Prima Ballerinas, Soldiers & Hollywood Stars: Polish Dancers of the 20th Century
They were stars of the pre-war stage – prima ballerinas, choreographers and dancers when their careers were abruptly cut short by World War II. Culture.pl unveils some unknown facts about 20th-century Polish dance. Their stories are fascinating and include the ballet and soviet labour camps, revues and the battle of Monte Cassino, the cabaret and the Warsaw ghetto...
A Broadway star and a Polish patriot. America fell in love with the golden-haired Gilda Gray and her shimmying, which took the jazz clubs of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1920s by storm. She was so popular that she eventually starred in a number of Hollywood films and even appeared at The Great Gatsby’s party portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Legend has it that when asked about her dance style, she answered in her heavy Polish accent: ‘I’m shaking my chemise!’.
Gilda Gray was as famous as Pola Negri and even though she was so well known, it may come as a surprise that her real name was actually Marianna Michalska. Born around 1901 in Kraków under the Austrian partition, she came to the States as a teenager with her parents and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s where her revue and cabaret career began and where she was discovered by Hollywood. She later appeared in a dozen silent movies including The Devil Dancer, Piccadilly and Cabaret, but was also an inspiration for many other motion pictures – Gilda starring Rita Hayworth by Charles Vidor (1946), for one.
All three of her marriages ended in divorce, her businesses – in bankruptcy and her return to show business – with a heart attack. Used to change as she was, Gilda never disavowed her Polish roots: during World War II she helped provide financial aid to Polish soldiers as well as Polish war émigrés, who settled in the United States hoping to start a new life. The actress, who passed away in 1959, was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Yet another Pole who tried to take Hollywood by storm. She came to New York as a 30-year-old, already a well-established actress and dancer bearing the Miss Polonia 1928 title. Born in Połock under the Russian partition, in today’s Ukraine, she debuted at the Bolshoi Theatre, with which she later went on a world tour, visiting Japan, Turkey and Czechoslovakia.
According to the Polish history website histmag.org, upon learning about Poland regaining its independence in 1918, Janina quit ballet school and returned to her native land. She starred in a few movies and then left again, this time for Paris, where she became one of the leading stars of the famous Folies Bergère. Shortly afterwards, she returned to the States, where she starred in the Oscar-nominated The Song of the Flame. In the late 1930s, she went back to Paris and founded the ‘Polish Ballet’, a troupe of young Polish émigré dancers.
Marie Rambert, Cywka Rambert, or simply Mim. Born in 1888 in Warsaw, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish bookseller, she received the honour of knighthood from Elizabeth II half a century later.
Rambert was dancer, pedagogue, a pioneer of modern ballet and the founder of the Rambert Dance Company – the oldest continually running ballet company in England. She came to London in 1914 just after the outbreak of World War I and worked as a dance and rhythm teacher for children of the British elite (she even taught Winston Churchill’s daughter!).
Educated in Paris, Rambert appeared in Sergei Diaghilev’s Le Ballets Russes, and even assisted Vaslav Nijinsky in the legendary Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which in 1913 caused a scandal, like none seen before. She toured around Australia and New Zealand and performed in Italy, China and the United States. In 1972, she published her autobiography entitled Quicksilver.
Her life sounds like a movie: it starts in 1918 Lviv and ends in 1986 in Buenos Aires, with Siberia, Teheran, Monte Cassino, ballet, labour camps, fighting in General Anders’ division and emigration in the background…
Before the war, as a graduate of the Szkoła Sztuki Dramatycznej i Tańca Klasycznego (editor’s translation: School of Dramatic Arts and Classical Dance), she danced in the Lviv opera and operetta ballet ensemble and was a promising dancer and choreographer. However, we do not know much about Elżbieta Niewiadomska as a ballet dancer – her artistic career was brutally cut short by the war, when she was sent to a Siberian labour camp, before fleeing to Teheran in 1941. That is where the more known episode of her life begins: the life of a soldier of the Polish II Corps.
