Teatr ZAR at MCA in Chicago

Maybe falling is just a really humanizing act. I remember when I would do it all the time when I was eight, and it was fine. I remember doing it at thirteen and being mortified. I remember doing it at 29 and having the memory of every fall I ever had rushing through my body and burning my nerves at the ends.

Teatr ZAR falls well. They fall with the kind of flesh-smacking that makes you remember, in your body, what it is like to fall, without wincing. They do it a lot. Maybe it’s simply dramatically effective or a basic human act, but it folds well into the greater themes of the Gospels Of Childhood Triptych  (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, March 29-April 1, tickets $28) Pain. Loss. The visercality of the human body. The kind of emotion you feel with your whole self.

The fuel for that kind of movement is the music. If you caught our preview of this piece, you know that Teatr ZAR is built on research of ancient vocal traditions, song of the Caucuses, Greece, Poland. These songs are sung live and inform everything that happens onstage. The accompanying musicians– playing piano, fiddle, accordion– are part of the action. The lead performers drop in and out of song-tones, and the ensemble is often seated facing each other, conducting in a conversational way, as if singing old, strong songs were just something you did instead of yelling at football games.

What emerges throughout is a stumbling, grasping bodily strain. In the first act, The Overture, women play hopscotch, bathe, mourn, and read aloud from the gospels of Mary Magdalene in a space suggestive of an old, dark Eastern European homestead. There is a claim to a theme of resurrection in the press release, but what I got more of a sense of was just the sheer struggle of life. We see rituals suggestive of funerals, marriages, simple church ceremonies in which players grasp for a God beyond their brutal realm. The music is based on chants from Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In Caesarean Section / Essays on Suicide, the second act,  the audience moves up to the MCA atrium, where they are seated around a stage with a crevice down the middle, a crevice filled with broken wine glasses. The musty sting of red wine fills the air as each performer is poured their own glass at the start of the piece. These glasses and the dance-bohemian costumes of this section give us the impression of having stumbled upon a long philosophical drunken argument in the middle of a parlour gathering in the 20s or 30s. One in which people keep physically suggesting they will hurt themselves or others. Metronomes click in and out of the piece.  Again, there is a visceral bodily strain as dancers clamor desperately for light, navigate broken glass on bare feet, spit red wine onto each other, and sing deep, reverberant tones. These tones are a mix of Bulgarian, Icelandic and Chechen songs as well as later composers and musicians like Erik Satie and Astor Piazzolla. In one of the most striking moments, one performer runs in a circle with one leg of tights on as another performer holds her other stretched-out leg of tights. She stumbles in a circle around him like a tethered pony on an existential journey, knocking over chairs and falling.

In the final section, we return to the MCA stage, and watch as a billowy sail-ceiling comments on the action below. This act is called Anhelli / The Calling, and is based on a poem by 19th century Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki. It’s more narrative than the other acts, but not by much– while we’re very clearly following the story of a young man traveling through a landscape, it’s caught up in the same grasping tonality of the rest of the triptych. The white fabric above the stage gives an ethereal glow to the action below, as we watch the lead character drag himself through new paths, connect with other characters along the way, carrying his own burdens physically and emotionally. The music here is based on Byzantine and Sardinian Paschal hymns– the songs here fill the empty space, they call out to us from the back of the space. A reverberant gong chimes occasionally.

I felt a kind of longing and loss. A loss of the level of emotional expression that is tied to this music: full-body mourning, staring death in the face, fighting the inner brutality of being human in our everyday. A kind of longing to howl myself, throw off the beautiful harmonizing with a good guttural yowl. But at the same time, grateful to not be living on that dramatic of a scale. Grateful to be going home and crawling into my comfy bed in my heated apartment. In the same way that I’m grateful not to be falling as often as I did when I was eight.

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