by George Jackson
copyright 2008 by George Jackson
Construction-site fencing surrounds what used to be a dusty market square, scaffolding and netting cling to the walls of several once handsome houses and some lawns look trimmed. Is the old coal mining town of Bytom pulling itself up by the bootstraps? Renovation of this Polish, then Bohemian, Austrian, Prussian, German and again Polish place was stalled for a long time. Perhaps it is happening at last. Not in doubt is the vigor of the Silesian Dance Workshop & Festival that has blossomed here each summer for 15 years. For two weeks, June 29 to July 12 in 2008, it sprouted all sorts of classes – diverse dance techniques, a history-criticism-journalism curriculum and a community outreach program - during its weekday morning and afternoon hours. There was also a week of arts management training. Performances daily and on weekends began in the late afternoon usually with a student showing, continued with a major presentation in the evening and concluded with something experimental at night. Repeats were rare with almost every showing different. The contrast between Bytom and Copenhagen was considerable - particularly prices, the population mix and the type of dance. Bytom continues to be a bargain. Moreover, its rather homogenously Polish residents still can’t help taking long looks at African or Asian festival participants. And the festival favors contemporary movement theater although other dance forms – even ballet - aren’t excluded. Copenhagen costs can be astronomical, yet in this formerly blond-on-blonde city, the sight of dark locks and other than pale skin on a sprinkling of kids is now considered the norm. Regular theaters were on summer holiday in Denmark’s capital but the Tivoli Garden was having its high season and both the pantomime and ballet there were staunchly traditionalist.
Of the 40 plus performances in Bytom, I saw quite a few. My initial glimpse came on the first afternoon. In the town’s busiest square, the Rynek, stood a small regiment of old ladies, each attended by a couple of young kids. They did arm calisthenics, struck poses and sang a bit. Both age groups were committed. One could see that their participation meant more to them than to the town’s quizzical yet tolerant observers. The event was meant to show off the festival’s outreach program to the local citizenry.
Jacek Luminski’s Silesian Dance Theatre, the festival’s host, gave the major kickoff (Main Stage, Bytom Cultural Center, June 29) – a repeat of last year’s bold, deliberately naturalistic yet dance driven premiers by Luminski (see danceviewtimes.com Vol. 5, No. 29 for July 23, 2007). A festival highpoint came later that night when Nora Chipaumire danced solo in the vastness of a dismantled turbine hall, part of the Szombierki Power Plant at the edge of town. We were sitting in a circle of folding chairs in semidarkness under high vaulting. The place imposed a hush on the otherwise chatty audience as it waited for Chipaumire to appear. When someone got up from one of the chairs, holding the body slightly bowed yet ready for action, we realized that our dancer had been among us. Power was apparent in Chipaumire’s stance. For the first of a pair of solos, “Manifesto”, a strong, smooth pulse arose and subsided, particularly in her torso. African associations seemed relevant. For “Dark Swan” she displayed strength and fragility simultaneously. Chipaumire seemed both herself and another as she invoked Pavlova. The publicity and printed programs identify this dancer/choreographer variously as being from the USA, from Zimbabwe and transnational. She’s larger than life, compelling and probably incapable of merely moving without dancing. Her impulse builds, becomes varied, consumes itself and is reborn. It was an exceptional performance insofar as I wouldn’t have minded it going on and on. Strangely, Chipaumire seemed a decade older than two years ago while she danced. That wasn’t the case later, in conversation.
Henrik Kaalund, a ballet trained Dane based in Berlin, starts his modern dance choreographies with a sense of classical order. So much so that it actually prevents sufficient development of both the movement material and the meaning, and leads to a state of – well - limbo. In “4”, the opening section of his trilogy “On the Verge” (Main Stage, June 30), conceptual rigidity interferes with relationships that could unfold among a quartet of dancers. Kaalund had divided the stage into four “rooms” or squares, and to each he attributed an atmosphere. The dancers displayed different personality types so that when one of them entered what I began to think of as the “high energy” room, the resulting movement was individual yet always at the upper end of the dynamic scale – at least initially. Then, purposely, things began to merge and blend. Although the dancers influenced one another, they didn’t really interact. Just as our ever expanding and cooling universe is said to be approaching absolute zero, so the last we see of Kaalund’s four-room, four-character house it is headed towards stasis.
