The artist Paulina Olowska works with found materials that include the work of her Polish forbears. In 2015, her The Mother An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue, adapted Witkacy’s play The Mother (1924) and set the resulting piece in a gallery at Tate Modern. Last weekend, the Kitchen presented a three-performance run of Paulina Olowska: Slavic Goddesses — A Wreath of Ceremonies. The 50-minute dance theater work was a showcase in how to create compelling dance work with focused elements, most importantly the right choreographer.
According to the program notes, the work is a “continuation and evolution” of Olowska’s Tate Modern project. This time the Polish artist being referenced is Zofia Stryjeńska, a visual artist and set designer of the interwar period. Stryjeńska had an interest in the Slavic gods, part of the pre-Christian tradition in Poland. For Slavic Goddesses, Olowska uses Stryjeńska’s 1918 series Bożki słowiańskie (or “Slavic Deities”), turning six of the illustrations into costumes portraying specific Slavic goddesses. For the performance at the Kitchen, each of these six goddesses appeared onstage — after a voiceover reading of a statement by Stryjeńska — and danced a solo.
Although Olowska was the headliner, credited with conceiving the performance and designing and constructing the costumes, in many ways the show belonged to choreographer Katy Pyle. Pyle is the founder and artistic director of the Ballez, a dance group that seeks to create a place for the non-heteronormative in the world of ballet. Working in collaboration with the Ballez dancers, each of the solos Pyle created for the goddesses was distinctive, catering to both the needs of the character and the talents of the dancer. Deborah Lohse’s innate sauciness was channeled into a flirtatious Dzydzilelya, said to be the goddess of spring and romance. Lohse’s solo was all hip-swinging walks, low attitude turns, and jumps on relevé. Carrying a shaft of wheat, she was flirty and coy.
Charles Gowin’s beautiful line was played to maximum advantage in his solo as Wolas, described as the goddess of fatalism and magic. Said to provide a contact between the living and the dead, this Wolas frequently paused with one leg extended. Wearing gloves, the fingers of which tapered to points well beyond his fingers, he rolled his wrists and offered his open palms to the audience — simple, and an effective use of Olowska’s costume.
As Perkun, the goddess of the skies, Mei Yamanaka was the most contemporary-looking dancer in the roster. In a back-less leotard and leggings, Yamanaka several times balanced on one leg, spiraled into an attitude à la seconde, becoming the jagged electric outlines she carried in her hands.
These were dances composed of steps. Madison Krekel as Morena, goddess of winter and death, executed a slow pas de bourrée turn. Pyle paid attention to the dancers’ hands, feet, and eyes. Indeed, the most effective solo was the show’s last. Lindsay Reuter as Pepperuga, described as the goddess of prosperity, thrilled in an understated sequence that contrasted heel stamps performed perpendicular to the audience and deep pliés à la seconde while facing the audience. In plié, Reuter shimmied her shoulders and rolled her eyes in a way that recalled a god, yet was uncannily human.
All but one of the dancers wore gigantic headdresses, the size of which must have made the dancing quite difficult. Jules Skloot as Lelum, the goddess of mischief, slapped his knees and frolicked under an assemblage of peacock feathers. Lohse shimmied on and off stage wearing what looked like the proceeds of a grain harvest. Krekel’s headdress, designed to resemble a “tripe vortex of sea foam,” captured the localized snowfall.
Seated downstage right and watching the action was a character simply called the Bear, played by Martynka Wawrzyniak, who wore street clothes and a bear mask. For a few of the solos, the Bear helped with the music, joining Sergei Tcherepnin in playing sound effects made from sheets of metal. Overall, Tcherepnin’s score was disappointing. At some times the music was recessive enough to be a non-issue. At worst (during the Skloot solo), it sounded like a parody of an Atari console. This undermined the program and kept it from being more than a series of competent solos.
At the end, the goddesses assembled onstage together. A voice read the conclusion of a 1938 text by Stryjeńska, which was reprinted in the program:
Today when we are celebrating [the deities’] renaissance from the perspective of bygone ages in their new, albeit fancy-inspired, interpretation, they will return it by breathing a new spirit into our lives and certainly enlivening the work of future artists.
Whether the Slavic goddesses will continue to inspire the work of future artists remains to be seen. What was left out of Olowska’s project was how the Slavic people interacted with these goddesses. How were the deities shaped by the lives of their creators? An interesting question, and perhaps one whose answer lies beyond the purview of dance.
Performances of Paulina Olowska: Slavic Goddesses — A Wreath of Ceremonies took place at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from January 26–28.