Conrad Drzewiecki was a dancer, choreographer and director who became an icon and emblem of the Polish style of dance theatre. He was born on the 14th of October, 1926, in Poznań, where he died on the 25th of August, 2007.
Conrad Drzewiecki, 1979, Wojciech Kilar’s Struck / Krzesany as performed by the artists of Conrad Drzewiecki’s Polish Dance Theatre - Poznań Ballet, photo: Jerzy Garstecki, EAST NEWS / POLFILM
He choreographed and dramatized classic ballet compositions and created modern dance routines to contemporary music, including jazz and rock music. He was a total artist who controlled not only motion, but also acting, scenery, lighting, costumes and the camera recording the spectacle; and an erudite intellectual who drew independently and contemporarily from the heritage of folk, ancient and Judeo-Christian culture and from the masterpieces of world literature.
Dzrewiecki was considered the inspiration behind and author of dance works which referred to Polish art and literature and expressed the Polish sensibilities and values present in the greatest works of Polish culture. He always understood Polish culture as a domestic form of the universal values of the European spirit. An artist of international class, he is commonly regarded as one of the most versatile and creative 20th century choreographers.
He started his career as a dancer in Kraków. Later, from 1951 to 1958, he was a soloist at the Poznań Opera and, between 1958 and 1963, a soloist of foreign groups, mainly French ones. He quickly gained acclaim as a dancer, as evidenced by the numerous prizes he received. After 1963, he danced less and less and he mainly performed his own compositions. In 1963, he became the director of the ballet troupe of the Poznań Opera, from 1973 until 1988 he acted as director of the Poznań Dance Theatre – Poznań Ballet, an institution that was established especially for him. In those times, he created a few choreographies each year, including entirely authorial ballet, operatic and theatrical performances. In this period, he worked chiefly in Poznań but also toured abroad: in Paris, Havana, Malmő, Amsterdam and Berlin. All in all, he left behind over a 100 choreographic compositions. Most were recorded on film and some of them served as the basis for dance films which were realized under his supervision.
He spent the years of Stalinism gaining a thorough technical education, and in a period of relative political liberalness, he managed to leave Poland. The seven years spent in various countries, groups and renowned schools as well as at master workshops was a period in which Drzewiecki intensely and consciously worked on himself. He took advantage of what he certainly wouldn’t have found in his homeland – he learnt not only dance and choreography from the best, but he also learnt how groups and theatres work as institutions.
He came back to Poland as a mature artist and a greatly prepared artistic director, who, even from the start, perceived his work in the long term and in the broad context of national culture. The authorities of those times quickly realized that they were dealing with a world class personality and a man guaranteed international success. Drzewiecki had a chance, which he would go on to make the most of - he would leave behind him not only apprentices but also a model of artistic stance.
Description of creations
Conrad Drzewiecki’s choreographic creations – wrote Irena Turska in the foreword of a book about Drzewiecki which was published by PTT – may be associated chiefly with three phenomena that hadn’t previously occurred in Polish ballet: the creation of new forms of contemporary dance theatre, the use of new motional means based on the contemporary dance technique, and with the merging of these means with national elements. He used Martha Graham’s system as a basis, but he didn’t limit himself to accurately introducing this system to the Polish reality. Instead, he skilfully transformed said system and adapted it to the psycho-physical qualities of Polish dancers. (…) Together with Drzewiecki’s last ballets, a new factor entered his artistic creativity: links between contemporary choreography and contemporary Polish music and the first attempts to merge new motional means with elements of Polish folklore. These aren’t, however, literal quotations, but synthetic apprehensions of the most typical plastic and motional qualities taken from originals.
But Drzewiecki wasn’t just a great and innovative choreographer. Critics emphasize that his choreographic concept was exceptionally consistent with very clear dramaticism and with other elements of theatre semantics. Also, the organic and integral link with music suggests that the artist strived to create ballet forms which would fit into the aesthetics of contemporary dance theatre.
Even his first ballets – Turska writes on – surprised with the originality of the stage concepts, the brevity of the content, the interpretation of the content which corresponds with the way of thinking of modern man, the semantic motivation of motion, the intensity of the atmosphere, the visual effectiveness and the great play of lights.
