Letter To Sergiu: On Ancient Theatre

From a series of letters to the artists of Flutgraben Performances Season #2 during the Corona pandemic in 2020

Moritz Majce

Dear Sergiu,

With regards to your insight into your current work and your interest in ancient texts, or perhaps in discovering seeds that were sown some time ago, I would like to tell you a bit about my own investigations into ancient Greek theatre that are closely related to one of the key elements of my artistic practice together with Sandra. All of our works are group pieces with a specific understanding of this group as space chorus, which refers to the group’s relation and receptivity towards its surroundings, towards each other, and towards spectators. My explorations of the ancient Greek theatre and its conception of space began to manifest during the work on “Fortress / Europa” (2015). I became interested in going back in time to the beginnings of theatre[1] and even further, to a time when it was not yet established, but raw and unbridled, to learn more about the beginnings of the relation of art work and art facer. In “Fortress / Europa” we were dealing with the ancient myth of the “farsighted” (as the Greek called her) princess Europa, my series of Wall Paintings which are based on construction plans of early modern fortresses, as well as Johannes Kepler’s discovery of the Jupiter moon Europa with the help of a telescope. All of these elements refer to specific regimes of watching. Also, the word “theatre” derives from the ancient Greek theastai, an old word for “seeing, watching, beholding”. The very term “theatre” refers to the theatron, that part of the ancient theatrical architecture where spectators gathered to sit down and watch. What today is understood as an art form was originally named after its spatial characteristic of a group of bodies being placed in front of an arrangement of other bodies in order to watch them. In this regard it is interesting that the theatre showed up together with the polis, the unique Greek invention of the city-state, associated with democracy and man’s rise as political being. In theatre man presents himself in front of himself and in front of his other, nature. It is in Greek tragedy, that he starts to abandon the gods and begins to set his own rules (think 
for instance of the Oresteia). I therefore think of ancient theatre as a “machine” that produced the perceptual framework of a relation of opposites, amplifying and repeating it, acting as a training centre for the implementation and reinforcement of a subject/object-relationship of spectator and art. From this perspective theatre is not an art form but a specific spatial dispositive that defines the relation of art and watching art from a certain point in time.

I would like to give three examples what came out of these explorations of mine artistically. The first example is related to archaic choreography. Not much is known about the pretheatrical chorus as it has not left many traces but what we do know is that originally the word choros was used interchangeably for the dancing place (a circle stomped into the ground) and the dancers (dancing the round dance) themselves. In ancient Greek theatre it then indicates a space between the theatron (the place I mentioned, where spectators gathered to watch) and the skene (a wooden hut, originally for changing masks and costumes out of which eventually the scene developed, i. e. the stage for the theatre’s actors). Later also referred to as orchestra, it is this circular space where the theatre’s chorus, a group of initially twelve, in late Greek tragedy fifteen dancers, resides. While staying in this interspace the chorus acted as an intermediator between the individual actors (protagonist and antagonist, later a third actor is added) and the audience.

During our six-part series of “Choros” (2016–2018) our focus to learn more about the nature of the pretheatrical chorus was on a spatio-physical perspective, rather then following its theatrical conception as a social-political figure. What Sandra and me were interested in was to find out more about the very essence of a chorus. We wanted to know if there could be a chorus that is coherent and continual without necessarily becoming a compact and uniform body. We started to experiment with very basic movements like walking in circles while chanting and singing in metre, trying to find ways to relate to each other, contributing to and maintaining a whole without becoming synchronous or homogenous. While adding more and more layers and complicating the circles, we finally began to understand what makes the heart of the chorus – that is: its relationality, to its inside as well as to its outside. Another important aspect that emerged during this research was that of the “landscape”, referring to the specific spatiality that is linked to the space chorus. A landscape is a decentered and heterogenous space in continuous transformation. It is fluid, transitional and has soft, indistinct borders to its outside while providing a 360° view. It has an expanded, unfazed temporality, that feels closer to an art exhibition than to a theatre play. A chorus sojourns in the landscape like a herd that can be met but will not pose.

The second example refers to a closer examination of the theatron and focuses on an architectural level. Starting from the idea to leave the theatrical juxtaposition of stage and auditorium by moving the audience into the very centre while at the same time multiplying its possible viewpoints, the spectators’ area in “Fortress / Europa” was shaped in a square and placed in the centre of the room. It is surrounded from all sides by the chorus’ area. Each spectator is sitting on a chair that is aligned in one of the cardinal directions. This approach is continued in “Narcissus Echo” and “Narkosis” (both 2017), which both also deal with an ancient myth. Here the chairs become swivel chairs and another circular stage area is added in the centre, the spectator’s region being circular shaped. The entire setting of both works is at the same time oriented towards a centre and towards the longitudinal axis of two large projection screens facing each other. The floor plan resembles the shape of an eye. All of these arrangements are attempts to multiply and interweave the theatron’s relations of space and reception.

The third example is based on the ekkyklema, a movable wooden platform that was rolled out of the ancient theatre’s skene in order to show situations to the audience that were playing inside of a building (by default the plot of a drama was always set outdoors). For the long-durational 30-hours work “Chora” (2019; chora is the name of Platon’s mythical concept of a dynamic space) we built 32 ekkyklema, thereby creating a multitude of mobile stages. Each of them was brought into the space one by one from outside during the event, from then on being moved through the entire space, being shared by both visitors and the space chorus. Some were covered with grass, some with canvas, some with seat cushions. They were constituting a moving landscape, sometimes reminding of plate tectonics or ice floes. The principle of chorality was extended by adding 12 projections and headphones accompanying the physical presence of the 12 dancers, thus creating a multi-layered, choral landscape.

There is not a lot of information about the pretheatrical choros, or the ekkyklema. Both are only scarcely mentioned in a few ancient texts. We do not know how the ekkyklema looked and we do not know how the round dance of a choros was experienced by bystanders. Yet it is exactly these uncertainties of the beginnings which allow to become sources of imagination and inspiration in my search for a different understanding of choreography as space art.

Take Care,


30 June 2020

[1] Including visits of the Dionysos theatre in Athens, the theatre at the Sanctuary of Delphi, and the oldest Greek theatre in existence in Thorikos.