Can Dance Be the Answer to Contemporary Violence? An Interview with 3 Performance Artists
small, Pola Nireńska performing Japanese dance, 1933, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, Пола Ниренская во время исполнения «Японского танца», 1933 год. Фото: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The modern dance icon Pola Nireńska, a Pole with Jewish roots, is the inspiration behind 'Second Nature' a new performance in Dresden, Germany. ‘What is the body of modern dance like?’ is the question asked by its creators Agata Siniarska, Katarzyna Wolińska and Karolina Grzywnowicz, as they explore whether dance has the power to heal.
Siniarska, Wolińska and Grzywnowicz created Second Nature as part of the Choreographic Territories project, which includes performances, sets, and installations. A previous edition of the project was on Yanka Rudzka, but this year Pola Nireńska was the focus.
An unknown icon of dance
Although Pola Nireńska is not very well known in Germany, she studied there under the tutelage of the famous Mary Wigman. To convince her parents to allow her to study in Germany, she went on three-day-long hunger strike. They agreed but she had to promise that she would never perform in public (her parents considered dance ‘inappropriate’). The promise was broken, just like the promise she made with her husband, the emissary of the Polish underground state Jan Karski, when they vowed to never talk about the Holocaust. Later, she bid goodbye to dance with the Holocaust Tetralogy. Two years after its premiere she committed suicide, leaping from the window of her American apartment.
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For the artists, Choreographic Territories was a way to get to know Nireńska’s tragic biography. Agata Siniarska, when asked about whether she or her co-collaborators knew about the artist’s biography beforehand, said:
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No, not at all. When I spoke with my friends and family about it, they didn’t know much either. They mostly associated her with Jan Karski. It’s quite embarrassing. She not only suffered because of him, but she also didn’t function as a standalone person, only as a wife. I have to admit that I mostly knew her from this context as well.
Marcelina Obarska: Nireńska is known as an artist of liberated dance. Do you think she would feel at home in the contemporary art world?
Agata Siniarska: We tried to establish a connection between contemporary art practices and Nireńska’s choreographies and to actualise the meaning of modern dance. I was always against this sort of dance, I thought it was dull and stiff. Due to this project and my collaboration with Kasia Wolińska, I discovered how emancipatory modern dance can be.
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I tried to get a recording of the Holocaust Tetralogy from Rima Faber, Nireńska’s friend, who supported her during the choreography and who also carried out a reconstruction of it. Rima answered that she had looked up my work and had decided that I’m an avant-garde artist. She hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed by the Holocaust Tetralogy and added that she was sure that I didn’t have the means to reconstruct the work. I think it depicts the dialogue between modern dance and contemporary choreography practices and it is true I don’t have the means to reconstruct Nireńska’s work exactly as it was.
MO: Katarzyna, as a dancer, how is your relationship to Pola Nireńska now? I’m asking about modes of identification.
Katarzyna Wolińska: The Holocaust Tetralogy is Nireńska’s testimony, it was an extremely personal project. When working with this sort of material, it is crucial to ask what kind of body it was. What is the body of modern dance? We are researching Nireńska’s education and her attitude towards dancing. We are looking for small details. That is why what we’ve come up with is hybrid-like and remixed. I wouldn’t call what we are doing a reconstruction. Rather, we’re try to bring back to life a form which is partially dead. To come to life it needs a dancing body here and now.In my field of work, I had encountered reconstructions of historical dances before. I find the process very interesting. I think that in the case of choreography with a specific historical context the choreography itself is one thing to research, the other is the author behind it. Modern dance is interesting to me due to, let’s say, philosophical reasons – in this context, dance is framed as an autonomic art discipline and has its own meaning system, one which is impossible to cover through language alone. The question of the role of the language of choreography against political and economic violence is quite contemporary. Nireńska’s story is quite sad, even tragic. It is a challenge for us – to do justice to Nireńska.
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AS: It is important to give this story space and to stir it into action from the archives, showing that it doesn’t have to be treated as a dusty museum piece.
KW: For me the discovery that Nireńska stopped dancing for 10 years was fascinating. In the end, movement was a language with which she expressed herself from the youngest age. We started to ponder upon this long break in her career and on what exactly was the process of losing and regaining this language. The result of Nireńska’s return to dance is the Holocaust Tetralogy.
AS: Nireńska suffered a lot during this break. She was hospitalised and endured electrotherapy. She suffered from depression and was plagued by her phobias.
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MO: In your project, the natural environment is key. How does this ‘eco-vision’ shape your performance?
Karolina Grzywnowicz: We started with the concept that we don’t want to stage it with scenery, but instead with performance and installations that remain in a dialogue together and do not repeat each other’s content. That is why I’m not working with Pola Nireńska biography but instead I’m creating a certain type of environment. The installation I’m making is created in a way so it can function as a standalone piece; a space open to the public, who, regardless of the performance, can spend time with flowers and earth.
