Saturday, September 30, 2017

KULTURA: Polonia on Display - The XVII International Festival of Polonia Folk Ensembles

Polonia on Display
The International Festival of Polonia Folk Ensembles returns to Rzeszów
by Staś Kmieć

This article appeared in two parts in the September and October issues of The Polish American Journal print edition –
Dressed in costumes from eastern Podlasie, 
Matthew Schmit and Amy Robertson 
from Lajkonik Polish Folk Ensemble 
of Tuscon, Arizona dance at the
 open-air skansen museum in Kolbuszowa
Over 1100 participants of thirty-seven groups from the Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe attended the 17th International Festival of Polish Folk Ensembles (XVII Światowy Festiwal Polonijnych Zespołów Folklorystycznych) in Rzeszów, Poland.  Representing 14 countries and 5 continents, they were a part of one of the largest events of its kind in the world - giving them the opportunity to  learn more about the culture of their ancestral country, while forming a lasting bond with other Poles from abroad.

"The Festival gives a sense of community and leaves an unforgettable impression,” said longtime Festival Director Mariusz Grudzień.  The ensembles were selected by a "qualifying selection panel" – the staff at Oddzial Rzeszowski Stowarzyszenie Wspolnota Polska. At least 8 couples and a 45-minute program were required by video submission in costume; and you must meet the deadline.

Folklore is an important shared identity – a connection through history and culture, and a symbol of ties to one’s country of origin and its traditions.  The joint presentations allow participants to integrate and learn from each other.

I have experienced the festival – 3 times as a spectator and twice as a performer; accomplishing the daunting task of bringing my ensemble to perform in 1986. With the evolution of technology, I was once again transplanted to that place of Polonia connection and comradery through the internet transmission of the final two major concerts and through clips posted on Facebook. Vicariously, I was able to once again relive the magic of Rzeszów.

History of the Festival
The Polish Song and Dance Ensemble – Krakus from Geng-Zwartberg, Belgium, under the direction of Bronisław and Wanda Stal, came on a performance tour of Rzeszów back in 1967. From a conversation with Czesław Świątoniowski - director of the Provincial Culture Center, the idea of systematic meetings of Polish artistic ensembles in this city was given birth. 

When the first festival debuted in 1969, 13 groups performed – 12 from Europe and one from the United States – Boston’s Krakowiak Dancers.  The chief initiators were: Świątoniowski, journalist Lubomir Radłowski, and choreographer and cultural animator Roman Broż.
Participants at an early Festival

At that time under Communism, knowledge and resources regarding folk song and dance were limited, and the quality of performances varied. To enable groups to present a program with an eye to authenticity, workshop classes were given. Eventually, a training program - Studium Folklorystyczne was established – first in Tuchola, then Płock, and later it transferred to Lublin under Stanisław Leszczyński. A more recent edition - Polonijne Studium Choreograficzne was formed in Rzeszów by Alicja Haszczak.  This resource continued to bring the presentation at festivals to a higher level.  It was this validation of the knowledge they had achieved that the ensembles wanted to share with their counterparts from around the world.

The next festivals gained momentum, and their development was fueled by the desire of ensembles to showcase their successes and compare their skills. At the second Festival, ten more troupes participated, and at the next one the number increased to 27 groups. Over the years, the number has grown, and the seventh festival reached its peak with 46 groups.  At the 1989 VIII Festival, two troupes from Lithuania took part.  At the next festival, from behind the eastern border, other groups from the former Soviet Union followed.

The XVII Edition
The 17th Festival took place between July 19-26. The schedule was packed with performances, events, rehearsals, workshops and training opportunities for dancers to enhance their folk skills and knowledge.
The troupes were divided into six groups (zgrupowanie) stationed in host cities during the days prior to the festival.

