She didn't want to talk about Poland, and when asked about her past, she would only say that she would never go back to there. Who was Yanka Rudzka? A dancer from Łódź, an uncompromising artist way ahead of her time… an emigrant fascinated with Afro-Brazilian culture, and one of the most significant figures of contemporary dance in Salvador.
‘Yanka provided us with the alibi of remaining faithful to what is really important in art. We weren't interested in exotic trends, or cheap “local” folklore. Just like her, we wanted to immerse ourselves in local culture in a more profound way, and, in effect, we wanted to actually go further than Yanka, making the next steps which she simply couldn't afford to make at the time.’ Choreographer Joanna Leśnierowska and theatre scholar Maciej Rożalski, PhD, talk to Culture.pl about the time they spent following the Brazilian tracks of Yanka Rudzka. They reveal what it's like to discover unknown chapters in the history of Polish dance, and reveal connections between the energy of samba rituals and traditional Polish oberek dances.
Anna Legierska: Why is it worth remembering the story of Yanka Rudzka, the dancer and Polish emigrant to Brazil who practised the candomblé rituals of possession in the 50s?
Joanna Leśnierowska: Let's start by saying that it's not so much a matter of remembering her story as of discovering it! Because to date, no one in Poland has heard about this talented Polish dancer, who was the first director of the dance department at the Federal University (UFBA) in Salvador. And she also had a significant impact on the development of the contemporary dance scene in Bahia.
What was it about colonial Salvador that seduced her?
Joanna: The Bahia region, of which Salvador is the capital, is a special place. A magical land surrounded by paradise-like nature. Here, Catholicism functions harmoniously side by side with the candomblé cults and an entire pantheon of divinities which made their way here with African slaves. Salvador is also a city which doesn't resemble the Brazil we may know from tourist pamphlets and the media. It seems as if Salvador de Bahia has stopped in time, its culture still dominated by modernism and the whole city living to the rhythm of samba.
The charm of this place is difficult to resist. It is also a very poor place, and all of Brazil's problems are concentrated here. This must have also appealed to our Yanka Rudzka. She discovered just how much she was taken in by Afro-Brazilian culture and its mysteriously intense energy. Apart from that, as a member of the artistic avant-garde of Sao Paolo, from where she travelled to Salvador, Rudzka believed that contemporary Brazilian culture could not exist without respect for local culture and its original roots. Salvador turned out to be a place where she could develop her interests and her talents, and where she could also tighten her bonds with Afro-Brazilian culture without having to worry too much about prevailing convenances.
Various sources confirm that local artists introduced Yanka into the Salvador universe, and it is quite likely that she also took part in ritual masses. But at the time, it must have been difficult, if not simply impossible, to enter the world of Afro-Brazilian cults.
She was a devout Catholic, and she probably also had Jewish roots
Maciej Rożalski: She was afraid of the candomblé, and common views only strengthened this fear. But in the end, the fascination with local culture proved stronger. She had the courage to create the first choreographies inspired by candomblé, against common advice and opinion. She thus had a significant input in opening up a discourse about this culture.
Joanna Leśnierowska: She came from the working-class city of Łódź, and was brought up to respect cultural and religious diversity. The events of World War II must have been an incredible trauma for her. According to her student and assistant Lia Robatto, she never wanted to speak about Poland, and whenever someone asked her about her past, she merely replied that she would never go back to Poland. And she kept her word.
Our project symbolically returns Yanka to Poland. And we hope she will forgive us… We attempted to trace her footsteps and to do so in a way that she would find acceptable. We also repeated her gesture of turning towards traditional culture. It's a gesture filled with respect, but it's also a focused analysis. It is neither a matter of folklore, nor of exoticism. Just like Yanka, we wanted to immerse ourselves in local culture in a way that is more profound, and as a result, to make one step further than her, going into dance practice as such, which was something that Yanka could not afford to do at the time.
The original choreography entitled Projekt Yanka Rudzka: ZACZYN (The Yanka Rudzka Project: A LEAVEN) premièred at the VIVADANÇA festival in April 2016. It was created over several weeks in Salvador by dancers from Poland and Brazil. Tell us about the encounter between the two dance milieux from Poland and Brazil and their literal entry into Afro-culture?
