Choreographer, founder and director of performances by the auteur Ballet of Modern Form. Born in 1950.
He commenced dance education at the age of three, under the supervision of his mother, followed by Janina Łukasiewicz and Maria Stoszko. He learned classical dance from Lila Beron at the ballet studio of the Kraków Music Theatre, and continued the training at the State Ballet School in Warsaw and in Poznań, under Barbara Kasprowicz, Teresa Kujawa, and Andrzej Glegolski. He simultaneously took classes in piano playing, which inspired an exceptional musical sensitivity in the future choreographer. He was a talented dancer, and performed in Conrad Drzewiecki’s choreographies even while he was still a student at Poznań’s Ballet School, whereas after graduating he performed on the stage of the Grand Theatre in Łódź. Having realised that he doesn’t want to be involved in classical dance, he returned to Kraków. Over there, he took up studies at the Faculty of Horticulture at the University of Agriculture, in order to earn a profession.
His career proper kicked off in 1969, when he founded the Ballet of Modern Form at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He created, trained, and led this group – the oldest modern ballet formation in Poland – for nearly forty years. Over the first three decades of its existence, approximately eight thousand people went through it, which amounted to between 200 and 400 students annually. Most of them gave up, as, despite the hard work they were putting in, they couldn’t make a living out of dance. Agnieszka Łaska, whose choreography Valle to the music by Mendi Mengjiqi was included in the group’s repertoire, is one of Birczyński’s most recognised graduates. Birczyński created his own, acclaimed choreographies for his group, as well as invited international artists to collaborate (for instance Douglas Dunn – representative of the post modern dance movement in the US, David Earle – founder and director of Toronto Dance Theatre in Canada, as well as Karin Waehner, Kilina Cremona, and Roger Meguin from France). He was moreover the manager of the Ballet of Modern Form, which made him face everyday matters related to the group’s functioning – from fundraising, organising rehearsals, tours, to overseeing the performances. The choreographer’s huge merit also lies in his role as a pioneer of modern dance in Poland – especially the Graham technique, and Matt Mattox Jazz technique – he was one of the first persons to teach it in Poland in the 1970s. He taught dance at the State Theatre School in Kraków, led dance workshops for art school students from France and Germany, designed choreographies for the Douglas Dunn & Dancers group based in New York, as well as for the Polish Dance Theatre. Those pieces currently belong to the repertoire of the Ballet of Modern Form. Birczyński, better appreciated abroad than in Poland, earned his position through his own hard work and talent, as he didn’t receive a lot of support from his native dance environment.
Thanks to his thorough music education, all of his works are distinguished by a specific relationship with classical, contemporary, Jazz, and pop music genres, which gives them an exceptional ‘dance’ character (as opposed to the Polish tendency to dramatise the movement on stage). He describes his style as ‘symphonic ballet.’ Birczyński has always demonstrated excellent sense of aesthetics as well as exceptional knowledge of forms and techniques, which has brought a great diversity of his artistic output. Theoretically, most of his sequences belong to the modern current, however many of his choreographies have also fell under contemporary dance or modern ballet. The artist has also made a reference to those inspirations in the name of his formation, drawing ‘ballet’ from the American legacy of the NYC Ballet, ‘form’ – from Witkacy, while ‘modern’ from Jazz.
This particular formalism and musicality have provided Birczyński’s dancers with elegance and grace – features which were rare in the Communist Poland, when modernity was associated with freedom and amateur spontaneity of the counter-culture. Critics were immediately impressed by the classic impeccability of performance and precision of the choreographed dramaturgy, as well as the characteristic logic and formal harmony. These features seemed to be sufficient for establishing a complete contact with the audience, without the need to resort in on-stage narratives.
I don’t engage in an ideological dialogue with the audience. The shows are not accompanied by the pompous philosophy usually presented in printed playbills. There is no doubt that the content embedded in individual sequences may be and is interpreted by the spectators through the clear communication exclusively by means of dance. The essence of ballet is movement – it is the choreographer's means of expressing his ideas – Birczyński confessed.
As a result, the artist has managed to create a recognisable style which did not surrender the art of dance to the pressure of the ballet traditions or to excessive theatricality, instead bringing out the essence of movement out of the natural relationship between body and music. This does not mean that he wasn’t able to cross those boundaries – he has created choreography for over thirty performances in dramatic theatres across the entire Poland (e.g. Białe Ogrody / White Gardens at the Stary Theatre, Tango, Cień / The Shadow, and Listopad / November at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre), as well as for several television dance programmes. In the 1970s and 80s, he collaborated, among others, with Romana Próchnicka, Tadeusz Słobodzianek, and Mikołaj Grabowski.