From four to two: the duo ”Two to Never” followed. It was one of this festival’s several male pairings and in it the two men do have something of a relationship prior to the work’s non-ending. A female solo, “Identity Fragments” concluded the trilogy. According to the program note it tackled the issue of personal fame as part of the existential question “Why am I?”. Like its predecessors, the solo had a definite beginning, a middling middle and then petered out as the dancer, Anna Schmit, remained in doubt.
A review of Kaalund’s trilogy by Dominika Szala in the festival’s Workshop Newspaper* focused on space as experienced by the performer and perceived by the viewer, on impulse (of the contact improvisation type), on atmosphere (lighting, music), and on the compositional techniques of repetition and variation. I’d add that the four dancers (David Nondorf, Katharina Wunderlich, Schmit and Kaalund), in contrast to some others at this festival, did not reject polish. Still, the ideas of these three pieces had more interest on paper than on stage. What I most admired by Kaalund was the lecture he gave for one of the workshop classes (July 2). It was both a lesson and a performance. He read (in English) from a manuscript, enunciating very precisely for maximum penetration. His features, serious, expressed deep but distanced feeling. He illustrated his argument with imaginative, apt projections. The subject was “Motivation and Creation” or why one bothers to train and dance. It was a further variation on the existential question of his female solo. This time, though, there was a conclusion - something of an answer that had overtones from Buddha, Goethe, and even Aristotle. This was another festival highpoint.
Eiko and Koma (Main Stage, July 1) upset many of the workshop students. Doubts about whether crawling is dance and comments on excessive duration were voiced in the Fantom (the café noir and jazz club that is the festival’s social hub) and also appeared in the Workshop Newspaper. These reactions surprised me. Compared to other festival fare that remained anchored in motion and took undue time for sparse content, the work of these Butoh performers from America billowed into dance (patterned movement done for its own sake) because of the repeated intensity and magnification of so much detail. Required of the audience is patience. The evening’s piece was “Mourning/Lament” and it is set in a late autumn woodland, a realistically magical forest. Joanna Zielinska’s review* grapples with this work like Koma with the body of his destined Eiko. I found that, like me, another reviewer* - Anna Hackiewicz - focused on the third performer in “Mourning”, pianist Margaret Leng Tang. Although positioned on the left side of the stage, Tang’s concentration was hard to overlook. Even when one shut ones eyes, her sounds and silences had meaning.
Most developed of the several male duos at this festival was “Heroes” (Main Stage, July 2) by Oded Graf and Yossi Berg from Israel. Of course, this pair of guys isn’t heroic in any ordinary sense. They are grown men and yet the teasing that goes on between them brings out their little boy traits. Particularly their sexuality is prepubescent – perhaps too safe a choice for an otherwise risky undertaking. Amazingly, Graf and Berg are able to show new facets of the relationship for an entire hour. Magda Kupryjanowicz’s review in the Workshop Newspaper mentions pantomime, improvisation and that “the broken stylistic of modern dance gains the harmony and grace of classical dance”. I wouldn’t go quite so far but the whole genre of male pairing for dance purposes owes a debt to Britain’s classically trained Ballet Boyz. Another duo on the same program – “Geisha” by an Israel/USA group, LeeSar The Company – was less inventive as a movement composition and not as thorough as a dramatic exposition but braver sexually. Two good looking, topless geishas, one the female Jye-Hwei Lin and the other the male Saar Harari, came on to the audience while almost seducing each other. However, they never once touched. Perhaps “Geisha” should be described as a trio because the pair of dancers alternated with the actress Lee Sher who lip synced the role of a pop singer. I found her part dispensable. The choreography was credited to Sher and Harari. Natalia Wilk, writing for the Workshop Newspaper, chided the festival photographers for taking too many shots of the half naked Ms. Lin.
