Bzdyl tells Anna Królica about the history of Polish dance, the role of media in its development, the divisions in dancing circles as well as his inspirations and his own creativity path.
A record of fragment of a meeting which took place on 11th April in Mała Litera bookshop in Łódź.
ANNA KRÓLICA: How do you think, why in Poland dance is still on the verge of theatre art and can’t make its way to the mainstream? What is the reason for it?
LESZEK BZDYL: When I look at the faces of some people gathered here – their age is almost equal with the age of dance in Poland… It horrifies me, because as a person who has been present since the inception of dance in Poland, I could be a father to half of them.
One may be optimistic and think that you need time, that dance requires time. Like other art forms it demands some kind of settlement to avoid a hoax and participation in a media affair. Maybe the most beautiful is yet to come. It’s an optimistic thought. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking many times, why does it take so long for dance to establish its postition in the artistic and social consciousness. The question is not easy to answer.
ANNA KRÓLICA: It seems to me that the artists confined themselves to the simplest idea of theatre, amateur theatre in which characters, a story – preferably love story or the one ‘about solitude’ – is presented. It irritates the more discerning spectators. A serious attitude towards audience is missing.”Dada” makes an exception here, it has more in common with avantgarde…
LESZEK BZDYL: It is not taken ‘from theatre’ but rather ‘from tv’. That’s more problematic. What often happens in Poland, is interpreting a theatre work without relating to literature or music references and employing imagery and emotions copied directly from television instead – that is where the problem of Polish dance lies.
In regard to ”Dada”, avantgarde and the question whether dance in Poland is appreciated or underestimated. I got interested in dance because I had considered it the last stronghold of underground, „low brow art”. If we look at the history of dance and the greatest achievements, for instance in Europe, we find it easy to talk about Wim Vandekeybus, the company Rosas from Brussels. Yet in fact, we applaud what has already started to dye out. Those people have been working for thirty years – and they were most successful in the very beginning, while working in the basements and steering clear of mainstream. Their artistic language was formed before the acclaim of theatre establishment. Having encountered financial difficulties, they decided to become a collective of five or six companies and try to make performances on the condition that if one of them succedes, it go shares with the rest to finance their productions. Those groups worked without media appearance, away from the mainstream. It was their persistence that led them to the promotion to ‘the world of highbrow art’.
ANNA KROLICA: In Poland the word ‘alternative’ has very good connotations, if dance could reach such position I would be very glad…
LESZEK BZDYL: It’s the matter of ‘theatre bastions’. During the fifteen years of work with ”Dada” we’ve come across a variety of situations. At first ‘the alternative’ approved of our performances but as soon as they became more compelling and accomplished, our language slightly more sublime – it turned away from us. As long as our theatrical language resembled pantomime (which I had started with) we were easily accessible to ‘the alternative’. But when the structure was becoming more complex and abstract, it turned out that ‘the alternative’ wasn’t ready yet. It’s difficult to talk about. Dance in Poland is entangled in so many affaires that when you discuss one of them for too long it seems a key problem. While in fact you can’t describe this whole puzzle by picking just one element. Narrowing down to analysing the problem only in relation to theatre, the insufficiency of education or to the specialised media’s lack of competence is therefore not a helpful solution…
ANNA KRÓLICA: Are you alluding to me (laughter)? What do you mean?
