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The Polish National Ballet Make Their NYC Debut
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The Polish National Ballet Make Their NYC Debut

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 9 January 2017
The annual New York spring dance season has been memorable; the American Ballet Theatre’s 75th season continues at the Met, England’s Royal Ballet returns to the Koch, and Christopher Wheeldon’s finale for the Broadway musical An American in Paris is an exceptional 14-minute ballet. Adding to the excitement is the Polish National Ballet – a dance company with origins going back to the 18th century, making its Manhattan debut at The Joyce Theater.

With 90 dancers, the Polish National Ballet is as large as the American Ballet Theatre or the Royal. Equally large is its repertory, featuring ballets by George Balanchine, Sir Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Jiří Kylián, and one far too infrequently seen in North America, Kurt Jooss’ 1932 antiwar masterpiece, The Green Table.

The 475-seat Joyce Theater is too small for a large production like Swan Lake, but provides that ‘closer look’ that Lincoln Center or the New York City Center cannot. Leaving the enchanted birds and scenery home is to the Polish National Ballet’s advantage; they displayed their depth and diversity without fear of comparison.

Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor featured 23 dancers and three ballets – two of them his. Adagio & Scherzo (2014) is a series of duets and group dances set to Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. Pastor’s choreography is gentle but never parrots the music. Rather, he evokes the extreme emotions expressed in Schubert’s song cycles. Adagio & Scherzo marked Principal Dancer Marta Fiedler’s debut as a costume designer, dressing the cast in functionally stylish Fauvist blue and grey.

For this engagement, Pastor’s infectious Moving Rooms (2008) is the Polish National Ballet’s ‘calling card’. The fast-paced choreography shows the company off to its best advantage. Equally impressive is how Pastor listened past the disharmony in Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Górecki’s music and found joy.

Whether intentional or not, Moving Rooms is a send-up of sorts to Harald Lander’s Études (1948). This bewilderingly popular magnum opus begins with students and ends with the professionals executing one big jump after another. Études is no-brainer for ballet companies performing at home or on tour because it triggers empty applause. Pastor’s ballet is not only better choreographed, it is also more fun.

Moving Rooms begins with Carlos Martin Perez alone onstage. The other ten dancers join him in pairs, trios, and so forth. While Pastor incorporates mannerisms from Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Peter Martins, his own signature style is evident. Dancers relate to space (and each other) outside the rules of ballet positioning. Usually curved arms are bent and still graceful. Male and female dancers sensuously cross the stage with arms clasped straight overhead and legs in a tight fifth (crossed) position.

Contrasting Pastor’s two elegant works is Emanuel Gat’s Rite of Spring (2004). There are many interpretations of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 score for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, including the non-balletic primitive Russian ritual that caused a riot at its premiere, and the doomed dinosaurs of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).

Gat’s ultra-modern interpretation is fascinating. In the program notes he states that the plot is ‘quite open’, but a definite ‘rite’ occurs. Two men (Robert Bondara, Kurusz Wojeński) and three women (Marta Fiedler, Aleksandra Liashenko, Karolina Sapun) continue to change partners as they dance tangos and salsa. All are barefoot and dressed for clubbing. They perform intricate steps to music that is rhythmically challenging to dance but behave no differently than anyone else after a few too many. The tension nervously builds – who will end up with whom? Who will be alone? Is self-respect worth sacrificing for hooking up?

Unlike Nijinsky’s original choreography where ‘The Chosen’ dances herself to death, Gat’s ending is wide open. However, the choreographer never lets the five dancers never leave the stage. Their exhaustion is undisguised; the repeated Latin dance patterns becoming laborious and sloppy. Gat does not cut the 45-minute score, using Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s 1958 percussion-heavy recording of The Rite from among many to choose from – another appropriate choice for a first NYC visit.

The Polish National Ballet has Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring in its repertory. The reconstruction appears on the same program with Gat’s. Perhaps the next time they come, they will do both as a comparison for their out-of-town admirers who appreciate both the old and the new.

The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Avenue, New York, NY, USA, +1 212 691 9740