Niewiadomska joined the army of General Anders on its mission through Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt to Italy, during which she appeared in the revue theatre of the Polish Parade founded by the bard and poet Feliks Konarski. She took part in the battle of Monte Cassino, later depicted by Melchior Wańkowicz in his legendary war reportage. This is what Niewiadomska said about the first public performance of The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino:
As I started to recite the poem, guns and cannons thumped over our heads... I knew I could not show my fear, so I raised my voice to make myself heard and continued with the poem. To my surprise, everyone stayed in their seats...
The artists emigrated to Argentina in 1948, where she worked for the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic company and ran a dance group called Nasz Balet (editor’s translation: Our Ballet), promoting Polish folklore in South America.
In 1930s Warsaw she was considered one of the most beautiful and talented dancers, an artist of a unique stage presence and enormous potential. Mannówna, with her astonishing beauty, appeared on opera and cabaret stages, in cafes, revues and at private parties of the high society. She studied ballet and contemporary dance at the school of Tacjanna Wysocka, and later under Irena Prusicka. She was acquainted with famous female artists of the time such as the singer Wiera Gran and Stefania Grodzieńska.
The young Franka Mann, born in 1917, got great reviews and was even recognised at the International Dance Competition in Brussels, where she danced the part of Ballerina, inspired by the ballet sketches by Degas. In Nazi-occupied Poland, she performed at the Femina Theatre, in the Warsaw ghetto and the Bagatela cafe, until the spring of 1943 when Mannówna ended up at the Hotel Polski, which was said to be helping Jews get to South America. However, instead of the promised Guatemala, Paraguay, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, the inhabitants of 29 Długa Street were transported to Auschwitz.
Her heroic behaviour was well-remembered in Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz and Sofka Zinovieff Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life. Ryszard Marek Groński recalled an incident of a striptease in a camp changing room in Polityka:
The SS were hypnotised. The girl undid her garter and approached the Obersturmführer and removed her heels with a swift move. She then bent down, grabbed the right shoe and hit the superintendent with the metal end of the heel right in the nose. His bones crunched and Schillinger howled with pain and hid his face in his hands. What happened later felt like a movie on fast-forward: the girl grabbed the officer’s gun and shot it twice. Schillinger dropped dead and Emereich, an SS standing beside him seized his pistol, but Franciszka Mann was faster. She took one shot, killed him instantly, ran back into the crowd and disappeared before the guards got a chance to catch her.
She is one of the most important figures of contemporary dance, but one that is still poorly known in Poland. It was in Washington, where she lived since 1951, that she made her career, working at local ballet and contemporary dance studios as a highly regarded teacher, choreographer and inspiration for generations of American dancers. Before she arrived in the States, she passed through Germany, Austria, Italy and Great Britain.
Born in 1910 in Warsaw to an orthodox Jewish family as Pola Nirensztajn, she studied in the highly esteemed Mary Wigman School of Dance in Dresden but was forced to flee Germany due to increasing antisemitism and Nazi persecutions. In 1934, she won first prize at the International Dance Congress in Vienna, for her own choreography entitled Cry. After Austria, she left for Italy and the UK, where she performed for the RAF and met Jan Karski. The two didn’t fall in love right away – it wasn’t until the early 1960s in the States and got married 5 years later.
She spent her childhood in Yalta and Crimea, born in 1909 to a Polish family. She attended piano and ballet lessons from a very young age. Growing up amongst artists, she learned the tango from Ivan Mosjoukine, the silent movie star. The Maliszewski family (the artist’s real name) returned to Warsaw in 1922, where Lili continued her ballet classes in the Aleksandryjski ballet school and made her debut 4 years later.
She appeared solo, in duets and trios in Warsaw cabarets and theatres (such as Momus, The Black Cat, The Red Ace). Jerzy Płaczkiewicz, the artist’s youngest son, a collector of pre-war records and an expert on the tango in Poland, remembers his mother as a graceful, elegant and extremely charming woman.
During the war, Lili Larys found herself in Biała Podlaska, in an ‘alley between the jail, the ghetto and the cemetery,’ wrote Płaczkiewicz. After the war, she settled in Katowice, opened a beauty parlour and never returned to dancing.
The pre-war magazines wrote she had the ‘most beautiful smile in Warsaw’, but she preferred the be known simply as ‘Helenka from Toruń’. A star of theatre and cinema, she appeared aside the entertainers Adolf Dymsza, Eugeniusz Bodo and Aleksander Żabczyński, she was a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising, a lieutenant of the Home Army and chief of the ‘Falcon’ female battalion. She served under the nickname ‘Clever’.