Dressed in Kurpie Zielony costume. 
Agnieszka Mleczko-Ratliff of the 
Ojczyzna Polish Dancers of Baltimore, 
Maryland marches in the parade of 
Polonia Ensembles in Rzeszów 
The groups attending the Festival were:  Australia: Kujawy-Sydney, Kukułeczka-Perth;Belarus: Karolinka-Brześć, Lehici -Grodno; Brazil: Mazury-Mallet, Wisła-Kurytyba; Czech Republic:  Olza-Czeski Cieszyn, Suszanie-Sucha Górna;Canada: Lechowia-Mississauga, Polanie-Calgary, Polonez-Vancouver, Akademia Białego Orła-Montreal, Iskry-Winnipeg, Łowicz-Edmonton, Polonez-Edmonton, Polonez-Hamilton, Tatry-Windsor; Germany: Polonia-Hanower; Great Britain: Karolinka-London, Orlęta-Londyn, Polonez-Manchester; Lithuania:  Perła-Niemenczyn, Wilia-Wilno; Moldavia: Polacy Budżaka-Komrat; Russia: Korale-Krasnojarsk, Korale-St.Petersburg; Switzerland: Lasowiacy-Winterthur;Sweden: Polonez-Stockholm; Ukraine: Polanie znad Dniepru-Kiev; USA: Dolina-Minneapolis, Lajkonik -Chicago, Lajkonik-Tucson, Ojczyzna-Baltimore, Polanie-Detroit, Polonia-Chicago, Rodacy-Hamtramck, Wesoły Lud-Chicago.

The Rzeszów region and the Subcarpathian district have special ties with Polonia. Over the years, many people have migrated from southeast Poland for a better life. The most popular destination – the United States.

The event was organized by the Rzeszów branch of the Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska (Association of the Community of Poland) in co-operation with the Ministry of Culture and the National Heritage of the Republic of Poland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Marshall and Municipal Offices of Rzeszow, and the Podkarpackie Voivodeship.  Honorary Patronage of the festival was taken by President Andrzej Duda.

Dennis Klima, Choreographer of Ojczyzna-Baltimore
greets parade onlookers
The event began with a colorful corridor of the costumed dancers who paraded through the streets, and ended at the Market Square, where the opening took place.  Participants were welcomed by the city authorities with the symbolic “bread and salt,” and received symbolic keys to the city.  A welcome concert followed with the Polish-Ukrainian Dagadan band, along with guests who had traditional songs from different regions of Poland, folk songs from Ukraine and Lemko, interwoven with jazz, electronics and a song recorded in Chinese.

Through the week, the zgrupowanie performed smaller concerts in the square.  They were accompanied by the Podkarpacie Jarmark Fair, where artisans from all over the region exhibited and sold their wares.

The participants had the opportunity to visit many interesting places in the region including: the Castle Museum in Łancut, Museum of Folk Construction in Sanok, Museum of Folk Culture in Kolbuszowa, Arboretum and Department of Physiography in Bolestraszyce, and the Museum of Poles Rescuing Jews during World War II in Markowa.

The Festival concluded with two large concerts under the direction of Janusz Chojecki.  “Koncert Tanców Zamieszkania” was renamed “Folklor Narodów Świata” (Folklore of the Nations) and was intended to display national dances and choreography specific to the countries of residence.  The participants stood on the stage holding in their hands the flag of their country - the national symbol that was raised over the heads of the gathered.  The following day, each group performed a chosen folk dance at the over 3-hour Gala Concert under the theme “Karczma na Podzamczu” (The Divided Inn).

The Road to Rzeszów
It is a demanding task not only from the artistic standpoint, but also from logistic one – to bring all the costumes and props which are needed during the performances in Poland involves a lot of planning and finances.

“We decided to go with fewer longer dances, to reduce the number of costumes that we had to transport,” said Danny Pogoda, the artistic director of the Polonez Polish Canadian Folk Ensemble of Hamilton, Canada.  “As it was, we had 10 extra hockey bags of costumes, which were very expensive.”  One Australian group paid $12,000 to transport their costumes.

The longest trip was encountered by the Russian group – Korale. Its members had to travel for five days by train – over 3,728 miles to reach the festival from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. 

The largest amount of ensembles came from Canada with nine; second was the United States with eight.  Five groups were first-timers.  The veterans of the festival were Olza-Czech Republic, who took part 14 times,Wesoły Lud-Chicago: 11 and Wilia-Lithuania for the 10th time. The youngest active participant of was 16 years old and the oldest - 89 years old.

“This year was Canada’s Polonez Ensemble’s third festival,” said Pogoda.  Pogoda was a dancer in theWawel Dance Group from St, Catharines, Ontario for 25 years under the tutelage of Lena Kaczmarczyk – one of the original members of Śląsk.  “I do a lot of research for our dances through the internet and various books and videos.”

We had just finished our dinner show at U Zajca and had all went outside as they set up a bonfire so we could roast kiełbasy,” said Kathy Wachon – who accompanied the group. “Having a wooden stage there, the dancers decided they wanted to perform their Sądecki suite for fun. This was such a great group to go with; they genuinely have fun together.”

