Dante, Grotowski, and the eloquent body

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Mario Biagini remembers visiting Florence’s cathedral as a child, and seeing, on the left side of the cathedral as he entered, the famous fresco of Dante, standing beside Mount Purgatory.  It made an impression, but it wasn’t an isolated one.  Beginning as a teenager in school, he remembers reading the Divine Comedy “beginning to end, so many times.”  Well, he was a Florentine, like Dante.

“I read it often for myself,” he said.  And yesterday, I became a beneficiary of all these years of exposure.

I spent a blissful hour in the morning listening to Mario – who is the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski – as he read the Inferno, Cantos V and XXII, to a Stanford humanities class. Being a Florentine helps, he admitted – Dante’s 14th-century Tuscan dialect is “what I grew up with – what I talked. This language didn’t change much.”

He doesn’t approve of the way so many people today read the lines, emphasizing the stresses – “as if it’s a quite stupid children’s game,” he said, noting instead that the verse “is rooted in living speech.”

Biagini is currently editing Grotowski’s collected works, which are planned for publication beginning this fall in Polish, Italian, French, and (we hope) eventually in English.  Biagini trained with Grotowski every day for more than a dozen years – Grotowski, who died in 1999, was the greatest adventure of Mario’s life.

At a drama class the day before, he had recalled working with Grotowski, a man with “an absolute rigor towards himself” and a “strong natural authority” – so much so that the action at a café or bistro would halt when he entered it, just like in the movies.

National prophet

The theater legend was a member of Poland’s communist party, and dressed the part, like an apparatchik – part of a “precise strategy,” said Biagini, because “his work was exactly the opposite.” He created not his own texts as much as bringing to life the great works from Poland’s Romantic period – the works of  Adam Mickiewicz, for example, who is almost Poland’s national prophet (though he, like Czeslaw Milosz, was Lithuanian-born).

At some point, the aging maestro concluded, “Theater is an abandoned house. There’s no life in it.” He  began to ask “what theater can exist without,” stripping theater down to its barest essentials.  He also focused on direct, one-on-one connections and interactions.

I’m grateful for a few things Mario said:  One of my pet peeves when I go to the theater is having some production that wants to “do” the audience.  I don’t want to “participate” – that’s why I’m in a theater rather than an encounter group.  And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated. Grotowski, he said, was suspicious of the performers putting themselves in positions of power that way.

I also resent theatrical experiments that do a lot more for the performers than they do for an audience. Mario recalled sitting through a deadly, mind-numbing three-hour performance. Afterwards, the performers told him they had never had so much fun making a production. He urged directors and actors to have compassion on audiences – it’s supposed to mean something for them.

Preparing for death?

“It’s not about how the actor feels,” he told a student.  Actors should avoid being sidetracked by their own emotions.  “Just do the job – like someone at a bank,” he said.  He impersonated a bank clerk weeping as he doles out the cash – distracting and unnecessary, he said.  Just count the cash.

“It’s not that subjectivity is not important,” he said. “But I can’t start from there. I’d just make something extremely self-indulgent.”

And here’s good advice for just about anything, though he was referring to acting: “Nothing ‘a little bit’ works. You have to pay for it. It’s very hard. 95 percent of the time what you try will not work out. 95 percent of the time you will not accept that it does not work.”

What do I remember the most?  The melodies that still come back to me today, after three hours of watching his workshops Tuesday evening.  The tunes are the result of Grotowski’s exhaustive investigation into the ritual songs from Haitian voodoo and the African diaspora; he sought relatively simple techniques that would be “objective,” having a predictable impact on the performers, regardless of their beliefs or culture of origin.

As I wrote almost a year ago when Mario visited with members of his Workcenter troupe:

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it’s as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer’s soul in a single line. …

“One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve,” Chakrabarti said. “Mario replied, ‘We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!’

“I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me.”

This time, however, Mario was more active – leading the cycles of song, prodding and coaching the students, stripping to the waist and joining the slow, ritual dance, his body a keen actor’s tool, and one as eloquent as any of the Rodin bronzes on the Stanford campus.

Mario headed today for Paris, and then … Shanghai? Italy?  His story is amazing: “When I met Grotowski, I was a shepherd looking more for adventure, not a career. I got my adventures – and later a career.”


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