writers on dancing


Bulletin from Bytom

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

Bytom is the mining town that gave its Polish name to bituminous coal. For many years it was a prosperous if sooty place for both Poland and Germany, which owned the area for a while and called the town Beuten. Sturdy, handsome structures of dark red brick were built for industry and administration in the 19th Century. Apartment houses, also brick but covered in plaster and painted in pastel tints, strove for neoclassic airs or genteel comfort. Later, the fantasy of art nouveau facades began to replace the more sedate styles of dwellings. Bytom was never as pretty as Krakow, the pride of southern Poland, but it had no reason to be ashamed.

All except a couple of the coal mines are closed now, so times are hard. Buildings throughout the town have become dilapidated, streets show potholes, lawns look unkempt or trodden down. Bytom in 2005 is almost like a movie set for a noir tale about industrial decay. Yet for two weeks each summer it turns into a magnet. Dance draws audiences, students and faculty from the rest of Poland and countries around the world. This was the 12th year for Bytom's International Contemporary Dance Conference and Performance Festival which is hosted by Jacek Luminski's Silesian Dance Theater. I was there for the length of it, from June 26 through July 9, 2005 but attended only a portion of the many offerings. Simultaneous sessions and sensual overload made it impossible to partake of everything.

Hub of the conference and festival was Bytom's Culture Center which houses the Silesian Dance Theatre's offices and studio. This was, once upon a time, a Franz Josefian (= Victorian) hunt club building which the Communists altered into something gray and grim on the outside. Inside it is functional and contains a proscenium theater of medium size and a cafe-restaurant that becomes a jazz club at night. The number of daily dance performances during the festival were as many as three. Usually they took place in the late afternoon, evening, or at night. Discussion sessions followed some performances. The main stage was the Culture Center's theater, but other performance sites included an abandoned railroad car barn, a coal mine and the now vacant turbine hall of a power plant.

The majority of classes were technique sessions; they were held in studios around town, including the big one at the Culture Center. Their diversity was daunting: Jose Limon modern, Paul Taylor modern, the Feldenkrais method, yoga, gyrokinesis, physical dance, street dance, American ballet, hiphop, African dance, Soviet ballet, voice & movement, neo-hoodoo, salsa, British ballet, Japanese contemporary, and several current European styles including Luminski's special coaching. Other classes were on dance composition. There were, too, sessions on dance history, dance criticism and dance research; on writing for the internet, print and radio; on arts management; on community outreach; and on dance photography. About 500 students were enrolled this summer and they had more than 50 instructors. No estimate was available of the size of the casual audience, the people coming to see performances who were not students, instructors or otherwise involved with the festival. Their presence, however, was noticeable, particularly on the weekends. The count of performances during the two weeks was 27, and the number of companies appearing was circa 30. Some were professional groups, others amateur and student. Probably the best known names were Austria's Tanz*Hotel, the USA's Doug Varone & Dancers and our host, the Silesian Dance Theater. I saw 15 of the performances and my three favorite pieces turned out to be by choreographers whose work I'd not known before.

"23:59:59" opened the Joe Alter Dance Group's performance in the vast, dim, vacant turbine hall of Bytom's power plant. Alter's group is from America and he choreographed this long duo with input from the dancers, Blake Beckham and Scott Lowe. The music, by Polish composer Aleksander Kosciow, was performed live by pianist Matgoryaia Lielinska-Kosciow, and cellists Michal Zielinski and Dojciech Putkiewicz. The dancers portray a young, complex couple. The pair is sensual, but also thoughtful. His and her desires do not always coincide yet, as we watched, they learned to love each other. Lowe, as the young man, had animal intensity. Part of him was Williams's Stanley Kowalski but another part, a mind as innocently subtle as that of a J.D. Salinger hero, kept Stanley under control. Beckham's young woman was more difficult to characterize. She is shy, but not timid. Perhaps this was a Stella Kowalski reborn with Mary McCarthy sensibilities. The couple's dialogue of touching, holding, withdrawing, approaching with spontaneity, approaching with tension, relaxing with several reservations or relaxing with few, showed how they felt about each other, moment by moment, and simultaneously how they felt about themselves. Ultimately they achieved a balance, a dynamic of body and mind both could accept.

Kosciow's music, pungently plucked and struck at times yet sparse because of intervening silences, partook in the interaction of feeling and thought that characterized the protagonists. The rest of the program (an Alter solo for Lauren Bisio to Fritz Kreisler music, a trio suite also by Alter for himself, Beckham and Bisio to an Edgar Meyer score, plus a Beckham solo for herself to a Robert Cheatham text) was worth looking at. Yet none of these 3 other dances seemed as finished as the duo. Alter, who studied at Ohio State University, has shown his work in New York and Europe, and is about to join the faculty of California's San Diego State University.

Another favorite of mine was Reggie Wilson's solo, "Introduction", shown on the main stage. Wilson walked out of the wings and addressed the audience as casually as if he were back home in America giving a class. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he established rhythmic constructs. There was a singsong rhythm to his speech that grew into full banter, something snappy for his fingers that became musical, and he shifted his feet so that soon they were drumming. Wilson introduced himself and talked about his interest in his forbearers, African and American. We listened to his story and learned some history. His words were those of a teacher, but his voice and dancing body entertained us as only an artist can.

A very different work, because it was so formal, was Kim Sunmi's "Dark Side of the Moon", presented on the main stage by South Korea's Changmu Dance Company. Only one dancer, the choreographer, appeared but she wasn't alone. She faced an on-stage musician, Kim Jaechuel, who sat with his back to us, somewhat at an angle. He was so upright in his chair that he seems to be an official interrogating the dancer and transcribing her replies with his string instrument. She was costumed in a style that harkened back to old Korea's ceremonial and ritual garb. Her minimal movements were mostly for the arms and hands. She inclined or straightened her torso and carried her head at angles that contrasted or conformed with the axis of her body. Her steps, when taken, were small. All motion, though, was as precise as the still positions she took. Was she confessing to the musician-official, telling him about her life and her character? Reading the program afterwards, I learned that this dance's intent was to make movement portraits of wood, water, fire, metal and soil, the five elements of Korean tradition. Are these elements not the components of our world's persona? The world confessed its nature.

As one of the festival's dance history instructors, I had the opportunity to interact with students. Many of them, particularly those from Eastern Europe, both the ones that want to dance and those that want to research dance, are of a philosophic bent. That showed in the reviews they wrote for the festival's daily paper. They seemed more interested in determining the problems that a work of choreography tried to solve than in describing the motion tools used in the solution. By temperament, these students were often open to learning and discussion. They seemed optimists. That doesn't bode badly for the future.

Volume 3, No. 27
July 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on July 4, 2005