Born in 1904, she took dance lessons under Bronisława Nizinska. In the early 1930s, she was the prima ballerina and head of the Grand Theatre in Poznań ballet. She also performed at the Teatr Nowy in Poznań, the Różowa Kukułka cabaret (editor’s translation: Pink Cuckoo), the Cyrulik Warszawski cabaret (editor’s translation: Warsaw Barber) and Qui pro Quo. Within just 4 years she starred in 17 movies – Love Only Me, Poe and Joe and the Forgotten Melody, to name just a few.
Dr. Krzysztof Trojanowski, a film scholar, recalls that the first recording of the Polish language on tape was that of Helena Grossówna. This is what he said about the artist’s international career:
Grossówna, together with Dymsza and Bodo, won the survey for most popular actors among Poles in the US and were supposed to tour in the States. Thanks to the help of Pola Negri, Grossówna was supposed to sign a contract in Hollywood. They even bought their cruise tickets and were supposed to leave in January 1940... The war abruptly interrupted their plans.
After the war, Grossówna worked at the Syrena Theatre. She married Tadeusz Cieśliński, a soldier of General Stanisław Maczek’s first trooper division of, which freed the Oberlagen camp, where Grossówna was interned.
The dancer, pedagogue and ballet director Tacjanna Wysocka was also the first promoter of combining rhythmic gymnastics and acrobatics with classical dance in Poland. Born in Moscow and educated in Petersburg, she fled to Poland together with her husband Stanisław after the outburst of the Bolshevik Revolution.
It was in Poland that they opened their own dance school called Szkoła Umuzykalnienia Tacjanny i Stanisława Wysockich (editor’s translation: Tacjanna and Stanisław Wysoccy School of Musical Appreciation), which was open until World War II (since 1936, under the name of School of Stage Dance). The war found Tacjanna in Warsaw. The German authorities didn’t allow her to continue running her ballet school. Tomasz Mościcki, a pre-war theatre historian wrote that the artist took to teaching in secret. She worked with theatre director Leon Schiller on shows in Henryków and Milanówek and was behind the choreography for Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve at the Polish Theatre in 1934.
But let’s not forget what Tacjanna Wysocka was probably most known for – the modern revue. From 1928, her ensemble performed at the legendary cabaret Qui Pro Quo.
The three sisters, Zizi, Lodka and Punia, were a real sensation in pre-war Poland. The trio was a jewel in the crown of popular theatres and cabarets: the Perski and later Morskie Oko. Loda (and her phenomenal legs) was the one that drew the most attention: She was the prima ballerina at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, and thanks to the recommendation of Ignacy Paderewski, worked in Paris, Tokio, Berlin and the United States. She was called the Polish Josephine Baker and it came as no surprise that the stage was her destiny.
Loda Halama was born 20th July 1911 to Marta Cegielska, a dancer and Stanisław Halama, an acrobat and multi-instrumentalist, during one of their tours. She started dancing at the age of 6.
After the outbreak of World War II, she was part of the Polish underground and took care of the soldiers wounded in the battle of Westerplatte. Later, she lived in Switzerland, Great Britain and the States. In 1984, she published a memoir Moje Nogi i Ja (editor’s translation: My Legs and Me).
She was without a doubt the most important figure in the history of Polish ballet. A dancer since the age of 11, she recollects running barefoot around the table as a child on her tiptoes. Later in life, she often neglected to wear insoles and the tapes attaching the points to her feet. The press went wild about her:
A choreographer will not only find a creative fantasy and innovation, constantly redefining the ballet tradition in her dancing, but also an artistic individuality and infinite well of ideas, enough for your own preconceptions to come crashing down.
The portal taniecpolska.pl writes:
Her ease, grace, undiluted lyricism and great sense of humour – all of this combined form a unique individual, leaving a mark in every scene, even the shortest one.
Born in Lviv in 1924, she spent the war in Warsaw, dancing on private stages. After the tragic death of her father, Basia was the main provider for her family of 4. Her mother and sister were sent to the Ravensbrück camp but later emigrated to Canada. Bittnerówna, together with her dance partner, Jerzy Kapliński, were interned at a temporary camp in Pruszków.
