THE grand feud is a thing of the past in modern dance. Bitterness of the degree that developed between Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, the rival high priestesses of American modern dance from the 1930s into the '50s, has not been spawned by current masters. Nor are there histrionic "reconciliations" like the one between Rudolf von Laban, patriarch of German modern dance, and his prodigal daughter Mary Wigman. Their reunion in the 1930s was described as "the stiffest waltz ever danced." Another such scene occurred when Wigman and Graham greeted one another after World War II with a "stab-in-the-back embrace."
Today's moderns are less flamboyant but still staunchly independent. It is, therefore, extraordinary when five of them and their establishments cooperate to present the work of a sixth. This has happened in Washington, and the venture culminates tonight at the Marvin Theater in "An Evening of Choreography by Pola Nirenska."
The collaborators are Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange, Jan Tievsky's Glen Echo Dance Theater, Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria and soloists Colette Yglesias and Rima Wolff.
Pola Nirenska, the object of their efforts, looks proud, shrewd and--at first glance--defiantly unlike a dancer. She is a short woman and, now in her seventies, magnificently plump.
"I have done things other than dance, and done them well. As a student in Warsaw I was commended for my scientific drawings. In London, I was a sought-after model for fashion as well as for artists like Jacob Epstein . . . I've designed my own studio and home, and played the roles of daughter and wife. But, really, the one thing that has satisfied me--not just on the surface--is the dance."
As a girl, Nirenska began to dance of her own accord. She was adamant about becoming professional. Finally her parents consented, and Nirenska left Warsaw for Dresden, Germany, to enroll at Mary Wigman's school where another of her talents, "the myth of my musicality," came to the fore. She excelled so in percussion that Wigman suggested she study music instead of dance.
Eventually, Nirenska was accepted as a dancer, graduating with first honors and joining the Wigman company of women for its 1932-1933 tour of Germany and the United States.
To establish herself as an independent artist after the tour, Nirenska danced, choreographed and taught in Warsaw, Vienna and Florence. At the 1934 International Dance Congress in Vienna, she won first prize for choreography and was praised for her musicality, intensity and "susceptibility to atmosphere." Then, Wigman wrote asking Nirenska to teach a summer course. Upon returning to Germany, however, she found access to Wigman blocked by people at the school wearing the Nazi uniform. "Wigman sent a note to reiterate her offer. I reminded her that I was a Jew, packed my bag and left."
She went to England and stayed throughout the war. "Never before or since have I danced as much; I was helping to entertain the troops." The years in England also included marriage to a movie star, work in the musical theater and study with two other refugees from Hitler, Sigurd Leeder and Kurt Jooss (the latter of "Green Table" fame).
Her marriage ended, and Nirenska started life anew in New York. "It was 1949, I was 39 but went back to school to study with "all the American moderns. Charles Weidman was my favorite teacher." She had enrolled in these courses "as a beginner, anonymously" but soon began to perform again and within two years her name was made. "Financially, though, New York was disaster." Doris Humphrey advised her to accept an offer to teach in Washington. Here she became successful pedagogically as well as fiscally. She married again. Her new husband thought he saw that she had achieved her goals and yet "ate herself up" as she worked. He asked her to stop.
Nirenska disappeared from the dance world. One day she went to Dance Exchange and announced to Liz Lerman, "I am Pola Nirenska and want to teach." Fortunately, Lerman knew who Nirenska was and replied, "You may."
As of tonight, Nirenska's comeback is an established fact.