Joanna: In November, 2015, together with my friends, Janusz Orlik and Agnieszka Kryst, we went on a study visit which was meant to prepare us for the main project in April this year. Together with Maciej we made the decision that we would first go to Cachoeira and Santo Amaro in the Reconcavu region – the nest of the traditional samba de roda (samba in a circle) which doesn't at all resemble the kind of samba we may know from TV broadcasts of the carnival. We were learning samba from 80-year-old women, masters of the dance, in the exact place where it originated from, and where it had been inscribed on the UNESCO list of non-material cultural heritage. Originally danced by slaves, the samba was their form of protest, a way of resisting oppression and a manifestation of their own identity and dignity. During the couple of days we spent there, we dived into deep water, as we weren't only confronted with the dance, but also with vivid customs and a living culture surrounding the samba. We experienced the energy and the discourse surrounding it – the history of slavery, the melody of suffering and joy (alegria e sofrimento, as our teachers used to say), but also the values that the dance carries with it, which get transmitted from generation to generation.
Samba is more than a dance – it's a way of life, of being in harmony with the Earth and nature, it is a social phenomenon and it feeds on the candomblé energy as its source. We got to know the local world of samba with great awareness and prudence, and respecting all of the rules. We realise that over such a short period of time, we could only touch on the surface of the phenomenon. We should also underscore that we were interested in samba first and foremost as a social phenomenon, not necessarily linked with a religious experience. Samba de roda as danced by everyone regardless of age and at any occasion, samba de roda which celebrates the group and community – something which is typical of all traditional forms of dance, regardless of their geographical location. And since it was important for our project to bring out a meeting of partners and an intermingling of cultures, we also had the idea of looking at traditional forms of our own culture and of dances which are not stylised. The oberek and mazurek dances were also once a part of living Polish culture.
This is how we looked at both of our traditions together, and by practising the dances, we exchanged their different sources. And we found many inspiring differences, as well as many elements in common. All this happened as we followed in Yanka's footsteps.
In a rather unexpected way, Yanka Rudzka became a connection between the exotic samba and our homely oberek. Traditional culture in Poland is now experiencing its renaissance, and I was wondering whether the contemporary dance milieu was also interested in folklore?
Joanna: Within Polish dance theatre, traditional and national forms have already been the subject of choreographic activity, in all their complexity and diversity. In the 70s, Conrad Drzewiecki built his Polish Dance Theatre – The Poznań Ballet on the concept of juxtaposing Polish traditions with the universe of modern dance. It's enough to evoke his performance called Krzesany. We could go back even further – in the inter-war period, Poland was one of the most significant centres of expressionist dance In Europe, next to Austria and Germany. Yanka was a child of exactly that era, a time of the very first boom in contemporary dance. Many schools functioned at the time, and a lot of amateurs were active, as well.
Polish artists were known for a specific form of solo dance which appropriated folk elements. Traditional dances were very energetic, rhythmically complex and they manifested the crazy and somewhat sentimental spirit of Poles. All this made Polish dance something very original. It seems like the newest choreography in Poland still has some homework to do in the area of Polish dance history. Thanks to our project, we were also able to ask ourselves in what way traditional culture could inspire us, what kind of values it transmitted, and what formal solutions we could draw from it, as artists who usually work on avant-garde, conceptual, non-narrative, and experimental choreography. These were also Yanka's questions…
What did the encounter between the samba and the oberek look like? The idea seems out of this world…
Joanna: Right from the start, I thought it was important for the project to engage contemporary dancers. We wanted to create a platform wherein everyone would be equal in their ignorance with respect to the sources of their own dance culture. In both countries the circles of traditional and contemporary dance are somewhat alienated. In Brazil, the distance between them can seem smaller, because there, everyone simply lives and breathes the samba and seems to be fluent in its rhythm from early childhood. Hence the ignorance of our colleagues with respect to the samba was not as huge as ours when it comes to the oberek…
But it is true that the traditional form of samba, rooted in Afro-Brazilian culture and the rituals, is not commonly known or practised among contemporary dancers and it is not taught on university dance courses. Yanka Rudzka tried to change this, but unfortunately after she left Salvador, the school gave up the idea and dancers are now educated in a really formal way, mostly in the modern techniques.
But in order to go through with our plan at all, we had to get to know traditional Polish dances. We chose the oberek, a very dynamic dance which is not at all easy, and which was once practised by feudal farmers who spent all their days working hard in the fields, farming land which didn't even belong to them. Dancing allowed them to find joy in spite of the hardship of their lives. As a whirling dance, the oberek also includes a possibility of trance and in this way, it is close to the samba. But I actually prefer to evoke the ecstatic in this case, a dimension of dance which is often evoked by the newest choreography today. Discovering the oberek was a great adventure, and a discovery we made thanks to the guidance of the great Piotr Zgorzelski.
