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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Music Review: Ania Dąbrowska’s Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli

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by Ernest Barteldes

 

As I have written in earlier posts, I stumbled into the music of Polish pop singer Ania Dąbrowska quite by accident – I was looking into something I can’t even remember and her name sort of popped up. I got curious and found out she is from Chełm, , the southern Polish city my wife also comes from.

During our recent visit to my wife’s homeland, we visited several stores looking for music to bring back home (sure, I could have used iTunes for some titles but prices for regular CDs are much better there), so during a stop at the local Empik  I picked up a few of Dabrowska’s first few releases and proceeded to check them out. I was impressed with how she seems to want to surprise listeners from time to time with interesting arrangements that include bass solos (she does play the instrument, but the liners don’t give us much information on that matter),  flutes and other instruments that you don’t often come across in pop albums.

After we came back home I purchased the MP3 version of her sixth release, Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli, and gave it a few spins.  Though I haven’t heard all of her albums yet, I can say this is arguably her best album yet. She has veered a bit from the retro feel of earlier efforts and embraced a more contemporary direction – that can be felt immediately on the opening track, “Nieprawda,” a keyboard-led reggae with a catchy hook that gets you moving from the start, and also on “Gdy Nic Nie Muszę,” a jazz-inflected tune led by brush drums, keyboards and woodwinds.

Other notable tracks include “Bez Chiebe,” an R&B-inspired ballad with multi-layered vocals and a nice guitar-centered arrangement and “I’m Trying to Fight It,” the sole English-language track on the disc, whose lyrics speak about the hardships of moving on after the end of a breakup. The piano-based title track has poignant vocals, and “Nie Patrzę” sounds like something that could be played in American Top 40 radio – but good.

The lead single on the album is the power ballad “W Głowie” – its accompanying video plays as  a short action movie in which she escapes a couple of assassins inside what seems to be a shopping mall parking lot with the help of a mysterious black man – most of her videos play like that, telling the story in an almost cinematic manner.

Dąbrowska is a singer worth checking out. She has clearly evolved since her early Polish Idol days (I read somewhere that she has appeared on her country’s version of The Voice as a judge, but I didn’t have a chance to see an episode while I was there). Her music is smart and quite engaging – even if like me, you don’t have a clue what she is singing about.

Book Review: A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Milosewski

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

A naked woman is found murdered outside a former synagogue in the provincial town of Sandormierz, in Southeastern Poland. It is a weird crime scene, since not only is she exsanguinated, but the murder weapon – a shehita (used in Kosher slaughters) – is found next to the body.

Called to the crime scene is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who just transferred to the area following the events from Entanglement. His marriage ended following his involvement with Monika Grzelka, an attractive but inquisitive journalist he met during the first novel. That affair came to an end in a way the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care to address – he takes no more than a few lines to say it ran its course and then Szacki was on his way out of town, trading high-profile crimes to small-town cases he feels are below his expertise, such as stolen cellphones or drunken brawls created by white supremacists fueled by the recent events in Europe.

This monotony of sorts comes to an end as he is assigned to the strange murder that brings together Sandomierz’s reputation of anti-Semitism during and after World War II:  St. Paul’s Church – the largest in town –  has frescoes depicting blood libel  committed by Jews against local Catholics. One of the worst – which can be seen by anyone who visits the city – depicts Jews purchasing young children and then ritually murdering them and finally offering the remains to rabid dogs.

The frescoes intrigue Szacki – who is not in any way an anti-Semite – and since he is an outsider, he is both the best and the worst person to investigate this crime: since he is new in town, he is not exactly trusted by locals who have been there all their lives, but he is also not one to be biased by old friendships – the other local prosecutor, Basia Sobieraj, was a longtime friend of the victim and is clearly way too involved with the city’s life to properly investigate the case.

As I have written previously, criminal investigations in Poland are conducted in a completely different manner than they are in the US. In this country, the judiciary only gets involved once the police end their investigation and ultimately turn it over to the judiciary. In that country, they get involved right at the crime scene, and fully participate in the proceedings until a verdict is rendered – so Szacki gets to see the crime scene and works together with the police almost to the very last page.

Like in the previous tome, we get to see a lot of the prosecutor’s private life. Though remorseful for ruining his marriage back in the capital, he doesn’t mind fucking any woman that makes herself available – even if that might jeopardize his professional position in this tight-knit community.

It is not an easy investigation as the prosecutor might have thought would be – within the first 50 pages it seems like it is going to be open-and-shut, but twists come along that complicate things.

The author has a very sarcastic tone about his fellow Poles – through Szacki he is very critical of the nation’s pessimism (“Maybe the Law and Order Party will win the next election,” the prosecutor snaps at a conservative co-worker after an uncomfortable exchange – how right was he in hindsight?) and Catholic values, but he does so in a satirical – and not disrespectful way.

A Grain of Truth was – like its predecessor – adapted into a movie, but this time Szacki is played by a male. I have seen the trailer but sadly not the film, since (again) it has not been released Stateside in spite of the success of the novels here.  For those who enjoy an intelligently written potboiler, this is the book for you for sure – and a sequel is on the way.

A Grain of Truth

Zygmunt Milozewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Bitter Lemon Press

Available in various formats

An Afternoon at the 11th Edition of The Polish Film Festival

11th Polish Film Festival

Anthology Archives

May 2, 2015

By Ernest Barteldes

I am an occasional fan of Polish movies, and have been way before I even met Renata (most assume my interest is because of our relationship, but the fact is that I had been exposed to the music and cinema of Poland years before I met her), but for some reason I had never attended any of the 10 previous editions of the NY Polish Film Festival – something I remedied this year.

When I heard about the event , I invited a number of friends to go, but few responded. I looked up the schedule and found one by Jerzy Stuhr, a director whose career I have erratically followed  since I saw his Love Stories (Historie miłosne, 1997), a clever film that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing four different characters who are given a life choice – and the consequences that come with those decisions.

I went alone on Saturday afternoon (Renata had another commitment at that time) to catch Stuhr’s latest film, “Citizen”(Obywatel), a satire about a man who grew up within the confines of the Polish communist government and then has a hard time adapting to the new reality, losing break after break until one unexpected turn comes around.

We see the story mostly through flashbacks – Sturh’s character has a debilitating accident early in the film and then we see his life all the way from his days as a young man (played by his son, Maciej) all the way to present time – and his current predicament.

I feel that Stuhr has a very similar style to that of Woody Allen – he takes current events in his country and builds highly personal stories. For instance, Sex Mission borrowed from Allen’s “The Sleeper” and then expands to something way deeper.

After a brief break that included Zwiec beer and some snacks, Renata and our friend David joined me for the next film, “Gods,” a story based on the true story of Zbigniew Religa (Tomasz Kot) the doctor who performed the first successful heart transplant in Poland.

The story follows Zeliga’s battle not only with authorities but also the frame of mind of the time – that the heart might be somehow a sentient organ, and that a transplant would at least be likened to stealing someone’s soul.

“Gods” was superbly acted and made, reflecting with accuracy the time but also the politics behind medical advancement in Poland during communism. No wonder the film was awarded Best Film at the end of the festival. In addition, Kot was deservedly  awarded best actor for his amazing performance.