Mention Polish dance, and even aficionados of the form will raise a quizzical eyebrow. As the Polish National Ballet’s Warsaw Dance Days showed, however, some local companies are on the rise, and one of them has made huge strides in its five years of existence: Gdansk’s Baltic Dance Theatre, which showed impressive versatility in a double bill of works by its director and choreographer, Izadora Weiss.
Her Midsummer Night’s Dream, created last spring, is a major achievement realised on a shoestring. With no sets other than a collection of small moving panels that hide and reveal characters, it looks very spare on the cavernous stage of the Teatr Wielki (the company’s Gdansk home is comparatively tiny), and yet the pull of Weiss’s choreographic imagination helps fill the gaps.
Her 70-minute Dream, beautifully dressed by fashion designer Gosia Baczyńska, is all sensuality and whimsy. It is smartly set to a selection of Goran Bregović songs, and Weiss is thrillingly alive to the composer’s witty fusion of folk, gypsy and classical influences. A former choreographic trainee with Jiří Kylián, she has absorbed the fluidity of his style and imbues it with a raw energy and warmth.
The characters are vividly contrasted: Titania and Oberon are aloof, David Bowie-like figures in platform shoes, while Puck is mercurial as played by Sayaka Haruna, a firefly of a dancer. The humans, meanwhile, are clearly on a journey of self-discovery. Hyppolyta’s duo with her Amazon attendant has a shivering eroticism, and contrasts with Theseus’s overconfident dance of seduction. Best of all is the tender vulnerability of the four lovers: even as they dance side by side, their fluctuating emotions register in the smallest gestures.
Most of the dancers returned after the interval in Weiss’s 2011 Rite of Spring. There are countless accounts of the riots Nijinsky’s original prompted, but shock is an emotion few would associate with modern stagings of the ballet. Enter Weiss, who uses Stravinsky’s score to tackle the issue of domestic violence and rape with seven couples. The result is gut-wrenching, as the predatory men tease and terrify women trapped on a platform in choreography that rolls dance and theatre into one: a cameraman provides close-ups of the dancers’ expressions, and their emotional range is chilling. When the men emerged first to take a bow, I suspect that many in the audience struggled to bring themselves to clap.
To Weiss’s credit, however, the performance almost never feels gratuitous. The movement is attentively musical throughout and the women’s group dances are poignant. Long, flowing dresses descend from above early on, and as they dance barefoot in them, the expansive movement is also a way to reclaim their identities. Weiss is a rare, and fresh, choreographic talent; the company will be one to follow as it matures.
The festival welcomed three other ensembles over the weekend. The Opera Nova Ballet from Bydgoszcz and the Kielce Dance Theatre boldly chose to present works by international choreographers on the Teatr Wielki’s smaller stage. Jorma Elo’s First Flash, a quirky work to Sibelius, stretched the Nova dancers’ technique for the better; you sensed real will but a slight lack of polish in their neoclassical lines. Kielce is a smaller modern ensemble, and presented Angelin Preljocaj’s version of The Rite of Spring; his take on the battle of the sexes is rather muddled, but it is a fine training ground for the dancers.
The Lithuanian National Ballet also paid a visit with a recent creation, Čiurlionis. Choreographed by Polish National Ballet dancer Robert Bondara, who has only a few works under his belt, it is a dance biography of Lithuanian painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, and as earnest as it is derivative. Bondara gives us the artist as madman involved in chaotic relationships, in the spirit of Boris Eifman’s overwrought creations, albeit with a touch more restraint. It is probably too taxing a commission for Bondara at this point, but his dancers were all engaging, and the company is rightly looking to find a voice of its own by telling new stories.