Maciej Kuźmiński’s dance imagery reminds us of the palpability and immediacy of war: a total experience that pervades time, the space around us, our bodies and minds.
It all started on February 24, when sirens sounded in Kyiv. No one who heard the drawn-out signals will ever forget it. Nor will they forget the sudden lump in their throats and the chills running down their backs. And the long silence that fell afterwards.
Six months later, the premiere of Every Minute Motherland is in progress in Łódź. The stage at the Academy of Music falls silent. The warm lighting brings out the copper, ochre and earthy shades that dominate the decor of the auditorium and the costumes of the dancers standing at the sides of the stage. The scene is quiet, still. There is a sense of eerie, tense anticipation in the air, much like six months prior, when everything fell silent, in dread of what was to come. A standstill and stillness so paralyzing that it is palpable even in the audience seats. Finally, a group of dancers enters the stage, and their bold moves contrast with the calm melody and piano sounds, as if nostalgia blended with fierce emotions. The sudden jolts of arms—upward and sideways—and the rapid and vigorous transitions from one side of the stage to the other resemble helpless flailing, an attempt to get out of a no-win situation, followed by a momentary collapse, breakdown, and powerlessness. Much like humans dogged by tragedy, trying time and again to rise up and collect themselves to get through another day, the dancers fall and stand up one by one, carrying on with their dance despite each attempt requiring more and more time to recover and more energy to get back on their feet. How many more times can they take? How much more can they endure? Panting. As the music subsides, all one can hear is the rapid breathing of the dancers.
Among the performing artists are four Ukrainian dancers, Anastasia Ivanova, Daria Koval, Anna Mysloslavska, and Vitaliia Vaskiv. Along with their Polish counterparts, they dance their story and their memory of the war that has unfolded before our eyes and been covered daily by the media. The memory of what we have seen in photographs and newsflashes mixes with personal experiences. We, the bystanders. Do we look as somber as the dancing duos? One of the dancers moves almost lying down, in close contact with the floor. Her moves are abrupt, as if unfinished, and break off unexpectedly. They are reminiscent of convulsions, manifestations of despair, nervous breakdown, even madness. She is watched from a short yet safe distance by her stage partner. Is the later indifferent to the former’s fate? Is she just a passive bystander? Or is she on the other side of the barricade? Does she suffer when she sees her partner’s suffering, or does it bring her heartless satisfaction?
Collective scenes recur throughout the piece. The dancers are strong and determined. Their steps are rhythmic, spirited, as if they were meant to help the dancers stomp their way to freedom. Their arms are raised high, sometimes in a gesture of protest against evil, on other occasions signifying resignation, submission or suffering, e.g. when spread out to the sides in the image of the Crucified Christ. Sometimes the dancers’ bodies and the position of their hands resemble a soldier holding a rifle or a victim kneeling before him, perhaps a captive… The dancers’ muscles contract violently, and their moves become nervous, spasmodic. Every now and then, one or two dancers fall to the ground, evoking the image of victims, wounded, armless or legless, their eyes wide open. Particularly memorable are the closing sequences of the piece. In the face of tragedy, time comes to a standstill; in fact, it even becomes looped, as is the case in the performance, where the same choreographic sequences recur periodically.
The stage becomes chillingly dark. In the cold spotlight, dimming in each successive scene, the dancers’ faces become increasingly corpse-like. The scenes feature dancing trios and duos. The images that unfurl affect one’s subconscious in a powerful way. The mind returns to all the descriptions of torture and war crimes. The interaction between the artists become fraught with physical and psychological violence: hair pulling, holding, self-aggression, indifference. The mangled lying figures resemble the bodies of the dead. Those who remain moon about, lonely, ghost-like shadows of their former selves, or dance lunatically, with jittery arms, shaking legs, spinning heads, and tangled hair. The stage fills with sorrow and unimaginable emptiness, as if the dancers were deprived of whatever energy and hope they had… Who took it away? Who is the mysterious man with an impassive, mask-like face, four arms like the Hindu goddess Kali or the Slavic Marzanna, the lady of death, the one who takes life and at the same time gives it? Or is Mars, the god of war, evocative of the formidable, uncontrollable force that turns the world upside down, changes its order and universally binding laws, penetrates and twists minds, separates the soul from the body? Are the hand-covered eyes an allegory of soullessness, loneliness, and abandonment in times of need?
Back on stage, the group resumes the rhythmic dance. They come together again, perhaps not as energetic, but united. Their dance is a community of movement, direction, purpose, and experience. When they stop, each appears different; each carries their own unique story of life and death, joy and suffering, and the ways in which good and evil intertwine. This is a story that is as intimate as it is universal: it is all a matter of scale, placement in time and space, and the choice of names for its characters.
Despite the highly expressive and emotional scenes, the piece is not depressing. On the contrary, it is moving, at times touching, it evokes the kind of feeling that allows one to experience catharsis in theater. One may wonder to what extent this is a by-product of the fact that the project is co-created by Ukrainian dancers, and by the sense of being so close to the war here in Poland, where we have come to the refugees’ aid and have since lived with the war in the back of our minds. Many Poles know someone who survived the horrors of World War II, and we all keep the memory of these events in our collective consciousness. It has suddenly dawned on us that what we had until recently considered part of a tragic history could become our own experience. I think it is for this very reason that Polish viewers are able to connect with the heroes and heroines of Kuźmiński’s piece in a special way. We are able to step deeper into the narrative because of our shared history.
Maciej Kuzmiński and his dancers have created a multidimensional story. It is a narrative about what war does to the human body and the human psyche, but also about how it affects space and time. An emotionally charged piece, it uses the dancers’ bodies as a medium for a journey into the deepest recesses of one’s sensitivity. The performance is economical, with the scenery reduced to the bare stage and lighting. Its expressive potential stems from dance itself. Also essential in this respect is the musical layer, especially the excerpts of Ukrainian songs and music performed by DakhaBrakha. They are perfectly in tune with the folk dance elements used in the choreography. One just cannot get them out of one’s head, just as one cannot forget about fighting Ukraine. The consciousness of the ongoing war and the attendant fear accompany Ukrainians incessantly, both in the country and in exile. Every Minute Motherland…
Author: Justyna Stanisławska
Every Minute Motherland
Gdańsk Premiere: August 25, 2022
Łódź Premiere: August 26, 2022
Choreography: Maciej Kuźmiński
Dramaturge: Paul Bargetto
Assistant Choreographer: Monika Witkowska
Cast: Omar Karabulut, Daria Koval, Anna Myloslavska, Vitalia Vaskiv, Monika Witkowska, Szymon Tur, Anastasia Ivanova
Created by the Maciej Kuźmiński Company as part of the Residence/Premiere 2022 project by Klub Żak in Gdańsk and Materia in Łódź as part of the Spaces of Art program. Supported from the Creators for Ukraine fund managed by the CISAC in cooperation with the Society of Authors and Stage Composers ZAiKS.
Partners: Ukrainian Institute and House of Film
Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, implemented by the National Institute of Music and Dance and the Zbigniew Raszewski Theater Institute.
Partners: Grażyna and Kiejstut Bacewicz Academy of Music in Łódź, Municipal Culture Zone – Art Center, City of Łódź