Polish National Ballet dances to its own tune
The Polish National Ballet is making its Washington debut this week, but its neoclassical style may look familiar to longtime dancegoers. Its artistic director, Krzyszt of Pastor, was a resident choreographer of the Washington Ballet in the late 1990s.
Much has changed in the more than 15 years since Pastor, 58, was last creating his stylish and musically astute ballets here. (One especially memorable work was the impassioned “Sonata,” from 1999, accompanied by Brahms.) For one thing, the international ballet attractions have grown richer, with recent visits by the Scottish Ballet and England’s Royal Ballet, which may be why tickets haven’t been selling well for the Polish troupe. It performs here just once, on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center; a planned second show was canceled due to poor sales.
But greater change has been happening in Poland. With the sleek, sharp aesthetic of the Polish program, Pastor aims to poetically seize the spirit of the times in his homeland.
“Poland is a dynamic country that is looking forward, with contemporary dance,” Pastor said in a recent phone interview from his company’s headquarters in Warsaw. “In America, there is the thought that we are a little bit behind. But we are a changing society, and we want to try different things.”
The repertoire for this trip, which brought the company to New York’s Joyce Theater last week, includes two Pastor works: “Adagio & Scherzo,” with music by Shubert, and “Moving Rooms,” performed to movements from Alfred Schnittke’s disquieting Concerto Grosso No. 1 and excerpts from a harpsichord concerto by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki.
Israeli choreographer Emmanuel Gat’s “Rite of Spring,” a treatment of the Stravinsky score, rounds out the program. In this work for two men and three women, Gat “was obviously inspired by the salsa,” said Pastor. “He was in Brazil watching people dancing. One woman is always without a partner. ... It’s kind of a peculiar thing. Also, the lighting plays a major role.”
Since taking the helm of the Polish National Ballet in 2009, Pastor has had to fit new designs, music and choreographic ideas into a structure that has existed in some form since 1785, when King Stanislaus August founded the company. Its home is the huge, many-columned Wielki Theater, which boasts a 1,000member staff for its dramatic theater, ballet, opera and orchestra, Pastor said. The ballet company has 86 dancers on year-round, statefunded salaries. And before Pastor arrived, it bore the strong imprint of Russian classical ballet, he said.
“I don’t want to destroy this tradition; of course, Russian ballet is still on a high level,” Pastor said. “But now we have the influence of a Western and American way of dancing.”
Pastor was something of a newcomer to Warsaw when he took charge of the company. He had grown up in the northern city of Gdansk and left Poland at age 26 for France’s Lyon Opera Ballet. He later spent a decade dancing with Amsterdam’s modern-spirited, forwardlooking Dutch National Ballet, and was for several years its resident choreographer.
Under Pastor, no longer do dancers from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine fill the ranks of the Polish National Ballet. Its annual auditions draw about 600 applicants from around the world, he said. And although 65 percent of his dancers are Polish, others hail from Western countries as well as from Eastern Europe. Afew come from Australia and Japan. Two are American, though they aren’t on this trip. Pastor said costs limited him to bringing only 25 dancers.
Elvi Moore, the former general director of the Washington Ballet, organized the trip through her Laurel Fund for the Performing Arts. (The fund has in the past brought the Dance Theatre of Harlem to Washington; it also finances arts scholarships.) The Polish Embassy and other Polish culture organizations also offered support.
Moore and Washington Ballet’s late founding director, Mary Day, knew Pastor when he first began making dances in Amsterdam. They had kept up a connection to the Dutch National Ballet after discovering Singapore-born Choo San Goh there many years ago. Goh became the Washington Ballet’s acclaimed resident choreographer in the 1970s and ’80s. After Goh died in 1987, Day and Moore brought other Dutch National Ballet choreographers to Washington, and Pastor was one of these.
A decade ago, this D.C.-Amsterdam pipeline helped the standout Washington Ballet dancer Michelle Jimenez secure a job with the Dutch troupe, where she became Pastor’s “muse,” he said. He created his “Moving Rooms” for her.
Pastor’s work “is so exciting and innovative, and he uses the ballet technique in some very interesting ideas,” said Moore. She saw the Joffrey Ballet perform Pastor’s well-received “Romeo and Juliet” in April and had seen short excerpts of his pieces at Houston’s Dance Salad festival.
“I was just really blown away, and I wanted Washington audiences to see him, so I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to bring you.’ ”
Pastor’s reputation as a ballet reformer has been spreading. In 2011 he was named artistic director of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet, in Vilnius, though he says his role is more advisory than hands-on. As in Warsaw, he has launched choreographic workshops in Vilnius, “which is quite satisfying,” he said. “It makes the dancers feel more creative, and creates an environment of common work. A nice energy comes out of it.”
His Washington homecoming will no doubt be emotional, he said. But also practical: “We’d like to show that we are changing in Eastern Europe.”
Adam Kozal and Aneta Zbrzezniak in Polish National Ballet Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor’s “Moving Rooms,” which the troupe will perform Tuesday at the Kennedy Center.