After the war, she was fired from the Grand Theatre – National Opera for political reasons, but went on to be the prima ballerina in Poznań, and later in Bytom at the Silesian Opera. She did an unforgettable performance as Julia in Prokofiev’s ballet and was part of a famous duet with Witold Gruca. Barbara Bittnerówna was a dancer for 40 years. In 2004, an autobiography of the artist Nie Tylko o Tańcu (editor’s translation: Not Only About Dance) was published.
A prima ballerina and prolific dancer who was so close to an international career. She was the star of the Silesian and Poznań Opera stages (encouraged by Barbara Bittnerówna, the 15-year-old moved with a group of dancers from Poznań to Bytom), but also performed in Stockholm, Oslo, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and in the late 1950s – danced with the famous group Les Étoiles de Paris. The doors to an international career were wide open but Olga Sawicka decided to return to Poland. She performed in Conrad Drzewiecki’s choreographies at the Grand Theatre in Poznań.
Sawicka was honoured with the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Cross of Merit and the Medal of Merit to Culture. Her biography Life with Dance was written by Stefan Drajewski.
Moje Rzeźby Tańczą Za Mnie (editor’s translation: My Sculptures Dance for Me) is the title of a biographical movie about Danuta Kwapiszewska from 1983 – a portrait of a talented and acclaimed dancer, whose career in ballet was abruptly interrupted by a severe accident, after which her passion shifted to sculpture.
Born in 1922, she spent her childhood in the luxurious Concordia townhouse in the Mokotów district in Warsaw. Jerzy S. Majewski wrote about in Poland’s daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza:
As mezzanines and storage spaces were present in many houses and apartments, they often served really peculiar purposes. For example during Nazi occupation in Poland, the dancer Danuta Kwapiszewska used to hide curled up in one of the storage spaces and wait for them to leave. If it was too late to hide way up there, her mother used to stuff her into a cabinet.
After the war, Kwapiszewska worked as a choreographer for dramatic theatres, like the Groteska Theatre and Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. She also performed at the Wagabunda literary cabaret. However, it is practically impossible to find any information about her on the internet and her biography has yet to be written.
Fascinated with Tibetan medicine and the philosophy of the East, she was a dancer, acrobat and a precursor of yoga in Poland. Born in 1916, before the war she worked at the Grand Theatre and National Opera and Warsaw National Operetta, while in the 1950s she became the face of a healthy lifestyle campaign. As of 1957, she ran an experimental studio for dance gymnastics in the Community Centre in Warsaw’s Old Town.
Her interest in yoga and Tibetan medicine came along a few years later. In 1966, the famous yogi Ma Yogashakti, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, visited Michalska’s studio and deemed it the best Hatha Yoga school in Europe and certified it for the International Yoga Fellowship Movement. The document, enabling Michalska to run a certified school, was handed to her personally by the ambassador of India to Poland. Hatha Yoga for Everyone, her book, published in 1972, became the bible of yoga beginners and was the first Polish publication on the subject.
Also known as Stella Pawlak, maiden name Pokrzywa, born in 1920, she was a child prodigy of Polish ballet, performing from the age of 10. She was hired by the Grand Theatre and National Opera in Warsaw at 14 and was a soloist there until the war broke out in 1939. Before that, together with the Polish Ballet directed by Bronisława Niżyńska, she performed in Paris (winning the Grand Prix at the World’s Fair), London (Covent Garden), Berlin, Brussels and 30 other cities.
She had versatile talents and didn’t limit herself to a classical repertoire, but also performed Spanish dance with castanets, oriental dances and the so-called Free Dance in Paris and Berlin. During the war, she gave secret dance lessons to young ballet students, but after the war, she returned to the stage. She performed in Warsaw, Poznań, Gdańsk, but also Bydgoszcz and Łódź, and also worked as a ballet teacher and choreographer. It’s a hard to count all of her roles!
She was a Łódź-born dancer and artist who was way ahead of her time: an immigrant fascinated with Brazilian afro-culture and ritual candomblé cults, she was one of the most prominent figures in Salvador’s contemporary dance world. Janka Rudzka, later called Yanka, was born in Poland in 1916. She studied dance under Ruth Sorel and George Groke, students of Mary Wigman’s expressionist school, and took lessons from the choreographer Harold Kreutzberg in Switzerland. She also lived in London, Italy and Argentina.
