Poland's Mazowsze is a grand dame among international folk dance troupes, almost 45 years old. As nearly as I can remember, the company sprang to life full-blown in all its glory, performing with great elan and freshness back in the '50s when I first saw Mazowsze.
The bodies are different now, though the beautiful young people still exemplify the finest of their nation. But the spirit is the same, the dancing even more varied, more confident and agile, and the costumes more dazzling than ever.Indeed, when watching this troupe it is hard not to get sidetracked into the magnificence and sheer numbers of these costumes, with 10 to a dozen changes for each dancer. Not that I would want the costumes scaled back. They are works of such intricacy, such authenticity and theatricality that they are treasures.
Adorned with rich embroidery, brocades, laces, jewelry and buttons, ribbons, and quaint headdresses; capes, elegant long coats and military uniforms on the men, these costumes evoke the Poland of Chopin, a blend of the French and Russian, evident in the underlying lustiness of these dances, overlaid with tasteful refinement.
Perhaps the greatest program moments were the finales of the two program halves, when 60 or 70 dancers flashed about the stage creating a kaleidoscope of movement and color. Especially exciting was the suite from Lowicz, with its comical waltz, spirited mazurka and glorious galop finale.
In the Tance Goralskie from the Tatra Mountains, the men came into their own with breathtaking feats of strength and virtuosity, and an amazing workout with long sticks, which they manipulated, jumped and swung recklessly. Almost as exciting was the set from Podegrodzie in Subcarpathia, with masculine braggadocio interrupted by feminine wiles.
As in most folk dance, the women were limited to mostly demure movement, though with many opportunities for speed and lightness.
The program flowed with theatrical precision and frequent injection of humor through a prodigality of styles and rhythms: the old Chodzony - a circle dance, forerunner of the Polonaise; the 17th-century Oberek, a high-spirited country dance; mazurkas, game dances, polkas, story dances, and the wild, abandoned Krakowiak. A highlight was the Polonaise, Poland's national dance, with dancers in sheer trailing gowns and dashing military uniforms. And from Lubuskie came a picturesque, romantic garland dance.
A large pit orchestra of authentic folk instruments accompanied the dancers, who sang their own songs - necessarily prerecorded, since their often violent activity would have made live performance very uneven.
Not only is Mazowsze a fine artistic unit; it is a national treasure in a country that is now caught up in the historic political flux of eastern Europe. Like its neighbors, Poland is a hot spot of freedom asserting itself, of old ways giving way to new, and much of great cultural value is often cast aside in such transitions.
But in Mira Ziminska, her dancers, choreographers, musicians and costumers, Poland has the repository of a great repertory and tradition, lovingly sought out and preserved, and exported to the world, to show a Poland of grace, dignity and great artistic merit.