Dancer and choreographer of Jewish origin. She was notable as the pioneer of modern dance in Poland. Her last, farewell work dealt with her war trauma, showing the dramatic history of a life destroyed by totalitarian regimes.
She was born in 1910 in Warsaw as Pola Nirensztejn. She was drawn to dance since childhood, but her parents, religious Jews, were not enthusiastic of such ‘indecent’ interests. Her father allowed her to go on her fist dance camp only after gaining a rabbi’s permission.
Young Pola was fascinated by Mary Wigman, a German choreographer and pioneer of expressionist dance. When Pola wanted to leave for Germany to learn from her, she fought with her parents. Eventually she got what she wanted. She studied at the Dresden Wigman school for three years and did a fantastic job of it. Nireńska joined the teacher’s company and danced in the US tour.
She embarked on a journey to conquer the world with a Polonised name: Nireńska. However, politics got in her way. Wigman was forced to shut her school down in 1933, as soon as Hitler rose to power. It was the first time when antisemitism overshadowed Nireńska’s career.
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Nireńska spend the next year in Warsaw, but she turned her forced comeback to the country into a success. She prepared a choreography inspired by Polish folk dances for the International Dance Congress in Vienna. This performance won her the hearts of the critics and the main award for choreography. Rocketed to fame, she returned to Warsaw. There, Nireńska was swarmed with both admiration and malicious, antisemitic libellous claims in conservative catholic press. For this reason, she left Poland.
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Initially she went to Vienna again, next she moved to Florence. She performed Freie Tanz: a dance free from the rhythm of music. However, the same situation reoccured: first came success and then an antisemitic smear campaign. Nireńska had to flee again. This time she chose London.
In Great Britain’s capital her life became more stable. She married John Justinian de Ledesma, an actor of aristocratic origin. While in London, Nireńska met Jan Karski, the future emissary of the Polish underground state. Their paths crossed again during the war.
After the outbreak of World War II, Nireńska’s well-boding career slowed down. In 1949 she was invited to the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, one of modern dance’s most significant events. She used this opportunity to move countries again.
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Nireńska settled in Washington and her career gained momentum again. After a few years she opened her own school, the Pola Nirenska Dance Company. She gained appreciation as a teacher. In the States she met Karski again. Her marriage felt apart, similarly to Karski’s first marriage. They would be together until the end of Pola’s life. At the end of the 1960s, she decided to quit dance and dedicated herself to photography. She won a couple of awards, and opened her own studio. But her farewell to dance did not last, especially given that she was still famous for dancing rather than photography. After nearly 15 years, Nireńska returned to choreography. She was, however, growing weaker and older.
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Polish choreographer and dancer
Meanwhile her husband, thanks to whom the West gained knowledge of the Holocaust, traveled around the world and shared his war experiences. War trauma haunted Nireńska, too: many of her relatives were killed in death camps. The last work of the choreographer was the Holocaust Tetralogy, a moving story which had no happy end. It narrated the fates of a mother and her daughters, ending with their death in the extermination camp.
Nireńska died at 81. After five unsuccessful suicide attempts, she jumped out of the window of her apartment, sick and unfulfilled.
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