LESZEK BZDYL: Well, in general… Recently in Torun, on the festival ”Klamra”, there were two critics from main dailies and magazines among the audience. Seing themselves as VIPs they didn’t wait in the foyer with the rest of the spectators but entered the space during our preparations which obviously made me angry… I don’t have a clue how they got in and why they themselves – out of respet for art – didn’t participate in the performance like the others, but had to enter prior to the start and look at the ‘guts of theatre’. There was a discussion afterwards – one of the criticts kept on repeating ‘theatre must be attractive’, ‘it definitely must be attractive’ – i didn’t quite get what he meant. Thus he would only notice Warlikowski and Jarzyna’s works because anything else is probably not attractive… When he finally got tired and stopped talking, somebody from the audience asked him about our performance, what he would say about it – the critic suggested that his colleague could answer the question as she hadn’t spoken yet. I was eager to hear his negative opinion, harsh criticism. Yet such form of disregard is very typical for critics, I’ve seen it in various places. I was a member of jury on a theatre festival here, in Lodz. For the first time the program included a large number of dance theatres. After each performance we would go to the ‘jury room’. After a long, defeaning silence I was asked ‘So what do you think?’. And I replied ‘But I’m curious about your opinions’. Nobody said anything and on the last day one of the critics – at the time chief editor of the main theatre magazine in Poland – wrapped himself in a scarf and announced that he did not have any adequate ‘tools’ to describe what he had watched. I was helpless. Because what he was supposed to analyse was theatrical, there was lighting, actors performing on stage, there was a certain dramaturgy. If someone who has been dealing with theatre for thirty years is unable to describe a theatrical event, I don’t understand why he doesn’t have these tools. Is he afraid of describing a non-literary form of expression? That’s another element of the puzzle. The emergence of new media such as NowyTaniec.PL is a very fresh trend which we’ve been wittnessing 5-6 years. There are only two dance critics – one in Lublin, the other in Gdansk – who have been accompanying this art form for fifteen years. Tadeusz Skutnik from Gdańsk watches everything, from the very beginning – his perspective is grounded in time, he looks at the development, history… I’m always waiting for his texts as they grasp the essence of a performance – he’s not afraid of writing about it. The other person lives in Lublin and reports every edition of city’s festival.
ANNA KRÓLICA: So you expect people to acknowledge the historical continuity of development in dance?
LESZEK BZDYL: The second phase of dance theatre in Poland – which followed the one of Conrad Drzewiecki – began a dozen or so years ago. Since then we have been experiencing a complety new physical language – after Jacek Luminski founded Silesian Dance Theatre, Wojtek Misiuro set up Teatr Ekspresji [Theatre of Expression] which didn’t refer to dance theatre directly but introduced all the elements that Luminski applied later. Anyway, that was a moment were a new reality commenced. However this reality is not described as a continuity of events, it constantly appears and vanishes. That’s also troublesome, a phenomenon unrecognixed for years. Reverting to the issue of age of people present on our meeting. What happened fifteen, eighteen years ago belongs to my experience, I can talk about it but… When we perform in Gdansk, our audience is diverse in terms of age. Some spectators have been acompanying us for fifteen years while others see our group for the first time. The wider the age range, the more interesting the reception and the richer the performance itself. Those ‘experienced’ influence the ‘beginners’.
The lack of continuity causes trouble not only to audience but also to the companies. We have only one regular ensemble in Poland, the one of Wycichowska – a continuity of experience from previous decades. Jacek Luminski makes one ‘alignment’, Teatr Dada – another, and there’s also Lublin Dance Theatre.
ANNA KRÓLICA: What about Alter Dance Theatre?
LESZEK BZDYL: That’s another story, I hope I won’t offend anybody, especially Witek [Jurewicz – ed.]… Teatr Tańca Alter [Alter Dance Theatre] is a marvelllous ‘manufacture’ of young dancers which educates new generations all the time. But they weren’t consistent enough about the presence on the market. They didn’t take part in any dance events to present their works.
ANNA KROLICA: Silesian Dance Theatre and Polish Dance Theatre from Poznan have the strongest position: they are based in a certain venue, they are cultural institutions subsidised by local council and Ministry of Culture, organise their own festivals, have a regular program… and managed to make their way to mainstream media, gaining popularity. In my opinion such situation is dangerous since – in the public life – it gives them monopoly for dance. Outside dance circles and, still not numerous enthusiasts, many people may think that contemporary dance is nothing but what those two institutions present. What do you think about that?
