Warsaw — THE Barbakan area of this city's Old Town teems with antique splendor: church spires, gingerbread houses, brick towers, even a nearby drawbridge. But tonight the members of a 4-year-old dance collective named Bretoncaffe are throwing themselves against the walls in "Slam," a free, outdoor performance that depicts trapped energy curdling into fierce aggression.
Performing in a gap between a row of houses, the four dancers swing off metal guardrails, jump high to hang from windowsills, crash down onto concrete planks and spring up again into unpredictable confrontations.
If sexual ambiguity colors the interaction of the two men, the lust for power fuels the women's dancing, and soon the cordless microphone held by rock singer Dominik Strycharski becomes a symbol of dominance. Attracted by the lights, the music and the sight of young people rebounding against the walls, an audience gathers -- standing on two sides of the performance or finding a place to sit on a low brick wall or the ground.
Street theater and street dance often are considered subprofessional, maybe because they're free. But the invention, intensity and technical skill of this performance would make it welcome almost anywhere. And I'm here and nowhere else because Eastern European contemporary dance -- and Polish achievement in particular-- is increasingly considered on the cutting edge in the dance world.
The first thing I learned on my journey of artistic discovery was not to head for any one place. Right now, the essential story of Polish contemporary dance is a tale of three cities.
My second lesson is emphatically declared by Bretoncaffe director Slawomir Krawczynski.
"The situation for contemporary dance is very difficult in Poland," he says after the performance, with choreographer Anna Godowska nodding in agreement. "We're fighting for people's consciousness about dance."
That's no exaggeration. Until recently, contemporary dance was largely an underground phenomenon in Poland, a kind of cultural stepchild as far as official recognition was concerned. The nation's well-known folk companies and ballet institutions continued to receive government support, but even the most acclaimed, innovative contemporary choreographers had to piggyback on theater or music budgets to get their projects funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture. Even then, the money was doled out in such a way that long-term planning became virtually impossible.
However, a new visibility is in the offing. Where formerly you could catch the hottest, sharpest companies only in a welter of annual festivals -- many of them staged to maximize publicity in a country with few dance journalists -- you'll soon be able to visit several independent venues offering year-round performances.
One will be at Warsaw's historic Ujazdowski Castle, originally a 13th century stronghold, then a hunting lodge, a Baroque palace, a hospital, a barracks, a burned-out, bombed-out ruin and, after a 20-year reconstruction, the imposing home of the Center for Contemporary Art.
Just above its interconnected galleries and exhibition halls lie the offices of Akademia Ruchu, for more than 30 years a bastion of and ambassador for contemporary dance-theater in Poland. (The company visited Los Angeles in 1992.) Artistic director Wojciech Krukowski expects a new 200-seat dance stage on the castle grounds to be ready a year from now, allowing him to increase his company's performing schedule in Warsaw (currently twice a month, in rented spaces, when not on tour) and offer a showcase for other troupes as well.
Krukowski is especially enthusiastic about how membership in the European Union has created new cross-border artistic partnerships for dance. "Polish-German and Polish-Czech initiatives," he says, "with five times more possibilities than before. Bureaucracy is not as important anymore as the energy of the artist, so it's the best possible time for any independent dance group. It's a whole new era in our theatrical life."
Down below Ujazdowski Castle -- and the scaffolding that will become Krukowski's theater -- sits the elegant Lazienki Gardens, where you can drift on a swan boat, be dwarfed by an enormous monument to Frederic Chopin and watch peacocks sing for an audience of pigeons in an intimate Greco-Roman amphitheater. Not far away is the Royal Palace, a monument to the Jewish ghetto and other major tourist sites.
Poland's capital is overpriced as a tourist and dance destination, so don't linger too long. Just a few hours away by express train, you can find unique landscapes and choreographies.
Using Warsaw as a hub, traveling by train in Poland is cheap and efficient. When buying tickets or seeking directions, remember that young people probably speak more English than their elders.