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Only 6 years ago, a visitor to Poland would have no need to see the Polish National Ballet. But this has changed almost overnight, and radically.

Poland emerged from the Second World War with one field of the arts completely annihilated: modern dance. Many artists of the prewar dance scene were Jewish and either were killed in the Holocaust or never returned to the country. Besides, the Communist authorities banned all abstract arts in fear of free artistic interpretation. The state-supported ballet was under Soviet influence, isolated from new trends in the West, and underfinanced. They offered products for export: Mazowsze and Slask, two giant folk dance companies presenting "art of the people" - fully professional but far from authentic.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, there was room again for the development of modern and contemporary dance companies.

In the late 1980s, the renowned choreographer Jacek Luminski began research on traditional folk dance forms, as well as forgotten sources of Jewish dance.  He created his influential Silesian Dance Theater (SDT) in the small mining town of Bytom in 1991, and in 2007 he founded the first academic dance department in Poland at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Another innovative group is Dada von Bzdülöw, founded in Gdansk in 1993 and still active, who take their inspiration from the mime theater of Henryk Tomaszewski. SDT and Dada have both performed original pieces in New York, with rave reviews in The New York Times (SDT for their 2002 performances at The Kitchen, and Dada for their 2006 performances at La MaMa).

By the time Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the country was prosperous enough to have private patrons of culture. Grazyna Kulczyk, a major collector of international contemporary art living in her upscale department store built in a renovated brewery in Poznan, opened an arts foundation with an gallery and the first significant dance program in the country. "Old Brewery New Dance" has hosted hundreds of international workshops and dance productions, energizing the young Polish contemporary dance scene.

Even so, Polish dance companies had to await the recent period of economic prosperity and growing Polish international aspirations to be able to sustain a truly excellent dance scene. The change happened almost overnight: in 2009 Krzysztof Pastor, the world-renowned and Polish-born resident choreographer at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, was invited to Warsaw to stage his piece Tristan, set to the music of Richard Wagner. Following its success, he was offered the directorship of the Warsaw Ballet. On April 29, 2009, following a suggestion from Waldemar Dabrowski, General Director of the Polish National Opera, the Ministry of Culture granted the ballet company artistic and financial autonomy and elevated it to the status of the Polish National Ballet, making it an equal partner of the Polish National Opera at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw.

Dabrowski's ambition brought top artistic results, and in 2015 New York's Metropolitan Opera for the first time staged productions by the Polish National Opera's artistic director, Mariusz Trelinski. Later this year, the Polish National Ballet under Pastor's direction will perform in New York for the first time at the Joyce Theater.

Pastor left Poland in 1981 and danced with the Ballet de L'Opéra in Lyon and the Dutch National Ballet. He staged his first original production in Lódz in 1986, before being commissioned by the Dutch National Ballet in 1992. Since then he has built a strong international reputation, choreographing nearly fifty ballets in twelve different countries. He took over the Polish National Ballet over in 2009. The company is now 40% international and the company's 2015 international audition had 120 applicants accepted to audition. New works are developed through the Creations program, and every September the company hosts the international dance festival Days of Dance Art.

Most important is the company's strong repertoire, which has been praised by critics worldwide, from Dance Europe to The New York Times to Le Nouvel Observateur. Pastor moved away from classical works and introduced pieces by William Forsythe, Emmanuel Gat and Ashley Page. The company still dances to Mendelssohn and Ravel, but now also John Adams, Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, and Pawel Szymanski.

Pastor has revived the grandeur of the Warsaw Ballet's early days. The company was founded in the 18th century as His Majesty's National Dancers under the patronage of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski. The comnpany's heyday was between 1837 and 1860, when it was recognized as one of Europe's leading companies alongside the Paris Opera Ballet and the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.

The new spirit of the Polish National Ballet and the reasons for its sudden success are best expressed in the words of its director, Krzysztof Pastor: "Its aim is to reflect the nature, energy, and aspirations of the Polish people." New York Times critic, Roslyn Sulcas, writes: "Two decades after the end of Communism, and eight years after joining the European Union, the Polish National Ballet is performing a program as international and as challenging as any major company today."

Finally, New York audiences have an opportunity to see this exciting company live. Back home, it works and performs at the Teatr Wielki-National Opera, the largest opera theater in Europe. The program of the US tour, which includes the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as well as New York's Joyce Theater, was designed showcase the company's artistic range, dancing classical, neoclassical, and avant-garde ballet. The program consists of three pieces:

ADAGIO & SCHERZO, by Krzysztof Pastor to Franz Schubert's String Quartet in C-major, op. posth. 163 D 956. Composed in 1828, had its world premiere in 2014 with the Polish National Ballet, and is the most classical presentation on the bill. The choreographer writes: "Franz Schubert, Adagio and Scherzo, lyrical reverie and pure energy. I am not telling any story in this piece, I am focusing on emotions and I am encouraging the audience to interpret it freely."

Igor Stravinsky's RITE OF SPRING, choreography by Emanuel Gat. This piece had its world premiere in 2004 with Emanuel Gat Dance in Tel Aviv, and its Polish premiere in 2011 with the Polish National Ballet. The young Israeli's iconoclastic version of the masterpiece won a Bessie Award in 2004. Le Figaro wrote: "Salsa on top of a volcano. This wonderful and amazing mix is performed with elegancy and lust." Deborah Jowitt wrote in The Village Voice: "It's like seeing an execution in slow motion with freeze frames."

MOVING ROOMS by Krzysztof Pastor to the music of Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Górecki. The piece's first part is set to the three final movements of Concerto Grosso no. 1 (1977) by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). The second part of the choreography is set to Concerto for Harpsichord (or Piano) and String Orchestra by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, written in 1980. The piece draws on the Polish highlander music and reflects the whirl and profane energy of a folk dance. 

The Polish National Ballet performances at the Joyce, June 16-21, in their first ever presentation in New York City.

                                                                        ---   Monika Fabijanska

                                                                         June 2015


Monika Fabijanska, former Poland's cultural attache in New York (2000-2010)

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