LESZEK BZDYL: It’s the matter of expectations, level of ambitions and a vision – they define your artistic direction. When Teatr Dada was founded, it was supposed to be a space of freedom. It didn’t want to be dependend on anything. I have been pursuing a policy of independence, also from media pressure, for fifteen years. When I imagine what kind of hostage to her own position is Ewa Wycichowska, how Jacek Luminski is bound to improving his ensemble’s skills and to the image of “the god of dance”, I think that it’s a huge pressure which does’t necessarily have a positive influence on the artistic quality. It’s a typical situationf for well-established companies. When I watch the performances made by Rosas fifteen years ago, when they didn’t carry the burden of being ‘the best company in Belgium’, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker was making beautiful, amazing works… My decision about Teatr Dada is to remain independent, even at a cost of insufficient funding. It’s better to be a bit poorer than to be subsidised and fulfilling the objectives imposed by authorities. As long as each performance can indeed be new, it is the space of freedom.
That is why I find it diffcult to describe Teatr Dada, it’s ‘attractive’ and ‘unattractive’ at the same time. We know that such theatre exists but when you call something ‘Teatr Dada’ in your writing, Dada becomes something completely different in the next performance. The reviewer is drifting on a sort of ice floe, he can’t stand by his opinion, his discovery. On the other hand we don’t have any problems with audience, it’s not media who decides wheter people will go to see our show – I have the feeling that the less press information, the more spectators we get. I gave up printing posters – when we put up posters in the city, the audience is smaller than when we don’t do it. The worse the review in one city, the more spectators in the other.
Many companies came into being in the 1990s. Until 1998 it seemed that dance in Poland is powerful, about four hundred people attented classes on festivals… I remember performances, they were all powerful and moving – it has been a huge explosion. There was no press coverage, such topic simply didn’t exist. Then came a crisis – a mass of dancers left the country, economic crisis noticeably affected dance – the national festivals and funding schemes. It wasn’t until after 2000 when the first dance reviewers appeared. There are fewer companies, fewer productions, everybody is fighting for a little money to fund their projects. The less is said about dance in media, the smaller the number of people attending workshops and performances. I can’t understand it, it’s a subject for sociologist.
ANNA KRÓLICA: In my opinion the situation is the complete opposite – there are many companies, and, above all, many festivals. The amount of the latter is still growing, each month something is happening somewhere. But maybe, on the other hand, what you mean is that we no longer have one big festival where everybody meets and for which we could wait the whole year.
LESZEK BZDYL: I have an impression that the clout of festivals in the ‘90s was much bigger. We had BUT [Baltic University of Dance – ed.] in Gdansk, where during one edition 5-6 stars from Europe would perform, the presentations took place in Baltic Opera and Wybrzeze Theatre. Those were the golden ages of conference in Bytom and the festival in Kalisz, Krakow had a strong position, many festivals happened there. Warsaw had ‘Male Formy Teatru Tanca’, Teatr Maly regularly presented three dance performances a month on its national stage. The 1990s were the time of prosperity, albeit the lack of the press coverage. Now we have more writing but fewer spectators. I consider it a disaster.
As “Dada Theatre” we were indeed doing ‘theatre’. We were not interested if it was dance or pantomime or whatever else. We knew we would dance – Kasia [Chmielewska – ed] was a graduate of ballet school and P.A.R.T.S., I was seeking for escape from pantomime in a different form of movement. Dance seemed to open up the body and make a perfect acting training – but it was still theatre. Our first presentations in Trojmiasto [Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot] were called theatre, theatre in which we dance. We never used terms ‘dance theatre’ or ‘contemporary dance’, and as a result we had a packed audience, in 1996 we were able to fi 400 seats in Teatr Wybrzeze.