Drzewiecki himself emphasized the highly intellectual character of his scenic works. In one of the few interviews he gave he said:
I’m not running a ballet theatre in the strict sense, but a dance theatre. In ballet, especially classical ballet, the audience marvels at human feats rather than at human thoughts, whereas the whole modern dance movement is based on thought. And that is what I’m most fond of. I try to quote neither technically nor intellectually. Movement is the language of dance, through movement we tell truths and even falsehoods. These falsehoods are, however, so fascinating that people believe in them. Dance is born from the spirit of music and motion, this creates a thought that directs a strong current into the audience. Even if the viewer isn't prepared for this strong current of thoughts, meanings, ideas and intentions, he or she will still be left with the spectacle itself. That is why directing and staging are so important to me. Devising new movement isn’t a challenge. This movement should mean something – that’s what matters.
Drzewiecki’s scenic compositions underwent constant evolution as his personality, interests and fascinations developed and changed. He always worked on already existing productions - he created new versions, adjusting the details to suit the changing soloist and the actual context. He composed them into series which had an inner logic, he juxtaposed atmospheres and aesthetics, and he could also adapt to repertoires consisting of works of other creators he invited to his theatre.
He was always sensitive to the changes occurring in art. He was capable of finding inspiration in modern literature and avant-garde music created before his eyes - often in collaboration with him. The great visual artist Krzysztof Pankiewicz created the artistic settings for Drzewiecki’s performances, and Krzysztof Penderecki, Wojciech Kilar and the greatest Polish jazzmen wrote music for Drzewiecki. He also collaborated with theatrical directors and dramatists, such as Adam Hanuszkiewicz and Helmut Kajzar.
Drzewiecki’s best early ballets – wrote Małgorzata Komorowska – had an air of spontaneity, a freedom in the nature of the dancing, and they seemed to have been created in a single burst. (…) He blended expressive values with purely visual, structural aspects of the art of choreography, he left the meanings to the frames of pantomime and tableaux vivants.
Most important works
In 1966, audiences were already bedazzled by Variations 4:4 / Wariacje 4:4, a work which was created to the unconventional music of the Poznań composer Franciszek Woźniak.
The course of this whispery score – wrote Małgorzata Komorowska – was reflected in the abstract ballet divided into variations. Their emotional subtext was signalled by the titles of the five parts (Contacts / Kontakty, Penetrations / Penetracje, Fascinations / Fascynacje, Dialogues / Dialogi, Events / Zdarzenia), and the sound and the movement merged into an expressive whole. There were numerous pauses in the music, therefore, some parts of the ballet were performed in silence that was interrupted only by the sounds of the dancers’ legs and bodies hitting the stage. These stage sounds created a kind of rhythmic dance music.
A year later, Adagio for Strings and Organ / Adagio na smyczki i organy was created to Albinoni’s music and this work immediately became a revelation to the critics of those times. This composition was commented on with the following words:
A touchingly soft, simple construction maintained in the modern technique. Nevertheless this construction made from delicately joined feet, hands and bodies, which is illuminated by a brightness flowing from above, clings to the floor.
The magnitude of Drzewiecki’s talent – Komorowska continues – was confirmed by Bartok’s Wonderful Mandarin (1970), in which the character of the Chinese dignitary was substituted with a regular boy from the streets. The stagings of this ballet were usually monumental exotic and symbolic. Drzewiecki’s piece wasn’t like that, as it was understood through Beckett’s Endgame and the theatre of cruelty, which was current in those times. On the other hand Drzewiecki used Karłowicz’s Eternal Songs / Odwieczne pieśni (1975) to show the origins of mankind. The symphonic triptych corresponded to three biblical scenes: the family happiness of Eve and Adam and their sons Cain and Abel, the dream about the expulsion from paradise, and Cain’s crime.
Drzewiecki drew from classic works as easily as he did from contemporariness. He trusted his era and he searched for its exponents.
