Choreographing Controversy in a Catholic Stronghold
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your ears and eyes will thank you.
By Eugene S. Robinson
A couple’s relationship is disintegrating onstage. A man, a woman, postmodern anomie and their spirit familiar flitting in from the wings. A spirit familiar that’s wearing no clothes.
OK, so what? Modern dance has been getting naked for decades. If you buy a ticket to see a performance at Dixon Place, PS122 or the Kitchen in New York City, you’re probably not going to blink at whatever kind of flesh winds up on the stage in front of you. Except we’re not in the East Village — this is Szczecin, Poland. And the woman in her birthday suit is playing the Virgin Mary.
Which means that choreographer Krzysztof Lubka, 33, has not gotten the memo about Poland and Catholicism. Or he has gotten it and just chosen to ignore it in full blush of the realities of life in today’s Poland. Because when he created this piece for Grupa Tańca Współczesnego Kiosk Ruchu, the troupe he started and directs, Lubka says, he didn’t give a second thought to featuring a dancing naked mother of Christ.
In deciding to bare all in his works, Lubka is part of an arts movement in Poland that seeks not to ruffle feathers but rather to fly a flag for a certain type of freedom. And this may be 2015, but freedom in Poland has its own definitions. Take a piece of art called Tęcza, in Warsaw’s Savior Square. Far-right nationalists and Catholic groups have repeatedly set it aflame.
Must be a two-story Styrofoam pillar of the F-word, right? Try again. Tęcza is a sculpture of a rainbow made of artificial flowers. Rainbow! Flowers! Pretty? Well, the arson-inclined viewers see it more as a multidimensional inducement to engage in homosexual activity.
“To start a conversation today about patriarchal and partnership social models,” says Lubka from a home he shares in Szczecin with artist Michał Szyksznian, “and discuss the important role of religion, especially the cult of the Virgin Mary, in this way? It was necessary.” As necessary as the fact that the tall, lanky Lubka had decided to go a different way with both dance and theater in a country where it might be hard to get away with either comfortably. That is, in a country where increasingly what he’s doing is drawing more notice now than even four years earlier — and from more than just the intelligentsia and other dancers and choreographers. From, very specifically, the world you’d expect to be slightly scandalized by what he’s doing: the mainstream.
But Lubka didn’t set out to confront the cultural mores upon which his country was founded. He went to the University of Szczecin to study education. It was a sensible career choice, but it made little sense given a lifelong interest in the power of theater, specifically dance theater. Raised on Western music videos and living two hours east of Berlin, he was immersed in a wild cross section of modern, jazz, street and his own weirdness. And earlier, as a kid with parents super-supportive of his interest in the arts and the steady stream of dancers, painters, artists and outsiders that quickly became his convoy. “Dance, movement, acting, singing, stage, set and costume design and, because of the texts I am sometimes using, literature. … There is nothing I am not touching,” Lubka says. So he left school and started touching all he could.
His debut solo performance, on Sept. 11, 2011, at the Kana Theatre in Szczecin, Primitive featured him nude for most of the show and was rapidly followed by Okres (period), Gombka F, a tamer (that is, non-nude) dance group performance for kids with kids called Julian to Wiem, up to the most recent one, Fin Amor. Through them all, he has shown an interest in the practice of challenging an orthodoxy in ways both large and small. This approach has been rewarded by local acclaim and invites to spread the action to other cities and beyond the borders of Poland.
“The interesting thing, and he might admit this himself,” says now-Berlin-based dancer and former troupe member Karolina Wyrwał, “is that he is, technically speaking, not the best dancer in the world. But there’s dance, and there’s the directing of dance.” And choreographically speaking? Lubka kills.
Lubka is first and foremost a real student of dance. So seeing elements of Butoh, the expressionistic Japanese dance form, work its way into his choreography? Not strange at all. But what is strange? The crazy kind of critical response he’s gotten for work that always runs a distinct risk of getting his ass kicked in the streets by people who don’t read reviews in 24Kurier calling his Gombka F, based on Witold Gombrowicz’s great book Ferdydurke, “one of the most precious and valuable artistic propositions of 2014.”
To be sure, there’s been some small amount of blowback. Minorly in the form of backers being a little more involved in trying to understand exactly what he’s going to produce before he produces it. Majorly, though, in not-so-random street hassles when he’s recognized by elements of the public possibly on their way to show their appreciation, via Molotov, of Tęcza.
But once you’re acclimated to Lubka’s reality, the shocking — nudity and the overtly sexual mixed and matched with religious or political themes — seems much less shocking than the fact that he’s doing it where he’s doing it. Poland is steeped in religious belief befitting a place that had its urge to worship restricted by the Soviet Union for decades and tends to not have a sense of humor about religion or the church.
“Poland can be hard on people who want to enjoy the life of the mind,” says ex-pat musician Przemyslaw Krzysztof Drazek. “Precisely the kind of people who have no choice: The arts are an addiction, and maybe dance more so than others, since it’s very physical.” It’s precisely this kind of outsider status and standing that’s contributed to the fevered pace of Lubka’s production as well as its breadth. Because now it’s not only plays that he is adding dance to, not only dance pieces, but also work that has spread to music videos.
Specifically, the surprisingly and unexpectedly successful video Abo mie zabiją for Bubliczki, a group started in Brusy on Kashubia in northern Poland that plays a wild mix of Balkan, Kashubian, Gypsy, Jewish and Polish traditional music, all sung in a heavy highlander dialect. Think Polish hillbilly. And true to the tremendous fatalism woven through every single one of those cultures, the video and the song intone, “they’re going to kill me.” “We’re dealing with the same or similar themes,” Lubka laughs. “So being able to grapple with these on a stage that included lovers of music also? Very nice.”
Minus signature nudity and sacrilege?
“The compelling thing for me is not the naked body, which I use and enjoy for the clarity of line. It’s not the sacrilege,” concludes Lubka. “It’s the exercise of a complete range of expression that coheres to the dictates of our souls via our bodies.”
Mark Steger, a Los Angeles film choreographer and director of Osseus Labyrint, concurs about dance in general but Lubka specifically. “Krzysztof is the shit. By which I mean fearless, experimental and all the rest of it. But, you know, talking about dance is really sort of stupid, since I think he says all he needs to with the dance.”