High energy, much of it externalized but some locked within bodies, gave Jacek Luminski’s work-in-progress its coherence (Power Plant, July 4). Otherwise the material resisted my attempts to see it as a consistent whole. There was prison imagery, acrobatic dance, gang rape and a group orgy, a step combination from Luminski’s classroom exercises, cartoon behavior, a male duo plus other intense action. Could the choreographer have been quoting from and commenting on prior work at the festival - that of Trajal Harrel (USA), Georg Blaschke (Austria), Johannes Wieland (Germany/USA), Liss Fain (USA), Korina Kordova (Brazil/Poland), Karolina Kroczac (Poland), Katarzyna Kizior & Szymon Osinski (Poland), and those discussed above? That hypothesis proved invalid because in retrospect there also appeared to be references to performances on subsequent days – those by Compagnie Drift (Switzerland), Lisa Hinterrithner (Austria), Quorum Ballet (Portugal), Okoem Dance (Russia), Chikako Kaido (Japan/Germany), Croatia’s Contemporary Studio, Teatr Novogo Fronta (Czech Republic), Y-Space (Hong Kong), Dawid Lorenc (Poland), Joe Alter (USA), Mobius Strip (Taiwan), Anna Piotrowska (Poland), Lublin Dance Theatre (Poland), Milena Urgen Koulas (Cyprus), and Idan Cohen (Israel). No, as with romanticism after the 1830s/’40s, I concluded that post-modernism is recycling itself. Luminski, though, does it with skill and conviction so, no matter how severe the anomie of his vision, it isn’t easy to turn away. For the Workshop Newspaper’s Anna Hackiewicz, the unfinished Luminski piece “resonates with meaning”. Extrapolating from its working title, “Panopticon or/and Parable of the Poppy”, she sees all the content as relating to a prison and prisoners. Then she equates Luminski’s prison to the 18th Century concept of Panopticon and a world perspective. Yes, perhaps, but only with plenty of poppy?
An oasis of calm and composure was the unscheduled showing of Japanese dances by Kazuko Yamazaki (Studio A, Bytom Cultural Center, July 11). For her course on Japan’s heritage, Yamazaki had lectured and demonstrated. She expected her students to both listen and practice what she showed. They did so assiduously and, since she had brought along enough costuming (such a determinant of Japanese dance parameters), she presented nine of them, herself and her sister Manna Yamazaki in a set of traditional and original compositions. These were dances of dignity and sensitivity. The attention to detail reminded me of an aspect of Eiko and Koma’s very different, uncivilized and deliberately bestial work. In her originals, Kazuko Yamazaki’s urge to explore and shape movement reminded me of Michio Ito’s early 20th Century solos, which had been a topic in one of the classes. Discovering such links is part of the reason I keep returning to Bytom’s festival.
The peacock curtain at the pagodan Pantomime Theater in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens folded up like a fan from the Far East. On stage on a sunny Sunday afternoon (July 13) were examples of European traditions – commedia dell’arte and classical ballet. Shown first was a pantomime from 1844, “Cassander as Barrel-Maker” by Christian Lehmanns, based on “Rejsen til Aegypten” (Journey to Egypt) and revised in 1855 by Volkersen and Adolph Price. The current staging is by Tommy Edvardsen with dramaturgy by Henrik Lyding. Obstacles stood in the way of Harlequin (Richard Bermange) eloping with Columbine (Christina Condere), one of them being jealous Pierrot (Allen Clausen). A devil (Franklin di Simao) actually aids the lovers. The story was simple, the characters were set. Everyday actions and expressions magnified, descriptive gestures, a bit of symbolic mime, and an occasional ballet step or stance made up the movement material. The galloping music, if not by Lumbye was Lumbye-like. It all seemed so easy and yet it was fresh.
An hour later, the peacock curtain opened again for Dinna Bjorn’s new pantomime ballet in the old style, “Fyrtojet” (“Tinderbox”). This was a soldier’s tale, mimed like the harlequinade but with more dancing. Sets and costumes were by Denmark’s sovereign, Queen Margrethe II. I particularly admired the bed Her Majesty had designed for the story’s Princess, who had to slumber often. It was upright and Bjorn had her ballerina, Michelle Larsen, bourree in and out of it like a breeze. Once again, young love triumphs over the foolishness of elders, and the Soldier (Paul James Rooney) wins the Princess to the consternation of the entire court and particularly the Princess’s Lady-in-Waiting (Tori Cooper). The music by James Price (of the famous theatrical family?), had light dissonances but was rooted in Lumbye. Bjorn kept the action clear and swift, the dancing admirably compact, and gave the whole production true tang.
* The workshop newspaper, written and published by students enrolled in the journalism classes, issued frequently during the festival – mostly in Polish but with 4 numbers also in English. Stuart Sweeney was faculty adviser and helped with the English. The contents are posted on criticaldance.com for 2008 as well as for previous years.