If you need a break from the pressures of the holiday season, Mazowsze, the energetic folklore ensemble from Poland, may be the answer. Mazowsze’s song and dance programs draw from the 43 regions of Poland. The troupe, which has performed in 50 countries, gives two performances at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Sunday, December 12.
In less than a month the group gives 26 performances to North American audiences in 20 different cities in the United States and Canada. New Brunswick is the last stop on Mazowsze’s 12th tour in America. A total of 90 people, including technical personnel, are part of the North American tour.
Within a program devoted overwhelmingly to folk traditions, Mazowsze honors Frederick Chopin, the Polish romantic composer whose name is a household word. The year 2010 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the composer, who sometimes found sources for his pieces in the Polish folk tradition.
A newly choreographed piece in the Mazowszze show is dedicated to Chopin’s memory. His “Rondo a la Krakowiak,” a piece for piano and orchestra, furnishes the music for this segment. The 1828 composition comes from the period when the young Chopin was studying with Jozef Elsner, just before leaving for France. It was the only period when the composer wrote for piano and orchestra.
The members of Mazowse (pronounced “Ma-ZUV-shuh”) must be able to sing as well as dance. “They are dancers who sing, and singers who dance,” says artistic director Richard Grabkowski in a telephone interview. Their music is supplied by a 20-member chamber orchestra, consisting of strings, winds, and tympani that travels with them. Conductor Boguslaw Kregielewski is the music director of the company. Born in 1957, he graduated from the University of Warsaw, studied conducting at Warsaw’s Academy of Music, and has worked with the National Opera in Warsaw.
In a telephone interview, Krzysztof Kurlej, producer for the show, shares the secrets of touring with a large company by bus and truck. When I tell him I presume the truck is to carry the instruments,” he says yes, but there’s something else in the truck. “The main thing in our luggage is the costumes. They weigh about 4,000 kilos.” That’s almost 9,000 pounds. There are about 1,000 costumes, and most performers change seven to nine times during the course of the show.
Pieces for the North American tour come from 12 regions in Poland. Following its custom, each performance also includes an unannounced piece that originates in the country being visited.
Members of the company come from all parts of Poland, Grabowski says. In addition some are from Ukraine, some are from Belarus, and two are from Brazil. The average age is 22 or 23. Mazowsze performers must pass a double audition. Try-outs for singers take place in February; dancers are selected in June, when the ballet school year finishes. A team of jurors selects the group; it includes artistic director Grabowski; choreographer Witold Zapala, 75, who danced with Mazowsze for 53 years; and others.
The repertoire of the group draws on the five national dances of Poland. “Generally,” says Grabkowski, “Polish music and dance is optimistic. Folk dance and folk music come together as a kind of playing.”
Here’s how the Mazowsze website describes the group of five dances. The krakowiak, “happy and proud”; the kujawiak, “sentimental and flirty”; the mazur, “lively and elegant;” the oberek, “vivacious and swaggering”; and the polonez, “dignified and proud.”
The name “oberek” comes from a Polish term meaning “to spin.” Lifts and jumps characterize the dance. The krakowiak and the kujawiak are couples dances.
Looking for links to Chopin, who wrote 58 mazurkas for piano, and several polonaises that I assume were dance-based, I ask Grabowski where they fit into the picture of Polish dance. “There is no such dance as a mazurka,” he reveals. “It was a special product by Chopin, derived from the Polish dance called the ‘mazur.’” The polonaise has a similar story.
The costumes are integral to the show. Some already existing vintage outfits have been purchased. Others are newly made of authentic natural fibers by handicraft masters. They may be hand-embroidered or hand appliqued. They may be trimmed with beads or sequins. A woman’s costume for one of the dances from the Lowicz region west and south of Warsaw weighs more than 30 pounds, but Mazowse dancers know how to make it swirl.
Mazowsze was founded in 1948 by two people dedicated to preserving Polish folklore, dance, costume, and song: composer/folklorist Tadeusz Sygietynsky and film/cabaret actress Mira Ziminska. As a result of their persuasiveness, the Polish Ministry of Culture underwrote the group and turned over to it Karolin, an estate of about 25 acres with a large house that survived the war.
The performing group named itself after Poland’s largest and most populous region, Mazowsze, the region containing the national capital, Warsaw. At Karolin the ensemble developed stylized stage-worthy versions of folk song and dance.
William Littler of the Toronto Star once traveled 40 minutes by train from Warsaw to Karolin and met with production chief Kurlej, who told him about the beginnings of the ensemble. “Our first performance was in Warsaw in 1950,” Kurlej told Littler, “and from that moment the company began to change from an amateur to a professional ensemble.”
The following year, a troupe of about 80, with an average age of 16, traveled to Moscow for its first performances abroad. “Those were the Communist years, and performers realized that joining Mazowsze was the only way they were going to be able to travel abroad,” Kurlej told Littler.
Since then it has appeared on six continents. The first visit to North America was in 1961.
Meanwhile, the facilities and activities at Karolin have expanded to turn the estate into a center for folk culture, education, performance, and conferences. The interests pursued range from dance and song to handicrafts and cooking. A new theater opened in 2009.
In 1955, seven years after Mazowsze started, a second professional Polish folklore group, Slask, was founded. Slask differs from Mazowsze in being based further south in Poland. (Its name is the Polish word for the Silesia region in southern Poland.) Slask, says Grabowski, uses choral music more than Mazowsze does.
“Last year we started cooperation with them,” he says. “We invited them to perform at Karolin. They were surprised and happy. Our idea is to show that we do not compete. We both do the same thing; we present Polish culture. Some members of Mazowsze came from Slask. In fact, there’s even a mixed-marriage couple. The wife is in Slask and the husband belongs to Mazowsze.”
Using this couple as an example, Grabowski would like to close the gap between Polish-Americans and Americans with other backgrounds. An unquestioned advocate of promoting Polish culture, he says, “Eighty percent of the population in the places we’re playing in North America is not Polish. We would like people who are not Polish to turn up in our audiences and enjoy our traditions.”
Mazowsze, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, December 12, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Warsaw Christmas featuring Polish carols and dances. $32 to $57. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.