baton as a series of weapons, first to combat the illness and then to turn against herself. Yet, for all its demanding intensity, the piece was not, finally, a depressing experience. Ending with a toast, and with an angelic apparition scored to the sounds of David Bowie's "Blackstar," this show that looks dying squarely in the face proved a genuinely cathartic experience.

William's Things (Fot. Polecam się-Piotr Wdówka)

Two outdoor concerts also stood out in the Festival's diverse programme. On the first night, the trio William's Things, comprising Sean Palmer on vocals, Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet and Tomasz Wiracki on piano, transformed poetry by William Blake and Henry David Thoreau into a set of stunning jazz punk jams that captivated and confounded in equal measure in their creative approach to the original texts.

Combining folk troubadour sensitivity with theatrical, jazzman attitude and, at times, a Tom Waits-ish growl, charismatic vocalist Palmer also unleashed the most spectacular array of animal noises since Percy Edwards while still keeping every single word he sang crystal clear. From the moment he leapt up to initiate an audience singalong during the band's take on Blake's "The Blossom," the show sustained a great, cleansing energy.


Meanwhile, on the penultimate evening of the Festival, the band NeoKlez - Stanisław Leszczyński (violin)Damian Szymczak (clarinet), Piotr Tomala (accordion / guitar), Kacper Bardzki (bass guitar / double bass), and Kamil Wróblewski (drums, percussion) - delivered a similarly exhilarating set combining Klezmer tradition with rock, funk and techno modernity. A moving moment came when Leszczyński and Szymczak spontaneously wrapped their arms around each other as they paused briefly to watch their colleagues play, transported by the magic of the music. For the audience, the entire Festival felt like just such an embrace, and a vibrant reminder of the power of performance to transform, unite, challenge and enlighten.

Body / Memory / History - Retroperspektywy Festival 2020 took place at Fabryka Sztuki, Łódź, between 21-30 August. Full details of the Festival programme can be found here

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