"Yanka Rudzka. Zaczyn" on Vivadança festival from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
He not only shared his knowledge on how to dance the oberek, but also told us how we could teach it to our Brazilian colleagues. It was fascinating to discover common elements which are shared not only by Polish and Brazilian dances, but also by those of the Balkan peninsula and the Arabic world. We suddenly realised that we were immersed in ‘ethno-choreo-logy’ and that our research was starting to deal with something much deeper than a clash of exotic cultures. We later exchanged these dances during our work together, in order to better understand where we are from. These were the oberek, samba capoeira and Orishas – dances of the candomblé divinities to whom various attributes are ascribed, including special dance types.
The basic method of work during our three-week residency was choreographic analysis and deconstruction. We looked at the samba and the oberek, but also at choreographic strategies and practices in the context of our own work. We broke the dances down, looking for their essence. It often happened that the smallest elements, gestures and metaphors which got taken out of their natural context became a springboard for further research, improvisation and discussion. We created an interesting space of freedom wherein we treated traditional culture like a great sea to fish out our inspirations from. It was not only the inspiring differences that we were after, but also commonly shared elements that could allow us to build something other, something new. This way of practising dance together became a touching experience also in the context of the current political situation.
Politics caught up with you in Brazil?
Joanna: After coming back from Cachoeira to Salvador, we found ourselves in the very centre of a political earthquake which had a strong impact on the lives of our Brazilian colleagues. A series of events which was triggered by a corruption scandal many months earlier, and the dismissal of President Dilma Rousseff took place right at the time of our April residency – this led to the shutting down of the Ministry of Culture less than a week after the closing of our project. We started to ask ourselves, how do we find ourselves in this situation, as artists? As we engage in matters of seemingly little importance, such as dance, how do we not shut ourselves off from what's happening around us – can we deliver alternative scenarios for practising what a community is? It is often said about contemporary dance, that it is the most democratic of all arts… It may sound a bit lofty, but when it comes to cultivating community values and respecting diversity, contemporary choreography has means at its disposal that have been shaped by generations. It can, and it should share them, in this time we live in.
And did you stumble upon any political traces in the life of Yanka? After all, emigration is a very particular way of relating to national issues…
Maciej: Rudzka didn't want to maintain any contact with Poland because of her memories of war. She also did not share her political views. She kept her artistic work separated from any political stances. But according to Lia Robatto and Maria Claudia Guimarães, although Rudzka didn't make any open political statements, she deeply believed in the power of art to transform reality. Her contacts with artists engaged in Brazil's communist movements, such as the composer Eunice Catunda, are proof of this. Another thing that confirms this is Rudzka's views related to the role of education and her project for a dance university that would underscore the value of local traditions. This flexible model of education was supposed to depend on the individual choices of young dancers during their own formative process.
Were you able to trace the story of her flight from Poland?
Maciej: According to Lia Robatto, her dance guru Rudzka concealed information about her past. We only know that the outbreak of Nazi ideology found her in Germany, and that as early as 1942, she was already in Argentina. She was invited to come to Brazil by a prominent musician of the period, Hans Joachim Koellreuter, whom she met in Italy during a seminar on contemporary art.
What was her dance philosophy, what did she look for in movement? What kind of teacher was she?
Maciej: Yanka was initially connected with German expressionism. She studied with German dancers of Jewish origin, Ruth Sorel and Georg Groke. The officially preserved image of Yanka is very much tied to this period. But it was in fact her breaking with expressionism and a fascination with what is local that are most singular.
Rudzka's students recall that in her dance, there was a lot of sensitivity which opened up onto perceiving everyday reality. One could discern some influences of Martha Graham's school in her work, as well as the rhythmics of Émil Jaques-Dalcroze. Rudzka is said to have claimed that dance isn't something expressionist, but something ‘expressive’. This was supposed to indicate a greater lightness of movements than those of Mary Wigman and other artists of the German modernist period.
How did Yanka Rudzka manage in Brazil, what was it like for her? I am also thinking about the Brazil after 1964, when the military regime repressed its opponents, including artists and journalists? It must have been difficult for her.
Maciej: Definitely. In the 50s, no one would officially speak about Afro-Brazilian culture. There were – and there still are – many prejudices with respect to this phenomenon. But Yanka decided to mark her stance with respect to this by including Afro dance as part of the school programme. This is what must have forced her to finally emigrate from Brazil and settle for good in the Austrian city of Graz.
Almost nothing is known about the last years of her life. In the late 90s, Rudzka was visited in Europe by Professor Maria Claudia Guimarães. According to her, Yanka worked as professor of dance at a university in Graz until her death. But the most significant years of Rudzka's career are undoubtedly those spent in South America. Her influence on contemporary Brazilian dance in impossible to overestimate, a fact confirmed a seminar organised by the Vivadança Festival, which was dedicated to the Polish artist. The discussion about Rudzka's political and cultural activity constitutes an important voice in today's debate about the role of Afro-Brazilian traditions for contemporary culture and education. The artists from Bahia had a chance to confront their own roots.
