For well over a decade, Polish director/choreographer Cezary Tomaszewski has been knocking down elitist symbols of classical music and Western theatre off their marble pedestals. He put Shakespeare in leotards and moved Hamlet to a gymnasium, he took Franz Lehar’s stuffy operetta The Merry Widow and turned it into a confessional based on the lives of cleaning ladies. In Cezary Goes to War, his most autobiographical work to date, he’s taken military practices, Shostakovich, and folk songs by Moniuszko to create a queer fever dream that explores the performance of masculinity and the fragility of the patriarchy.
In Cezary Goes to War, you take pieces by Shostakovich and Moniuszko and filter them through a queer lens. How did you become interested in challenging the ways in which classical music and folk songs can be used?
I often joke that classical music is my best, sexiest, and the most interesting boyfriend I’ve ever had. This is also my longest relationship that lasts for 37 years. My first date with opera LP was when I was 7 years old. But, as in every good relationship, this one also deserves to be negotiated, worked on and even challenged. This is what I think makes my relationship with opera stronger, more nuanced and thus powerful. After all, classical music is not only a form of relaxation or an opportunity to show off in the evening gown at the concert. It is also about blood, flesh, politics, histories, complex meanings, daily routines and mind and body exercise. I think that theatre work helps to explore and complicate these issues. If my relationship with classical music was only about the beauty, then we would have definitely split up years ago.
What do you look for in the performers for your pieces?
I often ask them to do things they are not trained for. The cast of Cezary Goes to War includes a dancer, singer, actor, and an actor-dancer, and they were all asked to act, dance and sing, despite their professional training and experiences. As a director, I’ve divided all the performative tasks equally among them. I push them to perform outside the box. After all, if you simply do what you were professionally trained to do then your performance is only about your skills. Yet, moving beyond your comfort zone opens new experiences, possibilities and ways of seeing you not only as an artist, but also as a human with all the beautiful imperfections. In addition, I also ask performers to do things, which are rather ridiculous, difficult to imagine or even impossible to do, and the result is similar.
Why do you think that heterosexual people pretend not to see the homoeroticism of military practices?
I’m pretty sure that they are totally aware of the homoeroticism, but at the same time, they are afraid of admitting it, so they just simply use different words to describe it. Otherwise, why should they be so stressed and dreadfully serious about the military at all? When you think about it, military is a fetish in its purest sense, with all the hot bodies wearing uniforms and giving orders.
In the show, you turn military movements on their head and show they can be displays of irreverence and joy. In a parallel universe, what music would you like to see the Polish Armed Forces march in a parade to?
Perhaps, The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky? There is even the battle scene in the first act, so they could use it to warm up for the “Flower Waltz” in the second act.
Your interpretation of Hamlet was focused on movement, which made me think Lady Macbeth’s “out damn spot” scene feels almost tailor-made for a dance. Can you share other insights on moves inspired by Shakespeare?
Shakespeare is all about people and humanity. People, apart from talking (often too much), they also move. Words might be deceitful, but the body never lies. So, there’s an interesting and complex space in-between words and movements, and this is where Shakespeare comes into play.
When doing a piece like The Naturalists, you end with unexpectedly joyful moments like a Kylie Minogue song on the radio blending in with Mendelssohn. Do you ever seek to recapture specific moments from your works or do you just enjoy each of them in the moment?
Since theatre is not a cinema, I enjoy moments as they are happening now. For me, each moment is similar and different at the same time.
When you did The Merry Widow you explored the piece through the exploitation of cleaning women in contemporary society. Your Orpheus and Eurydice took place in a gymnasium. Your work attempts to bring these pieces of “high art” to more accessible spaces, and yet it’s not uncommon for the right-wing to suggest that all art is elitist. Why do you think they’re so keen on perpetuating this lie?
Perhaps, they are afraid that regular folks also think? Art should be a part of everyone’s daily life. Elitism means to take away art from ordinary life experiences and imprison it within formal institutions, where art can be easily kept under control. This, for example, was the case of operettas, which initially were performed in garden theatres. At that time, they were actively and critically engaged with societal and political issues. But it was Adolf Hitler, who censored operettas by moving them to posh opera houses with limited access for ordinary people. It killed operettas’ true meaning, leaving them only with dummy staging, beautiful costumes and some nice melodies for the elite.
Today the right-wing keeps asking artists to “stay away from politics,” why do you think they’re pushing the lie that art isn’t political by its nature?
They know it’s a lie. They’re afraid of the art, otherwise they wouldn’t be bothered.
Is there one piece of music that you’re dying to use in your work but haven’t had the chance to?
Not really. If that question was about the entire opera productions, then I might think of few operas that I would love to direct. In the theatre work, I choose particular music as a specific counterpoint to the broader meaning.
What excites you about bringing the show to La Mama?
Everything. New York City is my favourite place on earth and La Mama is a legendary venue. The stage is beautiful, the people are amazing and the audience is curious, open minded and engaged with what they are seeing and experiencing. This is like a dream come true for our show.
For tickets and more information on Cezary Goes to War visit: http://lamama.org/cezary/