In the beginning of the 1950s, Rudzka was invited to Brazil, where she founded the first academic dance school. According to Dr. Marcin Rożalski, Yanka was the first stage artist of her time to take the local culture seriously.
She transgressed the boundaries of exoticism and folklore. While conducting her creative research, she started to focus on the regional Afro-Brazilian candomblé possession cults. Brazilian choreographer Lia Robatto recalled that she often saw Rudzka writing down the Afro-Brazilian drums' melodic lines and attending candomblé ceremonies. Rudzka was the first choreographer in Bahia to consciously incorporate the symbolism of candomblé gestures into her works. She also introduced the berimbau (a traditional instrument used in capoeira) on stage.
What happened during World War II must have been an enormous tragedy for her. According to her students, she didn’t want to speak of her times in Poland, and to every question about her past, she responded that she will never return to her native country. And she kept her promise.
Born in 1923, she was the prima ballerina at the Wrocław Opera and the Landestheater Linz in Austria. In the early 1960s, she worked for the Theatre d’Art du Ballet in Paris, touring several countries. For 20 years, she lived and worked in the United States, running ballet schools, before returning to Europe in 1983, where she worked in both Wrocław and Vienna.
According to the Notatnik Teatralny (editor's translation: Theatre Notebook), she was the one to influence Henryk Tomaszewski’s (founder of the Wrocław Pantomime Theatre) arrival in Wrocław in 1949.
Sometimes called the ‘Polish Pina Bausch’, Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak, dancer, pedagogue and choreographer, occupies a special place in the history of Polish dance. Born in 1915 Vienna, she graduated from the Dance Conservatory in Kraków in 1938, but didn’t start performing until after the war – it was in the 1950s at the Baltic State Opera that she performed some of her most revolutionary ballets. At the time, the entire country was astonished by this new dance theatre. Music aficionado and writer Jerzy Waldorff wrote:
The Baltic State Opera was extremely lucky to have Janina Jarzynówna as its main choreographer and ballet master from the very beginning. She was a uniquely intelligent, independent and original artist, therefore the results were either excellent or pitiful – never mediocre and always controversial. This was the case of Pan Twardowski, which older conservative women considered a defilement of sacred national treasure and pleaded for political repressions to be enforced against Jarzynówna.
And she was indeed a rebel in her field – using contrast, shortcuts and baffling elements. Although her method was based on classical dance, it simultaneously breaks its rules, opening a world of infinite possibilities for the dancer. In her own words:
I tried to distill my own dance language from this labyrinth of knowledge and managed to convince dancers to take part in my experiment.
Her students told writer Barbara Kanold how Jarzynówna helped them discover their true personality, encouraged them to take bold courses of action and to always take part in creative discussion. In an album commemorating the artist’s 100 birth anniversary, Alicja Boniuszko, a prima ballerina from Gdańsk, said:
I’m lucky to have been an active participant in Professor Jarzynówna’s activities, to have seen how she searched for new means of expression, giving symphonic music a new unique style and meaning. The work of the arms, neck, back and legs, all had to merge into one. It was finally freedom, but it was not at all random!
She created over 40 ballet choreographies, for among others The Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók, Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel, Harnasie by Karol Szymanowski, Niobe by Juliusz Łuciuk, Titania and the Donkey by Zbigniew Turski, all of which key elements in the history of Polish dance. In 1995, Professor Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak was honoured with the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta and two years later was awarded a Medal of Merit from the city of Gdańsk. The artist also received the Sergei Diaghilev medal.
Sources: Wikipedia, Taniecpolska.pl, Polityka weekly, Śląsk monthly, eteatr.pl, Gazeta Wyborcza, histmag.org.pl, Culture.pl, Marie Rambert Dance Company, Grand Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw, Prószyński i S-ka publishing house, Dwójka, Polskie Radio, W stulecie urodzin Janiny Jarzynówny-Sobczak by Baltic State Opera
Article originally written in Polish, Mar 2017, translated by WF, Apr 2017