In 1964 as Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz boarded the ship to France on a trans-Atlantic journey that would end his 25-year exile in Argentina, a group of bon voyagers made up mostly of other writers begged him for advice. His reported last and bitterly dry remark as he disappeared up the gangplank was "Kill Borges." He was referring to writer Jorge Luis Borges who was fast eclipsing him in worldwide fame.
This mordant, pungent wit carried through all of Gombrowicz's novels, diaries and plays, most of which are now available in translation. How to translate his anti-personality and preposterous writing style into movement is a tricky dance, only possible, perhaps, with the advent of contemporary dance theater in the last several decades. It's an even newer art form in Poland, emerging only since the fall of communism in the late 80s in cities like Bytom, where an annual contemporary dance festival is held, and in Gdansk, where its once-famed shipyard is on the brink of closing.
Gdansk's leading contemporary dance-theater group, Dada von Bzdülüw premiered its three-year old Gombrowicz-inspired work, Several Witty Observations (a la Gombrowicz) in Gdansk, traveled it to Finland and India and to New York last year. Now the Live Arts Festival presents its Philadelphia opening on September 12. Abstract jazz composer Mikolaj Trzaska scored the original music.
Much influenced by (Jerzy) Grotowski's theatrical positions, dancer/choreographers Leszek Bzdyl and Katarzyna Chmielewska founded Dada von Bzdülüw in 1993. Rafal Dziemidok, who spent some time working in the U.S., joined the two on his return to Poland and choreographs work in Warsaw where he lives.
"Life changes every decade now in Poland," said Bzdyl over drinks at Fairmount's London pub, near where the group is being housed. "Young people are running after attractions, fun and money. But where is your responsibility for life?"
He mused about the state of dance, audience, Polish media, and performances as well. "We have better press now, more people writing about dance and audiences are better informed. But we have fewer performances. The government [funders] tend to back the institutionalized arts and treat our form, which is less than 20 years old in Poland, as amateurish."
But Dada von Bzdülüw has been around almost as long as the art form and has polished its working strategies to professional levels. Gombrowicz struggled with form and if he revered anything, it was authenticity. But he filled his house of worship with contradiction. These Gombrowiczian aspects and others compelled the three to create this work. Also Gombrowicz's writing, with its hilarious descriptions of people in unlikely contact with each other, is very physical and gestural, inspiring unusual movement ideas.
"Actually," said Dziemidok, "We assumed the personas of the three greatest Polish writers of the 20th century who were friends but lived in different regions of the country."
"Yes, it was very freeing for me," Chmielewska said. "Leszek was [Ignacy] Witkacy and Rafal, Gombrowicz. I became Bruno Schulz. But actually, it gave me the opportunity to present myself."
"This work is much less about intellectuality and more about human relationships," said Bzdyl. "Our choreography is a proposition, like looking for a community."
In their Philadelphia workshops at the Philadanco studios, the three have been looking for a Philadelphia dancer to take back to Poland for their next show. They found her in dancer Bethany Formica, a transplant from New York who recently married Conrad Bender, the Live Arts/Fringe executive technical director. She'll go to Gdansk in October to work in the new piece.
"For years we've worked together and know our habits," said Bzdyl. "A fourth person will distort those habits, and we have to learn how to communicate with another person."
It seems they are employing lessons learned from working with the Gombrowicz material. When they first made Witty Observations in 2003, they say they were completely different people, but have grown with the piece. Using Gombrowicz's Diary, they started with his obsession with his own self "the ME." Through various permutations and with no text in the current work, they move from being auto-ironical into concern for others.
"After all it is not an exclusive show. Neither knowledge of dance theater nor of Gombrowicz are required," said Dziemidok. "Understanding is much overrated."
Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 N. American St.
Sept. 12 –15 8 p.m.
Box Ofc: 215-413-1318 or