National Greatness On A Tight Budget
Mateusz Szymanówka is working between two dance scenes and is curator of the series UN/POLISHED with choreographers from Poland
UN/POLISHED started with an invitation from DOCK11 to present the work of Berlin-based choreographers from Poland in August 2016. We weren’t sure about organizing yet another festival with performances selected with a national focus, as similar initiatives usually bend over backwards to create an easily marketable image of a scene. Yet since the opportunities to show one’s work again (whether created in the city or outside of it) are somewhat limited, we decided to be pragmatic about it and embrace the national. This October, UN/POLISHED comes back with the support of a state cultural institution and a curator. That said, we don’t want to get too serious.
What does "Polishness" in dance mean?
The name of the festival emerged quite early and it felt right as it tackled two issues that seemed to be bothersome to most. First, the question of "Polishness” of the work created by the artists who – after their initial dance experiences in Poland – emigrated to study and stayed abroad, only occasionally working in their home country. What does one identify with when he or she says "I am Polish” in the international dance scene, before the backdrop of Poland’s dance history (imported from the West), of his*her compatriots working in the same field or the financial support that he or she is sometimes getting from institutions in Poland? Second, the title UN/POLISHED tackles the way production conditions shape the artistic work: constantly and slightly schizophrenic, migrating between two contexts with their completely different institutional landscapes, histories and audiences; the available budgets amounting to no more than a range from 1,500 to 5,000 euros, not enough to create more than a solo; or working in a country and in venues where there is almost no infrastructure supporting an international presence of the artist. If "Polish dance” exists and there is something specific about it, it is not its history or style, but the fact it is made with little money and very often outside the country.
Migration is crucial to understanding the recent contemporary dance history in Poland. Since the accession to the EU in 2004, a whole generation of dance makers has left the country to study at the famous choreography/dance departments "in the West”. In Berlin, there are more than ten choreographers from Poland – mostly graduates of HZT – and this is the biggest Polish dance diaspora in the world. It’s clearly not enough to come from the same country and be fond of each other, but somehow, we do continue collaborating on a regular basis – appearing in each other’s projects as performers and dramaturges. Some call this crowd "the Polish mafia”, but for us it’s probably more about friendship and collective survival.
We found love (in a hopeless place)
These personal ties are very important in the exchange with our Warsaw-based colleagues and the local institutions, as the dance scene in Poland’s capital has gone through some significant changes in the past few years. This has been mostly due to joint efforts by the new wave of young dance artists who decided to come back to the city and reshape the context in which they create: self-organize, open spaces, find a common language with the audience (who does not react too well to words like "dispositive”), or find allies in venues that were not interested in experimental choreography before. This process has led to the opening of programs in some theaters and centers for contemporary art and an increased interest in choreographic work by the media or other artistic communities. There is some hype, but the question is, how can we turn this attention into long-lasting changes in our working conditions? Especially as the Warsaw scene benefits from the city’s inherent liberal character in a country ruled by a right-wing populist party for almost two years now, where so many cultural institutions are under attack – with their budgets being cut and directors dismissed.
We can imagine this dark scenario wherein everyone from Warsaw will have to emigrate again, maybe sooner than we think. But for now, the work of the young contemporary dance scene in Poland seems to disrupt the understanding of the national with its monolithic identities and normative ideas about the body. The artists introduce alternative histories and discourses and voice queer and feminist concerns (something almost non-present in the history of Polish performing arts before).
Putting the national back in international
Maybe now, when nationalism in Europe is on the rise again, it is about time to take a closer look at the "national” – one of those notions like gender, race or class that make a discussion "too political” or "not appealing enough to a wide audience”. If local issues are usually symptoms of larger social problems, is the international dance scene interested in using its resources to support the artistic communities who deal with them?
Yet it is also important to question the relationship of the so-called center and the periphery as many artists who decide to leave prominent European dance capitals feel like they disappear from the international map. It’s usually the double life between their homeland and Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam that enables their work to get noticed. And this compels one to ask: What kind of local support gives one visibility in the international scene and which does not? When is it about talent and commitment – and when is it about talent, commitment, politics and money? How do the national institutions govern the international scene? When does one "work internationally”? Is it enough to tour one’s work abroad or does it have to be part of a specific circulation of Western dance events and venues? And how oppressed or exotic must a local scene be to appear in the programs of international festivals or get a national showcase in another country? Just like, for instance, UN/POLISHED.
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