[ATTENDED: March 21, 2013] Śląsk
Pronounced “shlahnsk” according the announcer, Śląsk is the national Polish folk song and dance troupe. They are named after the Silesia (“Śląsk”) region. Śląsk originally focused on the folk traditions of Upper Silesia and has since expanded to include all Polish regions.
When I saw the listing at McCarter I was really curious. I had literally no idea what to expect from the show. In theory I was celebrating my heritage, but it was completely alien to me and could have easily just been a bunch of guys on stage with accordions. Thankfully that proved to not be the case.
The ensemble consists of 80 members, including a choir and dancers dressed in stunning and intricately decorated traditional costumes. And boy, were the costumes spectacular. Pictures could never do justice to the beauty of these clothes. I can honestly say I have never seen blues as rich as these or violets as powerful as these. And the intricacy of the design work (all hand-made) was stunning. Most of the dancing consisted of the women spinning (a lot). And their dresses were designed in such a way that the final six inches or so would face down while the rest billowed out. Even Sarah, no slouch in the seamstress department, couldn’t understand how it worked.
We had cheap seats (really cheap–$20–and these two were the only $20 seats to be had I don’t quite understand why). We were on the left side of the stage, practically below the stage and right in front of the minimal orchestra (about six people on stage, although I couldn’t see them all). The crazy thing is that people just one row ahead or even two seats over paid a much higher price, so I guess our seats couldn’t have been that bad. The major downside to sitting where we did is that you couldn’t see the overall patterns of ten or twelve women spinning around as well as you could from the balcony. Indeed, center balcony seats would be amazing. The advantage to our seats was that we were very close to the stage (six rows away) and could see the clothes very closely, and I believe the colors may have even been more vibrant.
The show was comprised of many many dancers, often with a choir behind them singing the traditional songs. There were also a few solo or duets which were more sombre in tone. Of course, if I knew any Polish these songs might have been more powerful or meaningful (how do people in non-English speaking countries enjoy American rock bands?). And yet their voices were so beautiful, it reminded me of listening to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a series of beautiful albums that I will never know the words to.
The show was about two hours long and the dancers must have been exhausted by the end.
Anyone reading here knows that we have seen a lot of performances this season. And while Śląsk was in no way the most demanding, the men and women did some amazing things. Men lifting women, occasionally women lifting men. Dances in which men slapped their feet and high kicked (if you’ve seen European Vacation, you know the kind of dance I mean). Dances that would be super fun in an old barn or field but when performed with this high caliber must call for even more exertion. There was a dance in which the men carried hatchets (and banged them together) I wonder what THAT song was a about. And as the first half came to a close, the men did this amazing thing where they held the hatchet in front of them and jumped over it (I can’t even imagine how hard that is). And they did it several times in a row. Wow. It was at this point where I had to say–did peasants in Poland really do this every weekend?
There were some other dances where the men tried to outdo each other in terms of jumping height or swinging your woman higher and I imagined that men did indeed do that kind of thing to show off. But many of these dances required incredible acrobatics. And the costumes! Could the folk really have made such beautiful costumes? My mind reels.
I’ll never know what the songs were about (one song sounded heart breaking), but I can still be amazed by the showmanship, the costumery and the overall amazement of the show. I’m so glad I took a chance on this performance. And since it was completely sold out (with a surprising number of kids and all kinds of people speaking Polish or with heavy accents in the foyer) I think that we weren’t alone in being blown away.
This is Śląsk’s 60th anniversary. They had CDs and DVDs for sale (quite expensive, I felt, although Sarah said they should totally sell the costumes!). As I was looking around for pictures I found some older Śląsk albums. Check out this one, in which the costumery is not quite as fantastic.
For ease of searching, I include Slask, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares.