Confronting Bigotry and Xenophobia With Dance

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photo by Dominik Werner

Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw

Bohemian National Hall

October 1, 2017

New York, NY

 

by Ernest Barteldes

 

During a recent visit to Poland last September, my wife Renata and I made plans to meet with a couple who I’ll call Lukasz and Dorota. It was well after 10 PM by then, and since we were visiting a smaller town,  it meant that kitchens in most places were closed. I suggested going to one of the local kebab restaurants in the area since there were two of those within walking distance from where we were and they stayed open late.

“We don’t do kebabs,” said Lukasz, “because we don’t want Muslims in Poland.” I kind of stared at him in disbelief but reluctantly kept my New York attitude in check. Instead, I just retorted that not all Turkish people are Muslims, but he seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation.

I was aware that Dorota had supported the right-wing PiS party in the last election, and I am guessing that she pulled him into her conservative politics. After an awkward moment of silence in which I took a big sip from my glass of vodka, Renata abruptly changed the subject.  We then reverted to small talk and later we drove to another restaurant that we had visited in previous trips. Since my wife and I had already had dinner, we just enjoyed couple of drinks while they ate.

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photo by Dominik Werner

I didn’t talk about it any further during our trip, but a few days after we returned to New York I had a brief conversation with my Dorota about the issue. When I asked her about how awkward I felt that day, she replied, “My opinion is the same. I don’t like Muslims in Europe, they should be in their country with their own culture.” When I asked what she meant about that, she said, “I like Muslims and my husband does too but when they are in their own countries.”

I countered that Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, and pointed out that Turkey is a secular country with Muslim majority that happens to be part of Europe (and part of the European council since 1949), she replied that “Turkey is not really part of Europe.”

The conversation ended there, and got me thinking about the conservative nationalist wave that has pretty much taken over the conversation in both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

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photo by Dominik Werner

As I was reflecting about this whole conversation, I learned about a one night only presentation of “Intro,” a theatre/dance production by Gdansk-based Dada von Bzdülöw Theater that took place at New York’s Bohemian National Hall on October 1 as part of a larger program entitled “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival showcasing (as stated in the press release) “topical and thought-provoking Central European productions” that also showcased plays from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

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photo by Dominik Werner

The show focuses on four central characters that represents different ethnicities living in present-day Poland: one Polish-born Jew that returns to the homeland after a long period of exile, a Croatian-born immigrant who “received a transfusion of Polish blood, “a Chechen seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin and finally a Middle-Eastern woman who expresses her undying love to her adopted home. All of the characters have great conflict and this is expressed in their dance, which is backed by pre-recorded live Polish punk rock band Nagrobki.

The dance moves, which sometimes happen in total silence or with old Polish folk songs (played from cellphones placed onto microphones) depict the anguish that all these different groups live with: at one point, the Chechen (Piotr Stanek) and the Jew (group co-founder Leszek Bzdyl) mimic working out together and flexing their muscles in a duo dance in which they seem to be searching for something unattainable.

All the dance routines are inspired by different forms of dance: at one point there is a lot of modern jumping jazz-influenced movements, but during another movement the two women in the group (Katarzyna Chimielewska and Katarzyna Ustowska) do a classical ballet-inspired dance.

In between numbers, each character reveals him or herself in short speeches: The Croatian immigrant sings the beauties of Poland and spouts nationalist rhetoric; the Jew, long away from his birthplace, shows conflict about coming back home following the end of Communism. The Chechen vows to blow himself up for Poland, there is a surprise twist when one of the female dancers (Ustowska), who spent most of the play scantily dressed in a barely there top and skirt, reveals herself to be Middle Eastern while being forcibly dressed and put into a hijab. Towards the end of the piece, she reappears in a burka – in Polish flag colors.

“INTRO was created in response to the growing acceptance of extreme national, nationalist and xenophobic declarations in the Polish public debate,” said Bzdyl in an interview released by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which co-sponsored the event. “in 2015, somehow in a futuristic way, we presented a monoculture psychosis that will have to be confronted by potential immigrants trying to settle in Poland.”

“When we were creating INTRO, the refugee problem wasn’t yet so blown up by the politicians of the extreme right,” continued Bzdyl in the interview. “By introducing the characters of a Jew, a Croatian nationalist, and Arab woman and a Chechen to the show, we thought of mocking the character of the Pole. The Pole is the one who happens to feel like the messiah of Europe, a Pole gazing at his or her national navel, and reaming of the purity of the Polish blood, and of shedding that blood on the altar of national church.”

The piece – which lasted about 90 minutes – was quite moving and even comic at certain times as it exposed the tragedy of these four different characters and their struggles to assimilate and be accepted in Poland.

During a brief Q&A with the group after the show, Bzdyl mentioned the story of naturalized Cuban-born volleyball player Wilfredo Leon – one of the world’s best  – who expressed desire to play for the Polish national team in spite of resistance from nationalists who cannot accept the idea of a black man on the team.

“He had to try so hard to show that he was more in love with Poland than Poles themselves,” he commented. “It’s like if you are an immigrant you have to become even more Polish than those born in the country.”

I was briefly given the floor and told the group about the kebab story, and  Bzdyl responded that the situation is very conflicted. “Many of these nationalist protesters go on rallies and then go to kebab restaurants because they’re not only everywhere but also the food is cheap and tasty,” he said. “Later on, they go out and complain about how Polish culture is being hurt by them –it just makes no sense.”

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What to hear in July: Summerstage, BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn and Bryant Park

By Ernest Barteldes

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Esperanza Spalding – July 30 at Celebrate Brooklyn

July is one of the busiest months in the summer outdoor concert schedule here in New York, and I am one who fully enjoys this – First of all, the Latin Alternative Conference comes to town, bringing tons of Latin talent both to Celebrate Brooklyn and Summerstage (plus many other venues – it’s a music smorgasbord for sure), so things get even more interesting.  Not only that, the public pools are also open so there is a lot to do even if you want to spend the hot days in a lazier fashion.

As I did before, I am only highlighting the free shows, since the ticketed benefit concerts are either sold out or have their own publicity machine behind them – it’s not like they need the likes of me.  For detailed times and locations please refer to the hyperlinks included here.

Things kick off on July 1st in Central Park with a celebration of French and American jazz with a lineup that simply doesn’t feel enough for a single evening, including gypsy guitar virtuoso Stephane Wrembel,  upcoming jazz/pop singer Kat Edmonson and singer Catherine Russell alongside bandleader extraordinaire Vince Giordano. It should be one hell of the night which as usual I am missing because I have plans out of town.

Over at Celebrate Brooklyn Musiq Soulchild does free concert on July 7th – he is regarded as one of the best soul singers of his generation and deserves it – his delivery is fantastic and so is his performance – I expect it to be packed that night.

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Jimmy Heath

On July 8th jazz great Jimmy Heath heads to Queens with his big band – the man has played with the likes of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (to name a few) and is still here to tell the tale. Look forward to lots of bebop but also contemporary and straight-ahead jazz.

Those not willing to head all the way to Queens that night might want to check out New York’s own Mariachi Flor de Toloache and cumbia queen Totó La Momposina in Central Park. I heard the former during an LAMC concert at Celebrate Brooklyn  few years back – from what I remember it was a lively concert that paid tribute to the traditions of the music of their native Mexico but also looked ahead, using  complex vocal arrangements a few tunes in English; some songs were played with the addition of the cajón and also the ukulele, which both enhanced the songs and gave them an intriguing, innovative sound.

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Mon Laferte

The LAMC kicks off on July 12 in Central Park with Puerto Rico’s ÌFÉ, New York’s own Princess Nokia (an interesting use for the virtually defunct cellphone brand, no?) and Chile’s Mon Laferte, a self-taught powerhouse of a musician who blends electronic, rock and R&B in her own unique manner – her video for “Amarrame” (feat, Juanez) is on heavy rotation on Latin music channels (I happened to catch it while vacationing in the Dominican Republic a few weeks ago), and I really want to see how this translates in a live format

The late Fela Kuti is celebrated in music and theater for his contribution to what became the Afrobeat movement, and his legacy is being memorialized on July 16 in a concert  that brings together his son Seun Kuti and Roy Ayers, one of the elder Kuti’s many collaborators during his career and beyond – Ayers is one of the godfathers of the neo-soul movement and a highly respected artist in his own right.

I can’t remember the last time I heard Mali’s Amadou & Mariam on stage – I recall it was at Summerstage about a decade ago when I was still writing for the now-defunct Global Rhythm and New York Press. They are a married blind duo who play their own brand of African blues, and have this magical sound to them. It will be good to catch them again after all this time in Brooklyn on July 21st

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Accordion Festival 

On the same day, The Accordion Festival – closing up the Accordions Around The World program happening in Bryant Park – takes place, with tens of players over a five-hour period. Something for those who want to hang in midtown Manhattan and have a good time.

During her tragically brief career, Amy Winehouse left us a memorable canon of songs over two albums (only one released in the US market) and (as far as I know) a single guest appearance – her last recording – on Tony Bennett’s Duets II album. Her music is certainly remembered, and will be the basis for the program developed by BalletX / YY Dance Company on July 26 in Central Park.

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Andrew Bird

The month closes in Brooklyn (July 30)  with two of my favorite young musicians: multi-instrumentalist, whistler and vocalist Andrew Bird, who I discovered in a completely unusual way: on the soundtrack of the 2011 Muppets movie, Towards the end of the movie, newcomer Walter did a surprise performance of “The Whistling Caruso” – which was actually played by Bird.

The other favorite is Esperanza Spalding, the genre-bending bassist who began her career doing avant-garde jazz and then went on to make extremely diverse albums that explored a variety of sounds, going from straight-ahead jazz, soul and more recently Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord), an experiment that blends musical theater, jazz, funk and much more – something that some fans heralded and others failed to fully comprehend (me being the latter) – when she first emerged, Spalding was a breath of fresh air in the jazz world, and continues to evolve throughout the years – I can only imagine what she is going to bring to the fore this time.