Although many consider it a kind of ballet for educated audiences, contemporary dance has fought for its place in the history of theatre for many years - a struggle that has not always succeeded, and there remains a long way to go.
Conrad Drzewiecki and the Beginning of a New Era in Polish Dance
On the 12th of September 1973, the legendary choreographer Conrad Drzewiecki founded the Polish Dance Theatre – the Poznań Ballet. The PDT was to be a group of soloists that would be conscious of the audience. It was to be an assembly of great personalities from the scene merging atmospheric classics with contemporary trends. They substituted an orchestra for music played from tapes of by composers including Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mieczysław Karłowicz, Wojciech Kilar, the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
However, audiences of that time were accustomed to Soviet ballet - the Iron Curtain cut them off from international achievements and advances in the field. People simply weren’t ready for spectacles that broke the rigid rules of classic dancing. At the same time a revolution was moving west toward Poland – Pina Bausch became the head of the Wuppertal Opera Theatre, where she started the most influential period in contemporary international dance. In her first visit to Poland – she came to Wrocław to show her work "The Rite of Spring" – she shocked the Polish dance scene, and became a turning point in the lives of many Polish artists.
As a result of this, Drzewiecki’s talents and visions matured in a specific political and artistic context. His aesthetic pursuits reformed the Polish dance scene and enriched it with new forms of contemporary and jazz movement, until that point all but unheard of in Poland. Spectacles including “Fiery Bird”, “Adagio for String Instruments and Organs”, “Pavane for a Dead Princess”, “Miraculous Mandarin”, “Stricken” and “Yesterday” became legendary. Film versions of many of these performances were also created.
From 1987 the tradition and heritage of Drzewiecki was successfully continued on an international scale by his pupil Ewa Wycichowska – a long-term soloist of the Łódź ballet and choreographer of over 60 works. She invited artists including Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, Yossi Berg and Brigit Cullberg to work with the PTD. Thanks to Wycichowska, Poznań became a bustling centre for festivals, workshops and choreography and inspired a generation of young artists.
Researchers argue that contemporary dance has been evident in Poland since the beginning of the 1990s, but they note its link to the activities of artists from the theatrical avant-garde: Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Józef Szajna, Wojciech Misiuro and Henryk Tomaszewski.
The Silesian Dance Theatre and Łumiński’s Polish Technique
“Unparalleled, innovative, [and] unique” was how both international and Polish media described the Bytom Miners’ & Metallurgists’ Silesian Dance Theatre. The nine-member group was a sensation wherever it appeared – from the prestigious stages of the U.S. and Israel to India, Canada, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland. The Silesian Dance Theatre became one of the most important institutions in Poland thanks to its new choreography and its expressive, authorial style referring to pre-war Jewish culture and to folk traditions from the Podhale highlands and the regions of Kurpie and Lublin.
Łumiński’s lyrical style combined with the physical and acrobatic skills of his dancers brought the group international fame and recognition. This bore a strong brand of Polish culture that described Łumiński’s technique as “a form of magic and adoration of God that originated from religious rites”. This technique is characterised by rubatos, asymmetric pulses and by a philosophy of motion that is uncommon in Poland. The choreographer described his style in a conversation with Joanna Leśnierowska:
We don’t know what contemporary dance is but we do know that it is not ballet. For me it’s a way of living, a kind of philosophical system. Dancing combines many art disciplines. It is a form that is open, it allows everybody to realise their own concepts. One may use one’s own approach to the world, wisdom and beliefs as a basis. Ballet is different because it is governed by strict rules that guarantee success, if we abide them correctly.
Łumiński invites acclaimed international choreographers and dance companies to the SDT's home in Bytom where conferences, festivals and workshops are held. It won’t be long before the first Polish Faculty of Dance Theatre and Acting is created at the Kraków State Drama School. The Silesian scene recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The theatre has hosted events such as a reconstruction of pre-war piece by Polish choreography Pola Nireńska, as “Mournful Song” (1997). Also featured have been productions by such creators as Avi Kaiser, Mark Haim, Melissa Monteros and Hilke Diemer.
For many dance artists, the educational and artistic activities of the SDT were generational experiences. Centres of contemporary dance created just after the fall of communism in Poland were influenced by the Silesian Dance Theatre. And complementing activities in Bytom and Poznań, the map of Polish contemporary dance extended north to Gdańsk in 1993.
The Theatre, in which We Dance – Dada von Bzdülöw
The founder of the Gdańsk Dada von Bzdülöw Theatre, Leszek Bzdyl, started out as a pantomime artist. But the unique style of his Polish dance theatre was also influenced by Dadaists and writers, especially by Witold Gombrowicz, who is even considered an informal patron of this community. In its 20 years, Dada has produced over 40 original pieces composed of motion, dance, improvisation, live jazz and literary quotations and has bent the rules of theatrical convention.