Whereas nowadays everybody emphasise terms such as ‘contemporary dance’ or ‘dance theatre’, trying to separate it from other types of work which makes audience hermetic. The spectator is afraid that he might encounter something incomprehensible and that leads to performing for our circle. I’m curious how many of you dance? Who had lessons, took part in dance workshops. Three quarters, more? Who has never had classes? [Four people raise hands – ed.] So you see, even our meeting is very hermetic. There’s no reason to discuss, we all like it. For me the most tragic aspect of i.e. visual arts is that its audience consists of people engaged in art (I know I’m exaggerating here a little bit ) (…)
VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE: What can we do about the divisions between different dance centres? Why do we all notice them why do they exist? Does it have positive or negative results?
LESZEK BZDYL: When it comes to artistic divisions – they exists and should remain. But when it comes to inability to communicate with each other and to act as a sort of dance lobby – then it’s a problem. It’s been present since the dawn of this art form in Poland and the differences which had arisen still can’t be resolved. Rafal Dziemidok put it accuratly by saying: „You have to have a visa to go to Bytom”. And on the other hand – people from Bytom also think they should have a visa to go to Gdansk. It has been cumulating for years and is unable to fade away. I’m not sure if it’s due to distance or lack of regular communication or maybe a kind of battle for artistic distinctiveness.
I think that what I’m going to say is not controversial, I’ve actually said it a couple of times before. For instance: I respect Jacek Luminski’s performance, his artistic path, work he had done teaching many dancers. But when he misues the term ‘Polish contemporary dance technique’ in regard to his own work, I don’t get it. In that case, have I devised a ‘Pomeranian contemporary dance technique’? I don’t understand how somebody, out of the blue, became an author of a ‘technique’. What does ‘technique’ or’method’ exactly mean? There is a problem with defining Grotowski’s method, let alone Łumiński’s ‘technique’. An artist has its own language, physical language: Jacek Łumiński embeds body in the ground, somebody else push it upwards. What we can talk about here is rather an aesthetic…
The relations between institutions could be otherwise. When Melissa Monteros and Wojtek Mochniej ran a theatre in Gdansk [Gdansk Dance Theatre, curretly W & M Physical Theatre in Canada] they were making really good performances, completely different to ours. Obviously, I experienced this ‘artistic jelousy’ and each time they made a good piece I was making another one, which would counter theirs. If I didn’t agree with their artistic agenda I would make a performance that defined mine. It worked both ways. There was ferment, discussion. It’s a great ‘drive for making performances’. Dance institutions in Poland should compete artisticly with each other. It would be also wonderful to – as we managed in Gdańsk – join the powers and make a piece collectively. Even if separately you do completely different stuff and watch each other’s works. It’s inspiring.
All the atempts to coordinate activities in dance circles always come to nothing. I still hope that one day it will come true, maybe it requires more time. After all, it’s the matter of funding system, that’s were all that ‘me! me! me!’ derives from… Whoever gets a change to appear in media or approach the cash dispenser immediately starts this ‘me! me! me!’. Of course, it spreads like wildfire if one heard that in a conversation with a minister somebody else said that there was only one proffessional company in the country. It also happens that I’m performing, for example, in England, and the English ask various questions – becase there have been other company from Poland visiting and its founder said there were no proffessional companies in Poland except for his ensemble. Such situations can’t be resolved, when that ‘me’ is so strong that organising a campaign, a common information platform for the foreigners and authorities which possess this cash dispenser, becomes impossible. For eighteen years there haven’t been literally any serious official meeting of the theatre dance artists. The last time I met Wycichowska and Łumiński happened by chance in television. Two years ago public television broadcasted a programme on dance, unfortunately the compere [Krzysztof – ed], Mieszkowski was completely unprepared and – instead of discussing – we had to explain him what it’s all about. When the programme was over, I noticed that we are walking along and empty corridor in the TV headquarters, Wycichowska, Łumiński and myself, and I had no idea how to start a conversation, we got out and quickly walked off in different directions – that was our meeting. We will never meet if somebody from outside doesn’t ‘make us’ meet. It all got so complicated, everybody work for themselves, and as a result are easily beaten, there’s no common striving for this art form, which lacks lobby in contrast to others.
