Yanka Rudzka (1916-2008) was a Polish dancer and choreographer. She created of the Dance School at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and was one of the major figures of the contemporary dance scene in Brazil.
Dancer among cultures
Janka Rudzka, who changed her name to Yanka after moving to Brazil, was born in Poland in 1916. She took dance lessons from Ruth Sorel and George Groke, the apprentices of Mary Wigman, the pioneer of expressionist dance. She later attended classes led by Harald Kreutzberg in Switzerland. She also lived in London, Italy, and Argentina. In the early 1950s, she was invited to Brazil. The thirteen years she spent there were crucial for her artistic career. In 1952, she arrived in São Paulo at the invitation of Pietro Maria Bardi in order to launch one of the first contemporary dance courses at the Museum of Art (founded by Bardi). She also taught the dramaturgy of the body to the actors of the Theatre School, which to this day belongs to the exclusive São Paulo University, and also cooperated with other cultural institutions. Lia Robatto, the artist's collaborator and assistant for many years, portrayed Rudzka as follows:
A woman with a strong, noticeable presence. A beauty with unruly tumbling blonde curls, piercing blue eyes, infectious laughter. A person with a hot temper, unpredictable, easily flying into a rage when someone contradicted her, yet always good to people. She was elegant and agile, although her body was not as lean and muscular as those of classical ballet dancers. She was always extremely demanding at work, but at the same time critical of the burdensome, conventional teaching systems and choreographic dogmas. She was against the formal rigidness of classical dance and technical excellence which lacked meaning. In dance, she strived for natural movement of the body. She was economical in stage movement, though her choreographies were exciting and creative.
The dancer was influential to the Brazilian dance scene already at that stage, but her true breakthrough came when she moved to Salvador. During the 1950s, Brazilian arts and culture were blossoming. Edgar Santos, the rector of the Federal University of Bahia at the time, introduced a number of reforms aimed at integrating Salvador into the wider contemporary culture loop. In the 1950s, four new art departments were opened at the university: School of Visual Arts, Music Academy, Theatre School, and, last but not least, Dance School. Artistic development was further enhanced with the foundation of other institutions: Centro de Estudos Afro Orientais (Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies), headed by Professor Agostinho da Silva, and the Museum of Religious Arts, designed and led by Lina Bo Bardi. In no time, these modern institutions gained recognition within the country and abroad. They were conducted by distinguished members of the art and culture world at that time, such as the architect Lina Bobardi, prominent theatre director Eros Martim Gonçalves, or the musician Hans Joachim Koellreutter. The latter convinced the programme board of the University and rector Santos to hire Janka Rudzka as the director of the UFBA's Dance School.
Rudzka spent a little over three years in Salvador, between 1956 and 1959. During that time, she managed to create the foundations of the Dance School at UFBA. She had impact not only on the University's environment, but also on the city's art circles. Rudzka's ideas started spreading to other cultural centres in the country. Today, it could be said that her initiatives in Salvador essentially facilitated the development of professional dance in Brazil.
UFBA Dance School
Rudzka put forward a universal vision of culture and art, taking into consideration the changes taking place in the contemporary dance world, but also, which is significant, investing in local cultures and traditions. Her concept was rooted in an interdisciplinary rationale. Alongside the dance course, she also offered classes in anatomy, art history, aesthetics, music, and stage perception. She also proposed innovative methods consisting in deconstruction and investigation of creative process reaching back to cultural analysis, physiology of a dancer, and general art theory.
However, her main merit was combining the traditional Afro-Brazilian culture on stage with contemporary dance techniques. She was the first artist of the period to treat the local cultural reality with seriousness. She transgressed the boundaries of exoticism and folklore. While conducting her creative research, she started focusing on the regional Afro-Brazilian candomblé possession cults. Lia Robatto recalled that she often saw Rudzka noting the Afro-Brazilian drums' melodic lines and attending the candomblé ceremonies. Rudzka was the first choreographer in Bahia to consciously incorporate the symbolism of the candomblé gestures into her works. She also introduced the berimbau (a traditional instrument used in capoeira) on stage.
This marriage on modernity and tradition is worth reflecting upon. On could risk the assumption that it was the aesthetics of expressionism that contributed to the pairing of the analytical approach to dance and introducing real emotions on stage. But what is the source of this synthesis that permeated Rudzka's choreographies? Lia Robatto's suspects an inspiration by the Polish dramatic traditions. Rudzka's successor at the UFBA Dance School, Rolf Gelewski from Germany, continued to apply the expressionist aesthetics, however, without a strong connection to traditions. According to her assistant, what differed the two of them was Rudzka's immense sensitivity to her surroundings. She was able to comprehend and celebrate the environment in which she worked. The relationship between tradition and modernity is one of the major cultural themes in the Northeastern part of Brazil. This is where, in response to the colonial domination, the so-called aesthetics of rage – appreciative of traditions and valuing African culture – was first born. If we think of the strong relationship between performative arts and Romantic traditions in Poland, we might be on the right track to better understanding the Afro-Brazilian motifs in Rudzka's creative explorations.
Yanka Rudzka Project
In 2015, an initiative to research the work of Yanka Rudzka was launched. It combined two significant elements: a scholar research and a residency to create choreography inspired by Rudzka's works. The research has been conducted in Salvador since June 2015 by Polish theatre scholar Maciej Różalski. Its goal is to study Yanka Rudzka and trace the history of her departure from Poland, arrival in Brazil, and education projects in Salvador as well as her fascination with the local culture and Afro-Brazilian cults in Bahia. The second part was The Yanka Rudzka Project LEAVENING, an original production by Janusz Orlik and Joanna Leśnierowska. By engaging Polish and Brazilian dancers, the project facilitates a closer connection between the two dance communities. The production was preceded by an artistic residence which explored important link between Polish and Brazilian dance – Yanka Rudzka. Thus, it asked questions on potential ‘common areas’ and inspiring differences between the two dance worlds. The performance premiered in April 2016 and was one of the main events during the International Vivadança Festival in Brazil. The event was organized by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Vivadança Festival and Art. Stations Foundation.
Author: Maciej Różalski, May 2015, transl. Ania Micińska, June 2015; updated May 2016 (ND).