Bzdyl’s company educated and shaped another generation of young artists, amongst them Anna Szteller and Filip Szatarski, now members of the influential Tri-City dance scene around Gdańsk and Gdynia. In the history of dance in Poland, there is one more venue that needs description, which allows us to revisit Poznań.
New Dance at the Old Brewery
Stary Browar Nowy Taniec / Old Brewery, New Dance is a very distinctive place on the dance map of Poland. It is a specialised space devoted solely to dancing. This modern project is multilevel and serves as a choreography and education studio. The Old Brewery can be considered one of the best managed, most successful projects in the past decade of Polish dance. Here, very interesting dance compilations are created and young artists start their professional careers under the watchful eyes of curator Joanna Leśnierowska and her guests, great choreographers and tutors from across the world.
At the Old Brewery, amateur dancers take on high artistic risks as they enrich the Polish dance scene with new energy. This project is strengthening the under-appreciated discipline, which remains a marginalised sphere of Polish theatre. Facilitating this endeavour is its location in Poznań - the city that has undeniably been the important centre of Polish contemporary dance since 2006.
At the Old Brewery, innovative and experimental forms of performances and dance installations do not require the support of props or stage scenery. Leśnierowska shares Jonathan Burrows’ opinion that in order “to create a dance one needs to have two legs, two hands and above all a head”. The dancers also have at their disposal lighting, space, music - and an audience who often swaps places with the artists. Leśnierowska is known for creating the first Polish residency program for artists as well as marketing opportunities to young talent, which is a rarity in Poland. Her initiatives have reinvigorated the biannual Polish Dance Platform festival, in which artists can interact with curators, foreign producers and dance critics.
In 2003, Leśnierowska and Natalia Draganik created a collective called the Gymnastic Society, which was recognised by critics as one of the most interesting groups on the Polish dance scene. Thanks to its uncompromising artistic approach, the Gymnastic Society creates experimental spectacles that are hard to classify. Their works are structured similarly to a play production and often refer to the intimate experiences of the creators. “The Right Hemisphere” serves as a good example. It is a poetic play that inspires the viewers’ imagination. The author of this spectacle – Marysia Stokłosa, who studied at the Amsterdam School of New Dance Development – searches for motion in the part of the brain that is responsible for visual thinking, spatial orientation and musical sensitivity. However instead of a display of physical dexterity the viewer is shown dance in a completely different manner. For instance, dance is present in forms like delicate eyelid movements.
Thanks to programs offered by the Old Brewery, a new generation of young artists is gaining acclaim. They are sometimes called conceptual dancers or dance philosophers. Among the noteworthy are Renata Piotrowska and Aleksandra Borys, who both debuted at last year's Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Also worth mentioning are Anita Wach and Janusz Orlik, who performed in the opening ceremony for the Old Brewery.
A New Generation: Internationally Educated and in Poland
Their search for an original language in contemporary dance and the expectation that there will soon be an explosion of interest in dance in Poland has pushed many young artists to foreign schools. Belgium, Holland, France and the U.K. are especially popular destinations. Those who decide to return try to put their international experience to use by doing something that is popular in the West - namely by founding artistic collectives and dance groups. Others choose careers as independent artists.
This second option was the choice of Kaya Kołodziejczyk, who was recognised by international critics as among the talented Polish choreographers of this young generation. She was trained at the legendary Belgian P.A.R.T.S, co-founded by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker. Kołodziejczyk’s contemporary creations are often inspired by Polish folklore – “Harnasie” to Szymanowski famous ballet score was staged at the foot of the Wielka Krokiew ski jump - and they create new trends in contemporary choreography. She is known for her refined, courageous and successful style that merges disciplines and aesthetics like playing jazz while dancing Butoh or performing contemporary movement while dressed in traditional Polish highlander attire.
Renata Piotrowska’s artistic activity is also something in between visual arts, material arts, dance and performance. The artist is involved with the Poznań Old Brewery and in her performances she uses films and contact improvisation. Her most noted spectacle “Dancing with the Enemy” was presented during the Poznań Dance Platform in 2008. It is a commentary on contemporary culture. Polish contemporary dance of the past few years also owes a lot to artists like as Izabela Szostak, Karol Tymiński, Ramona Nagabczyńska and Weronika Pelczyńska (known for her collaboration with Agnieszka Glińska). The aforementioned dance artists are also involved with the recently founded Warsaw artistic collective Centre in Motion. Many have ties to then Warsaw Whirls Dance Theatre as well.
The city of Lublin invariably remains a very important centre as it is the home of the Lublin Dance Theatre, which was founded in 2001 by Hanna Strzemiecka. Lublin is also home to the Maat Projekt Theatre, a dance collective led by the celebrated young choreographer Tomasz Bazan.
Sources: Articles by Julia Hoczyk, Joanna Leśnierowska and Anna Królica, publications from taniecpolska.pl