ANNA KRÓLICA: I have a feeling that the situation would improve if a group of aware and competent people writing on dance appeared. A group that would give a complete depiction of the practitioners, of what is going on in Polish dance in its wide variety.
LESZEK BZDYL: If such group of critics formed it would obviously be great. But will these people be strong enough to convince the editior in chief of ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ or ‘Przekroj’ that this topic is as imporant as – let’s say – a premiere in drama theatre? Not because there is a festival at the moment and thousands of people are coming, and they are dancing and it’s beautiful because they are dancing… and that article can be published because a mass is dancing, while when there is a regular performance and only three dancers on a stage, it’s not enough.
ANNA KRÓLICA: The specialised magazines, such as ‘Didaskalia’ or ‘Teatr’ are getting eager to publish texts on dance, there are more and more interesting articles appearing. Whereas the quality of texts in dailies is a different story… I have an impression that a journalist can write a beautiful review of performance he haven’t seen or which haven’t even taken place. Newspaper reviewers are completely uncritical of dance, maybe in fear of ‘being incompetent’, they confine themselves to enthusiastic banals. While when it comes to drama theatre, a newspaper or weekly revewier can – someties in a few sentences – specify the strong and weak points of a performance, and he’s quite often pitiless.
LESZEK BZDYL: Reviews are useless if they offer a soliloquy about the critic’s idea of the performance instead of engaging into conversation with the performance.
VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE: Do you have any ‘kindred spirits’ among European dancers, artists that inspire you? Or maybe you have or had any idols?
LESZEK BZDYL: Hmmmm, that’s a problem… I’ve started my quest for dance in the beginning of the ‘90s, at first there was pantomime, then it turned out that ‘bodies talk’, not necessarily by mime, they are here and now. I’ve started to look around, in Teatr Ekspresji, then with Kasia… In 1994 I went to Canada, I had some lessons beforehand, but I felt I’m sort of dancing but not very differently from classical approch where you ‘stand and dance various things’. Quite by chance at a university in Canada I found myself on a class taught by a man, who at the time worked in Vancouver and whose name is Cornelius Fisher Credo. He works on the peripheries of Canadian dance. He looked like a lost descendant of hippies, a little bit shabby, he was moaning that he couldn’t be bothered, he was starting to do something… The students were completely confused, they had been expecting that they would be taught by a ‘dane hero’. Whereas I, thanks to contact with him and his ultimately human approach to what he was doing, after two weeks felt like if there was divine power inside me, I was flitting, I felt I was dancing, that I ‘got it’. Thanks to him I experienced the possibility of moving and dancing. But that’s not all. He devised a performance with the students from Calgary – absolute freedom, madness on stage, colour, cynicism, blood pulsing and emotional characters’. It was after the first Dada’s performances – Zagłada ludu [The Mankind Extermination], Peep Show. And Kasia said: ‘That’s Dada in five years time’.
What we do is our own. In our works there are barely any quoations, although we are obviously not completely resistant to what happens in the outer world. Yet it’s our individual language, our theatre. I find it hard to pick a specific ‘idol’, I’ve never actually looked for one, I may not need any. In a way, I’m close to English physical theatre, as the structure of a performance is grounded in human individual – dance is a derivative of energy and character rhythm, it’s not a superior element of piece, it results from meeting another person or void.
I don’t identifiy myself neither with German posterlike form, with theatrical V-effect – the trend Pina Baush is following; nor with French excess of aesthetics – although their abstract humour and slightly surrealistic thinking is akin to my percetption. It’s interesting that when touring Eutope our performances were applauded the most in French speaking countries: Belgium, Switzerland and France. German audience expects a definite sign which they may discuss. I personally don’t understand Dutch dance, with its very abstract thinking.