Drzewiecki gave Norbert Mateusz Kuźnik’s piece Organochrome / Organochromia – Komorowska reminisces – the sarcastic title Modus Vivendi, and the dance artist organized his brutal choreographic statement around the building and the collapse of the Tower of Babel. The horror was evoked by the grating mass of organ sounds, the little lights circling in the dark and Pankiewicz’s fantastic projections. The ballet, which was warmly received abroad, provoked associations with a Dantean vision of a primitive world, a hellish loop without an exit, an eternal clock. Never before had Drzewiecki so dehumanized his dancers. He took away their entire corporealness, their figures and faces. (…) The drama of the choral Stabat Mater by Krzysztof Penderecki, which is a section of St Luke Passion (1976) was built by human bodies and human voices. In a succession of figurative variations on the Pietà theme, a group of dancers in flesh-coloured leotards adopted many different sculptural forms. Equivalent to them was the uncovering of the Mother and Son which brought the Passion and the Mourning to the level of universal, not divine, suffering.
The ballet Struck / Krzesany, created in 1977 to Wojciech Kilar’s music, was considered a most spectacular success and almost a synthesis of Drzewiecki’s style. Wacław Panek wrote about the originality of this work:
What is Struck? It’s simply a dance based on six basic highlander’s steps. It’s very hard to make a ballet out of six steps, especially a ballet that doesn’t tell about certain meanings, but is only suggestive of them. I was fascinated by the rite of striking fire. In the Podhale region there used to be such a custom: the old fire was taken out of the cottage and a new fire was struck, this was done to greet the rite of spring. Young people said farewell to the valleys and came back to the mountains, which they once had to abandon for various reasons. The joy of coming back is expressed by the striking of a fire that will burn until it gets old. Maybe, then, these people will have to go down into the valleys again? People form a circle which eternally symbolizes the circumscribed affairs of the tribe, house, race. The striking of fire turns into a wild dance full of unnamed meanings.
In this piece, which stems from the folklore of the Podhale region and is based on music inspired by the same folklore, Drzewiecki and Kilar joined forces to create an integral motional-sound form, an almost kinetic-acoustic sculpture made from bodies and voices. The emotional and semantic effect of this form was the synthesis of that which in Polish culture is most original and at the same time universal – heroism and power lying in being faithful to simple principles: freedom and solidarity. Struck, and especially the film version of this piece that was wonderfully fitted into the Tatra mountains landscape, is similar to the Polish romantic dramas as the work has the potential to be a universal rite and gives hope and faith that humanity is already capable of reaching an ideal here, on Earth subordinated to man. This is kind of an image of a perfect community, which is rooted in tradition and implements itself in the world both bravely and harmoniously.
Drzewiecki created until the end. His greatest later achievements are Dramatic Story (1979), which was created to Kazimierz Serocki’s music, Jesus’ Childhood / Dzieciństwo Jezusa (1980) by Berlioz which had been performed with the troupe of the Milanese La Scala, and Yesterday (1981) which was created to music by the Beatles. He kept returning to Polish rhythms: Chopin, Szymanowski and Górecki, where he found religious depth and the pathos of Polishness, but also the joy of popular songs - this was expressed by Four Tangos / Cztery Tanga (1983) which was created to Jerzy Milian’s music, The Last Sunday / Ostatnia Niedziela, which was created to Jerzy Skrzek’s hits or by Flypaper / Lep na muchy which was based on works by Zygmunt Konieczny, who is known for instance for his collaboration with the Piwnica pod Baranami cabaret (the last two pieces were both 1985 productions). In the 90s, after the Polish Dance Theatre had been taken over by Ewa Wycichowska, Drzewiecki worked on perfecting his best compositions.
Conrad Drzewiecki’s career had progressed surprisingly consistently. It seems that his life was devoid of serious obstacles, political or psychological breakdowns, as if dance, and nothing else, had always been his destiny. He himself limited random influences - he planned and practiced his life as a realization of artistic passion. He created a work that crossed the boundaries of theatre and even of a single fate – he became the source of inspiration and a foundation for the work of subsequent generations of Polish, and hopefully also international, dance artists.
Author: Jadwiga Majewska, 2011
Translated by: Marek Kępa