Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak was a dancer, choreographer, and pedagogue whose contribution to Polish dance is of great importance. During her career she became a legend of Trójmiasto's stages and created over 40 ballet choreographies for the Baltic Opera.
She was born in 1915 in Vienna and graduated from the Dance Conservatoire in Kraków in 1938. Soon after, she got a job in the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre. After the war, in 1946, she moved to Gdańsk. She was the initiator and the artistic director of the National Ballet School. She created her first, revolutionary ballets for the Baltic Opera as early as in the 1950s. At the time, everyone in Poland was interested in the new, original drama theatre genre. Her most famous ballets – The Marvellous Mandarin, Niobe, Titania and the Mule – attracted a novelty-hungry audience from all over Poland to Gdańsk. After the premiere of Dafnis and Chloe in 1958, Jarzynówna received congratulations from young composers of the time: Penderecki, Lutosławski, and Baird.
Jerzy Waldorff commented:
The Baltic Opera hit the jackpot in the career lottery by recruiting Janina Jarzynówna as the ballet-mistress and choreographer of its dance group at the very beginning. She is a conscious artist who works very intelligently, independently, and originally. The result is obvious: she creates choreographic works which are very good or very bad, never mediocre and always controversial. This was the case with Mr Twardowski over which old aunts tore bras [sic!], proclaiming profanation of national sanctities and, naturally, demanding political repression against Jarzynówna.
Jarzynówna avoided patterns; she operated with contrast, abridgement and surprise. The choreographer explained that her method, based on the classics, also goes against them and introduces the dancer to infinite possibilities. ‘I tried to derive my own dance language from this labyrinth of knowledge. I managed to convince the dancers to take part in my experiment.’
In an interview with Barbara Kanold, her students emphasised that Jarzynówna helped them to discover their own personality, encouraged them to be brave and to take part in creative discussions. Alicja Boniuszko, the Gdańsk dance group’s prima-ballerina, said the following about working with her teacher in an album issued to commemorate the artist’s 100th birthday:
I’m lucky because Professor Jarzynówna invited me to take an active part in her choreographic work. She agreed to look for new means of expression together as she continued to add her personal touch to symphonic music. The movement of the arms, neck, back and legs were supposed to combine into one. At last, it was freedom and not randomness.
She created over 40 ballet choreographies. The most famous, such as Bela Bartok’s The Marvellous Mandarin, Ravel’s Dafnis and Chloe, Szymanowski’s Harnasie, Juliusz Łuciuk’s Niobe, and Zbigniew Turski’s Titania and the Mule, went down in the history of Polish dance. Jarzynówna also made many ballet programmes for television.
In 1995, Professor Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak was awarded the Commander's Cross with Star Order of Polonia Restituta in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of her artistic career. Two years later, the Council of Gdańsk awarded her with an honorary award for outstanding service. She also received the Sergei Diaghilev medal. She died in 2004.
In a book published to commemorate Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak’s 100th birthday, Izadora Weiss, choreographer and director of the Baltic Dance Theatre, wrote:
Working in Gdańsk, on the stage where she also worked, I can feel her spirit watching over our dancers. It helps us understand how important the courage to speak from the heart, in one's own language and consistently practised, is in dramatic theatre. Repeating prepared, tried patterns may grant you the audience’s sympathy but, at some point, it is necessary to discard them to reach deeper into the viewer’s sensibility – just as Jarzynówna did.
Sources: taniecpolska.pl, W stulecie urodzin Janiny Jarzynówny-Sobczak, published by the Baltic Opera; compiled by AL, Apr 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Sep 2018