During Cezary Goes To War, a piece of experimental theater from Poland, I thought about how much we are taught about maintaining traditional gender roles by our parents, families, and communities.
So often children absorb rigid messages of what is “acceptable” behavior for someone of their gender presentation. A child’s resistance to this can be met with violence but even parental disappointment has its power to conform or suppress.
I’ve seen such messaging at work through my whole life (though I’d like to hope things have changed/improved over time). In the 1990s, the Power Rangers were doing stage shows. I worked at Radio City Music Hall at the time and sold merchandise in the lobby during these shows. I remember young boys who would come to the merchandise table looking to buy a pink Power Ranger. One boy did so and with the fleetest speed, his father smacked him across the head saying, “pink is for girls.” This scene was repeated frequently during the run of the show. No little boy walked away with a pink Power Ranger.
I was mad then. I am still mad today.
Cezary, which bills itself as a “queer fantasia on masculinity, nationalism, and the culture of war,” looks at the intersection of the Polish military, military conditioning and critiques of mens’ physique, and the behavioral conditioning of men. Written and conceived by Cezary Tomaszewski it is a semi-autobiographical amalgamation of personal stories and references.
The show is dance-driven using live music from Polish opera, Debussy, and Shostakovitch. Surtitled in English, there is some dialogue. But the four men and one woman (who mostly accompanies the action by playing piano throughout) in the cast achieve the most through movement.
There is a persistent tension in the show between uniformity and individualism and emotion and repression. This sometimes gets played out in expressions of masculinity and femininity, but this binary gets rigorous prodding with an undercurrent of queerness throughout.
Frankly, I started to read everything with a questioning eye towards queerness. To my ears, militaristic prideful songs sounded like they were filled with sexualized double-entendres in the lyrics (“Love in a battle sharpens the sword,” “My pipe is dead”) and also the expected stiff-upper-lip machismo (“Serve with your blood and health: even if you lose an arm or a leg,” “he is best who fights best”). But was there a pas de deux about blow jobs? Did someone have an orgasm over a sexy towel? Listen, I’m not sure all my dance interpretations were correct. But I am confident in my understanding that there really is a short distance between military exercises and a kickline–similar enthusiasm, only slightly different intention.
This blurring is intentional. Tomaszewski highlights the power of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity to control, define, and object to behavior–drawing poisonously sharp lines between the “acceptable” and the not. Crushing individualism may be the military’s job but looking at this with a larger lens, the community’s ability to police difference is also at play, making for the show’s most affecting moments. Institutional and societal indoctrination bleeds into personal behavior. Do we choose to perpetuate that or do we resist?
In one scene, a young man attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a fallen soldier. But rather than put his lips on the other’s, he kisses the man’s hand instead. While this kiss revives the fallen one, the group immediately ostracizes the “kisser.” The rest of the group sit on a bench, aggressively manspreading, and glaring at him. The man on the outs starts doing cartwheels across the large mat of the space. He repeats and repeats his motion across the room as the other men sit and watch him. His isolation is stark but he persists. Then suddenly the rest join him. Everyone is tumbling in cartwheels. Some fast, some slow. Some with great form, others sloppily.
There are several moments like this in the show where the men are together in their activity but individuals in their expression of it. It’s joyful and playful. These scenes exist so that we can see the painful contrast to this when that spirit is snuffed out. Communal pressure appears throughout the show, often via shunning. The quickness of those mood swings is frightening.
But in the end, this honest living wins out. The sonorous voice of one actor sings out in the voice of a hardened soldier on his way to the firing squad (for punching someone in the face who insulted him), “Don’t dare to shed a tear for me.” But as he sings this, the rest of the men in his company weep heaping sobs regardless. With the choice of military stoicism, they choose to be their true emotional selves.