Sunday, June 12, 2011

Free Day in Warsaw

Today was the first of the two "free days." The students asked that I walk them around Old Town, and one really wanted to see the castle. I suggested we meet at 10am in the lobby. One student said "I'll see you at 11 am." "10 am," I replied. "So that's 11 am," he said. "No, 10 am." "11," he replied. I reminded him it was a free day and that he didn't have to meet us at 10, if he didn't want to. He smiled and went back to his laptop.

We left around 10 am (with the student), and went first to the Old City. On the way we stopped for coffee, but the waitress didn't speak English. I kept asking for 5 minutes. She pointed at various menu items. Eventually, we managed to order. In the end, I think they provided us the wrong bill (it was cheaper than it should be), but I had no way to tell them so.

A little further on, we entered the Old City. It's hard to believe that it was all rubble just 55 years ago. They rebuilt it based on the paintings of Canneletto. We made our way to the castle and since it was Sunday, there was no charge for tickets. We rented head phones and made our way through the main rooms. After the Nazis dynamited it in 1944, it was slowly rebuilt, from donations from Poles around the world. While the walls are new, the furnishings are mostly original, salvaged from the damaged building during the war.

When we were done we went to lunch. We ended up at Gessler Restaurant, a very upscale place in Nowy Swiat (it's in the Michelin guide). We ate downstairs in the labyrinth-like warren of white tiled rooms, interspersed with rooms containing the restaurant's pantries and kitchen. I had a mix of pierogi and Chlodnik soup (very similar to borscht). I loved both. One student got the beef roulade and loved it. The rest seemed happy. Afterwords, I took them to Cafe Blickle for dessert. Some got coffee eclairs or strawberry eclairs and were happier (I think). I got a panczek (jelly donut).

One of the student is keeping a quote book, where she writes down what she calls my "smart-butt sayings." "Like what?" I asked. She mentioned a comment I made the night before at dinner. One student wanted a strawberry margarita, but they were out. After mentioning four of five times that he really wanted one, I said that I really wanted world peace, but I don't think either of us are going to get our wishes tonight. That went in her quote book.

I try to keep the students amused on long train rides and they told me they like it when I'm not so serious (kind of hard, though, with this subject). The same student said that they like it when I act "Dr. Silly Pants." I told them that I try to be professional, but they want me to loose up more.

One of the students wanted to go shopping at the mall by the train station, but it was closed for Sunday (the store, not the mall). After that, some of them went home, while two went with me to the National Theater. I got one of the last tickets for "The Rite of Spring." Then we went back to the hotel where they went on the internet while I changed.

I was a little confused at first about the performance, but I realized, at the first intermission, that it was in fact three performances of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," but with three different choreographers.

The first was a reproduction of Nijinsky's original staging, that led to a riot in the theater. It was followed by a radically different interpretation by an Israeli choreographer (Emanuel Gat), and then a less radical one by Maurice Bejart.

I really enjoyed the Nijinsky version; it was a real treat to see what had caused such controversy 100 years ago. The audience seemed more tepid and gave it their lightest applause.

Gat's staging was radically different. In place of the primeval Slavic landscape, there was a black stage, with only a dark square of carpet and either red or white lights. There were only five dancers: two men and three women, who danced it as a samba. Each choreographer has to teach the audience how to read his language of dance, and this took a while for me. It was a challenging work, particularly in light of the strong impact of Nijinsky.

Much of the dancing involved either two women competing for one man or two men competing for one woman. Sometimes all five danced together. Given the images of the sacrifice that lingered from the early choreography, I felt a great deal of tension wondering how these dancing struggles would end and who would be left out. In the end, though, the four paired off in two couples, leaving the one woman remaining as the sacrifice.

Bejart's piece was far more accessible, but I found it duller. From the program notes, I could read that he meant to strip the specific from Stravinksky's work to make it universal. Act I involved men awakening, while Act II began with the women awakening. In both cases, the choreography reminded me of yoga moves. "Is that what the Downard Facing Dog position looks like?" I wondered. In any case, much of the choreography for the men and women seemed to reflect cliched conceptions of masculinity and femininity. I found it far more predictable, but the audience went crazy for it, giving it their most prolonged applause. Just goes to show how little I know about modern dance.

Now to go upstairs and pack. Tomorrow we change hotels in Warsaw (I couldn't get rooms for tomorrow night here) and then head to Treblinka. On Tuesday, we're off for Krakow.

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