In my opinion, it's also an anthropological approach, albeit an intuitive one, because the starting point for all of Yanka's work was the cultural phenomenon, and other art genres also fascinated her, such as poetry and literature. Professor Maria Guimarães also evokes Rudzka's practice of creating graphic transcriptions of other works. Working on choreography can be compared to a graphic inscription.
Is Yanka's biography evoked in the choreographic project?
Joanna: Her story took on more and on more colours with each conversation about her. Rudzka's figure also reminds us of how rich the dance scene was in inter-war Poland, of how we had so many talented artists and of just how much World War II and then the communist regime disrupted the development of contemporary choreography and dance. While getting to know Yanka's story, it soon became fascinating to learn about her artistic stances, her vision and her philosophy, as well the concepts and composition strategies she adopted, which were way ahead of her times. Following her biography and her artistic gestures soon became the most interesting kind of an inspiration for us. Our encounter with Lia Robatto, whom we have already mentioned numerous times in this talk was also an extraordinary experience. She is one of the few witnesses of her everyday rituals, her method of work and the ways in which she created.
Her stories paint out a portrait of an uncompromising artist, who followed her own intuition. She tried to translate contemporary art and knowledge from other fields of science onto the language of contemporary movement. It was a very innovative approach at the time. Yanka became our patron, she provided us with the alibi of staying true to what interests us most in art, of going in the direction of the unknown. Much like for Yanka, for us, too, the world of traditional culture became the object of a respectful and deepened analysis, but also the starting point for choreographic experiments. In a way, she motivated us in facing even the most daring of ideas.
With such a huge, international project which links diverse areas of study – from choreography through to anthropology, weren't you tempted to simply prepare a replica of Yanka Rudzka's dance score? Historical reconstruction has recently become a fashionable way of remembering…
Joanna: Reconstruction was impossible, especially given such a short period of time (we were only able to work with the Brazilian dancers for less than three weeks). We only had scraps of photographic documentation and fragmented memories at our disposal. No recordings of original works have been preserved, only a modest private archive of photography, and the memories of her students could well be just a projection of their own experiences and their own interpretations. Let's not forget our main source of information – Lia Robatto – was a teenager at the time, in Yanka's care. While we were listening to her stories, as fascinating as they were, and filtered by Lia, a mature artist and choreographer, we were aware of the fact that we are confronting the sphere of memory, which is not perfect and which builds up infinite, emotionally charged scenarios about who Yanka Rudzka was, of how she worked and lived. This was fascinating for us, the great influence that Yanka had on people whom she surrounded herself with. And it turned out to be more important than the traditional ‘dance archaeology’, than any attempts at deducing dance documented on the film of concrete memory scenes, of concrete choreographic scores.
In our work, we wanted to lay the emphasis on an encounter within practice, on the ‘practice of encounter’. We didn't want to repeat any stereotypes. Thus, in the final fruit of our work, you won't be able to see the exact steps of neither the samba nor the oberek. It was not just the particular moves of each of the dances which inspired us, nor breaking them up into pieces, but also the narrative, the energy, and the metaphors present in each of the dances. This is exactly what Yanka Rudzka's strategy was about – the translating of a traditional vocabulary onto the contemporary, and negotiating just how much this culture can be stretched, how much it can contain.
Could this project provide the occasion for more Polish-Brazilian encounters in the future, for mutual exchange and inspiration?
We are aware that with this one project we have only sketched out the areas of research, which can come to include artists of other genres. But I also think that we have succeeded in touching upon something important for the local community in Brazil, as was the Polish dance scene. Because the history of Polish dance is still full of unrecognised and unprocessed fields, of traumatic experiences as well as controversial artistic choices and many a blank space. Yanka Rudzka was one of them. And how many more life stories still remain unknown?
Because of the lack of a word in Portuguese which would correspond to the Polish Zaczyn, meaning ‘leaven’, we decided that the Brazilian version of the project's title would be ‘Semente’ – ‘seed’. We believe that it is not just the staging but mostly the process that preceded it – the whole project together with the symposium devoted to Yanka and presentations of young Polish choreography, everything we managed to discover during our work – that it is all the seed that we have planted within ourselves and in the Polish and Brazilian communities. We hope that it will sprout in many places, including ones which are not obvious.
Polish Culture in Brazil is realised and endorsed by Culture.pl. The programme is the result of a cooperation between artists from both countries and takes place in five Brazilian cities: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador da Bahia, Belo Horizonte and Brasilia. Yanka Rudzka: ZACZYN was one of the main events of this year's edition of Vivadança International Festival.