Out of several dozen choreographies authored by Birczyński, one of his last ones deserves special mention: Etiudy baletowe / Ballet Etudes (2002) composed to the music of Krzysztof Komeda. Critics have written about the ‘radiance, subtlety, and wit’ of the performance, while the audience received it with enthusiasm. That praiseworthy finale was preceded by no less original achievements, as the range of the Kraków artist’s musical interests is in fact impressive. His oeuvre includes Nocturn, to the music by Marek Chołoniewski and Krzysztof Knittel, or Suita barokowa / The Baroque Suite and Preludium / Prelude by Astor Piazzola. The ease with which the artist shifted between styles and eras has inspired awe among critics at international festivals. An article in Przekrój (18.01.1998) said that Birczyński
translates the multilayered and precise features of polyphony (Kunst der Fuge by Bach), the wealth of melodic lines of Baroque concerts (Vivaldi, Corelli), the subtle lyricism (Chopin), electrifying expression (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Penderecki), the eruptions of vitality (Herbie Hancock), or the never-ending ostinato, expressesing an unhealed pain (Symphony no. 3 by Górecki) into the language of dance.
His ability to combine elegance and subtlety of movement with its expressive power was especially appreciated.
Watching one of the choreographies by the Ballet of Modern Form – the Mexican daily Diario Xalapa wrote in 2000 – is like observing a movement of feelings through body as they permeate one another and evoke similar emotions in spectators.
The ballet manipulated the emotions of viewers by leading them from sorrow to joy, from euphoria to pain, all the while being moving and engaging. (El Nacional, Celaya, 1998)
Birczyński’s ballet shows are not founded on social or political ideology, literary narrative or pantomimic semiotics of gestures, and yet his choreographies have been described (A.M. Celaya, 22.08.1996) as a poetry of movements. Bodies that speak, communicate messages, and accentuate emotions. It doesn’t mean, however, that the stage dimension of movement is not significant to him, as it is ever so subtly inscribed in the kinesthetically empathic relationship between dancers and spectators. This unique atmosphere – of accord and harmonious cooperation between the viewers and the dancers – creates and impression of egalitarianism and echoes a humanistic ethos. The mastery and sincerity do not interrupt one another, the romantic nature completes the classical form, the Jazz rhythm leads bodies along the solid ground of harmony expressed by hands, hips, and feet.
The group – the critics applauded – displayed a technique and familiarity with the corporeal nature of movement, which, in combination with compositions by Bach, Chopin, or Herbie Hancock produced a miracle on stage. Their modern dance is completely different from what other Mexican and American groups have developed. Contrary to them, the Polish dancers move their bodies on a whim, adjusting their movement to the nostalgic notes in Vivaldi’s compositions or to the dramatic tumult which could simulate the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, or, finally, to the glee of pop dance. (El Norte, 12.09.1996)
Jerzy Maria Birczyński has deserved the label of an authentic Polish Balanchine.
The founder of the Ballet of Modern Form has received numerous awards at professional competitions, such as the first prize at the 1979 International Choreography Competition Le Ballet pour Demain in Paris-Bagnolet for Larghetto from Fryderyk Chopin’s F-minor concert. His piece Tears of Joy to the music by Don Elllis placed fifth at the 1979 International Choreography Competition in Nyon, Switzerland, he has also received distinctions at the Choreography Competition of the Łódź Ballet Meetings for B-major Variations to music by Chopin. Birczyński is also the laureate of the Lotos prize, awarded by the Centre for Contemporary Choreography in Kiev for outstanding achievements in the field of pedagogy in Ukraine and worldwide (1999). His award-wining choreographies have been performed by his students. In 2011, he was decorated with the Honoris Gratia distinction for merits to the city of Kraków and its inhabitants.
Birczyński is the protagonist of Aleksander Kuc’s documentary Kochanek Terpsychory / Terpsichore’s Lover from 1998. It is a thirty minute story about career, modern dance in Poland, and the history of the Ballet of Modern Form.
Author: Jadwiga Majewska, August 2011; update: 2016 (ND), transl. AM, July 2016.