Back for their second festival was the Lajkonik Polish Folk Ensemble of Tuscon, Arizona. Far from the big Polish communities North and East, Lajkonik presents Polish culture in quite a remote area of the United States, attracting a membership consisting primarily of non-Polish friends.  

They presented Dances from Podlasie and a Fosse Broadway tribute at the smaller concerts.  At the final concerts they displayed a Suite of Rzeszów Dances choreographed by Artistic Director Matthew Schmit (based on the teaching of specialist Edward Hoffman) and Bronco de Sonora, a Mexican Suite from the Sonora Desert bordering with their state.

‪”The Festival is a life changing experience, especially when it comes to the love of Polish culture,” said founder and director Joanna Schmit.  “Seeing such a broad variety of dances and costumes presented by so many other professional level groups from all over the world makes young people truly realize the beauty of Polish culture and turns their liking into loving Polish dance.  This festival is a fuel for new true ambassadors of Polish culture abroad.”

Matthew and his assistant Amy got engaged in Poland.  He proposed in the Kościół Mariacki Tower in Kraków, just before the Festival.

Wesoły Lud – Chicago
Wesoły Lud Polish Folk Dance Company of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2017 with a Gala Concert in April and continued its celebration in Rzeszów.

They presented an Opoczno suite, originally choreographed by Sławomir Mazurkiewicz, and adapted by Artistic Director and Choreographer Richard Jaminski, who also choreographed the fun-filled "Fiddlemania” – A Polish American Chicago Polka.  The Founder, Manager and Honorary Artistic Director/Choreographer - Micheline Jaminski is a product of Alliance College and its folk group – Kujawiaki; she is currently Vice President of PRCUA.  Richard was a dancer with the Bandoska Ensemble of Rzeszów and had been sent by his director Bożena Niżańska to be the choreographer of Rzeszowiacy in Chicago in 1985.

“The Rzeszow Festival is the Olympics of Polish Folk Dance Culture,” said Micheline Jaminski.  “It is an honor to qualify, a privilege to participate, and an amazing experience for the participants, as well as the audience.”
Wesoły Lud attends Sunday Mass at Rzeszów Cathedral.
Ojczyzna Polish Dancers of Baltimore, Maryland attended the festival for the first time.  At the final concerts they performed a Texas Two Step to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Passionate Kisses,” and Dances from Sącz. Choreographer Dennis Klima, a graduate of the Studium Folklorystyczne in Lublin wanted to make sure the presentation was polished and authentic – down to how te women tied their kerchiefs.  He wanted to honor his instructor in this region – Michalina Wojtas, who he knew would be in attendance.

‪”The Festival was lots of fun, but also long hours of practice. The majority of our group had never experienced anything like it, therefore they weren't sure what to expect,” said Malgorzata Bondyra, Ojczyzna’s Managing Director. “For some, the hardest were “noisy” nights, while others rather enjoyed that. Dozens of dancers from around the world gathered each night in front of our residence to listen to the Olza kapela folk band play mountain style tunes. Very often, their music didn't end until 4 or5 am!”

‪The Dolina Polish Folk Dancers of Minnesota has attended the Festival 9 times and presented a Kurpie Suite choreographed by Director Edward Rajtar – also a Lublin Course graduate, and an Appalachian Mountain Suite.  Choreographed by Donald La Course and utilizing Clogging technique, the suite was most authentic depiction of American folk dance to be presented.

“As always, it was a great experience meeting new people, re-connecting with old friends, choreographers and instructors” said Rajtar.  “It’s a justification for the years of doing this, and rekindles the passion to continue.”  
Jarek Luiken from the Dolina Polish Folk Dancers of Minnesota jumps in a heel-click in the American Appalachian Suite
The Tale of Two Lemkos 
Łemkowie are an ethnic sub-group inhabiting a stretch of the Carpathian Mountains known as Lemkivshchyna, but are also situated throughout Poland, due to relocation after WWII.  Lemkivshchyna became part of Poland in medieval Piast times. Lemkos became an ethnic minority as part of the Austria province of the Polish partition of Galicia in 1772.

As in history, the Lemko path is varied.  Two ensembles paid tribute to this unique culture.  Wisła from Kurytyba, Brazil showed a slick, polished, styled and stylized Ukrainian-esque dance – borrowing more from Russia’s overly imagined Moiseyev Dance Company than traditional dance. It was brilliantly entertaining.

