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Unlikely Pair Brings Jewish Dance to Poland

Every night for two weeks this summer, thousands of eager Poles almost stormed the doors of the Silesian Dance Theatre, home of the 10th summer dance festival in the small town of Bytom, stepsister to the old steel-milling town of Katowice. There, they were treated to an unlikely alliance between Polish festival director Jacek Luminsky and Israeli-born New Yorker Zvi Gotheiner.

Luminsky — a non-Jewish choreographer and director of his own company, the Silesian Dance Center — began in the ballet world of Communist Poland in a government-sponsored dance job. He soon grew restless and began looking elsewhere, landing an unlikely dance position in the Yiddish theater in Warsaw. Smitten by the Jewish survivors of the Nazi period he met in the company, he became more and more fascinated by Jewish culture, and in the early 1980s, he began to travel the length and breadth of Poland searching for survivors who could show him traditional dance movements and talk about how dance fit into Jewish life. The field tapes he recorded of klezmorim dance figures and simple folk may one day be judged invaluable to the history of Jewish dance.

Luminsky continues his peripatetic quest for dance. Every winter, he travels to Israel to stay current with its vibrant dance scene (this year’s festival in Bytom, from June 22 through July 5, included Israeli actress/dancer Gaby Aldor and dancer Yossi Berg). He also travels to New York, where he first met Gotheiner, who brought his well-received ZviDance to Bytom.

The festival audiences are homogeneous young Poles accustomed to watching energetic yet homogeneous Poles performing. But ZviDance is a company of stunning dancers all races, and the variety is striking — not just in race, but also in size and age differences.

Contrary to the fashion of violence and cynicism offered by the other performances (including Vandekeybus’s Belgian company Ultima Vez, the Danish Granjoj Dans and the Lithuanian Aura Dance Company). Gotheiner revealed something different in his two pieces, “GDP (Gross Domestic Product)” and “Clearing” — a concern for the consequences of our divorce from nature, while relishing of all of humanity.

“GDP (Gross Domestic Product)” begins with a twist — what moves is not a dancer but a wind-up toy dog dancing to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” leaving the audience surprised and delighted. But an ominous mood overtakes the lightheartedness, as Gotheiner searches for an antidote to artificiality, a manufactured life of plastic rooms with fake plants, fake fish and people clad in flashy clothing signaling facades. Wind-up frogs overtake the stage like some mad plague gone awry from Passover.

“Clearing” opens with a picnic askew in the woods: flashlights piercing the dark stage and theater, anxious voices yelling, searching for each other. People are too preoccupied with their problems to notice nature, and in the end, the forest intrudes, leaving one solitary child left to whimper for her mother. Are we this child, lost from what we could find in nature, or are we haunted by our own ugly nature?

In a post-performance discussion with the audience, Gotheiner said while there are no forests near the kibbutz of his youth, his mother’s tales of ghoulish forests in her native Poland fascinated him. She had left the country in the early 1930s to join a secular kibbutz, in defiance of her rabbi father.

Gotheiner accidentally encountered choreography on Kibbutz Messilot, where his real interest was the violin. But he also participated in an Israeli folk dance group and just before a competition, the director had to step down and Gotheiner made some choreography changes. He was amazed when the group won first prize. He went on to study with master choreographer Gertrud Kraus in Tel Aviv and dance with the Batsheva Dance Company before moving to New York. He founded his company in 1989.

“Homogeneity can’t just change by snapping your fingers,” Luminsky said, “but I’m not afraid of the future. By introducing intelligent, creative people with different viewpoints, like Zvi’s, in Bytom, we’ll always be able to grow.”

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