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I have to create a quasi-garden, with only plants that were instruments of violence, as well as those that were used by the Nazis. I’m evoking the concept of garden as tamed nature, but also the early 20th-century idea of Naturgarten, which was taken over by Nazis. In the light of this concept all the plants which are not native to a certain place had to be removed. This type of thinking through selection and categorisation is a link to Pola Nireńska’s biography, who was also tormented by her heritage; she was removed from Mary Wingman’s group in the 30s, for example. The Nazis thought about gardens in a similar way to how they thought about the ideal society in which there was no place for others. I’m focusing on different practices towards nature. I’m thinking about plants that were used as camouflage or were used as laboratory materials in Auschwitz. In Hellerau, the installation will have the form of a fully arranged garden, while, during the tour, we will use a smaller version of it due to technical issues.
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MO: Second Nature sounds quite mysterious – could you tell me more about it?
KG: When talking about violence, we considered when it starts, and we thought about it being ‘second nature’. Some practices are so common that they appear neutral when they are in fact violent. Even gardens and gardening are like this, in the end we only cultivate select species.
The title is a callback to thoughts about one’s ‘second nature’ as a moment of human intervention. In this light, one’s first nature is completely untamed, we don’t have access to it and it exists only in theory.
AS: Second Nature is also a result of our interest in the double meaning of archives, when it is not an objective record but can be interpreted in many ways. The same can be true of history, it can be researched with a linear timeline in mind or one can discover different versions of it.
KG: The garden which I’m designing as a parallel work is also a way to think about duality. It is a pleasant inviting space, which only after some time reveals a history connected to violence.
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MO: The Holocaust Tetralogy is a choreography connected to a precise moment in time. What could it be now, 80 years after the outbreak of World War II?
AS: It is similar to questions about the Holocaust itself – what does it mean to us – the generation who didn’t experience the war. It’s the same with the reconstruction – we are not educated as modern dancers and yet we tried to accommodate this language. We’re trying to touch on a topic which changed the world, without any didactics, demagogy, or pretence that we know what the Holocaust was and how we would have acted in that situation. It is a truly a harmful attitude, including in the context of Polish politics today, which appraises people for their past deeds. We have no right to do that without experiencing the historical reality of times gone by.
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MO: Is that why you are alluding to ‘our’ catastrophe, the one is known to us, the living. Do you want to embed the performance in the context of the ecological crisis?
KG: We talked a lot about the about the attitude towards nature, for example, Carl Linnaeus divided not only the plant world but he also subdivided the human species into races. The Nazis tested some solutions on the environment and then the same mode of thinking was transferred to people. It is shocking but this type of thinking continues to this day. That’s why we’re burdened with an ecological crisis. Violence continues.
The Shoah was not the result of a new engine of extermination, it was a transference of already known violent practices to people. The division of witnesses, the victims, and the perpetrators known from the Holocaust is also visible in context of the degradation of natural environment. Yet, it is hard to label the witnesses as the audience, we deal with ignorance, contradiction and impeachment on a mass scale.
AS: We perceive dance as a very singular form of expression, but choreography builds a certain language of meaning and relations that help in having a collective experience. Through choreography we try to change the relationship we have with the world. We want to highlight the global, cosmic, even, modes of experience. Dance can be an answer to contemporary violence, which models the body in a certain way. It is a way to heal the way things are.
The entirety of Western dance is connected to the Age of Enlightenment, yet its margins allow us to question the certain order, such as the vision, rooted in culture, of the body disconnected from the mind. The division between what is bodily and feminine and what is masculine and linguistic doesn’t have anything in common with conceptual thinking. Contemporary philosophy tries to combine it, Donna Haraway’s term ‘natureculture’ is a good example. We started our work based on the belief that the body is a place wherein trauma resides and accumulates.
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MO: You work as a collective. A democratic model of work is also a way to heal the structures of violence. Is it possible to cooperate in a non-hierarchical way?
AS: As the director, I’ve got to say something first (laughs). We collaborate with Kasia, but it’s not horizontal work. From my experience, this type of work requires months of preparation and certain strategies to make it possible. It is utopian to pick a few people and say: ‘Okay, now you will work horizontally’. As artists we have different experiences and aesthetics – I don’t perceive hierarchy as something inherently wrong, as it helps to solve the issue of responsibility. Power is not the problem, but the misuse of it is. Dramatic theatre still functions like that. There are legends about it – especially about how male directors work. I hope that this sort of practice is not present in our project. In the end, it is a hierarchical process, with a lot of space and different tasks. The relation between my work and Karolina’s work is different than the one that exists between mine and Kasia’s tasks. With Kasia we work together on one form, with Karolina it is a meeting between different genres.
Without a doubt, I’m taking care of the formal side of the project. Kasia and I don’t share this responsibility [Agata Siniarska was responsible for the formal aspects of the performance, Karolina Grzywnowicz focused on the installation, as well its finances].
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avant - garde
KG: Our collaboration is based on trust and giving each other space. I don’t have the impression that any of us force anything.
KW: Movement research doesn’t require discussion but practice, and it is a very important experience for me. We create something together and it is unique. This is the strength of our collective work, between bodies exists something that wouldn’t exist in a different contest.
Interview conducted in Polish, April 2019; translated by OT, April 2019
The project is co-organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of POLSKA 100, the international cultural programme marking the centenary of Poland’s regained independence. Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual NIEPODLEGŁA programme 2017–2022.
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