The Karolinka Polish Folk Song and Dance Company of London translated the Lemko culture into an artistically prepared stage presentation.  It rang true and was an honest representation of the Lemko people.
Romek Kutereba and Alex Leckie
of London's Karolinka Polish Folk 
Song and Dance Company 

“Every few years Karolinka takes on a new project. We choose a lesser known region and start to prepare a new suite to present especially at the Festival,” said Artistic Director Jola Kutereba.  “We made use of the knowledge of Lemko ethnographer Jerzy Starzyński – who we invited to London to teach Karolinka.”

They picked the Nowy Sącz area of Lemko to concentrate on, and Starzyński helped them research the costumes to be specific to that locale. Aneta Ormanczyk, one of the ensemble’s upcoming instructors took the task of assembling the information and transferring it into choreography.

Jola continues the legacy of the ensemble’s founder, her mother – Pani Maura; she is a graduate of Studium Folklorystyczne and continues at other training courses in Poland. “It is really important for Karolinka to be authentic in its presentation of regional and national Polskie tańce,” she said.  “The social history of dance plays just as important a role as the technical and folk aspect in the recreation of dances.”

* due to space limitations the commentary did not appear in the print edition
As I was not able to view the smaller concerts of the zgrupowanie, any opinion and conclusions can be drawn only based on the final concerts.  Watching the festival from an internet perspective, I was struck by the old saying: “one step forward; two steps back.”  The mode was less on traditional and focused on entertainment at the cost of authenticity.

The level of technical prowess in lighting, sound and set staging, as well as the dancer’s technique far exceeds the kaleidoscopic folk marathons of the past, but in many cases the substance and content was uneven and greatly lacking. There was the great, the good and the very questionable.

I understand the international politics involved regarding former territories of Poland and transplanted Poles from the war.  The eastern groups, in particular, showed their dances, rather than Polish repertoire or were stylized beyond recognition. The emphasis was heavy on Ukrainian and Lithuanian themes. 

In addition to multiple repetitions of the same kujawiak – “Już nie będziesz moja” to accommodate all the dance groups, there was the segue-way “earworm” music of the Lemko tune “Тече вода коломутна” (Tecze woda kałamutna), that was continuously repeated as a transition throughout the program and between each zgupowanie break. This broke the flow of the program.

The two pseudo-Góralskie mountain dances – full of showmanship and tricks had no base in Podhalańskie folklore.  One actually used recorded Disco Polo – Góral pop tunes as its accompaniment. There was a lovely choreographic novelty – a beautifully costumed walc with no base in authentic Polish folk culture, except that it was danced to Mazowsze and Śląsk songs.  Another group mimicked a near-perfect replica of a dance confection from Śląsk’s repertoire – Chustkowy.

At the earlier festivals, they might not have known the difference – information was limited, but now with all the training courses and material available, there are no excuses.

In the Dances of the World concert, other than the endless display of plaid shirts, denim, cowboy boots and hats, many groups were performing dances with no connection to their country.

Noted instructors in Poland have questioned the material of some of the presentations and wonder why no one wants to listen to constructive criticism? Does the new generation not care about authenticity and accuracy, only their own artistic interpretation?  In this “Dancing with the Stars” era of flash, I hope this trend will be dealt with in the future.

I am certain the organizers are pleased that there are still large numbers of groups willing to travel and participate, and that young people are still interested in being Polish and proud of their heritage.

Those groups that stayed the course – shined and maintained a top standing. 

Golden Jubilee
2017 marks 48 years since the first festival and in order to celebrate its golden 50th jubilee, there is talk to move up the triennial festival to 2019 – just for this occasion.

The festival has attracted a particularly older generation of emigrants, according to which the event has become an element that motivates Polish youth to take over national and folk traditions. Besides religion, it is one of the few factors that unites Poles on foreign soil.

The Festival has raised the need for organizing folk festivals in North America. It was in Rzeszów that in 1974 the idea of organizing Polish festivals in the United States of America was born.  In July 1983, during the next festival, the Polish Folk Dance Association of the Americas (PFDAA) was founded.  Polonia festivals in England, France, Canada, Lithuania, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine have also had similar inspirations.

Danny Pogoda summarized:  "After attending the Festival and seeing over 1100 dancers performing together, it is easy to appreciate the words to the contemporary song " Bo wszyscy Polacy, to jedna rodzina" (because all Poles are one family).