Mira Ziminska, artistic director of the noted Polish folk dance troupe Mazowsze, arrived in Washington yesterday for a six-day engagement at the Kennedy Center, with her company apparently short 11 dancers who defected Friday to Canada.
According to wire service reports received late last night, those 11 defected in Hamilton, Ontario. The defections took place after four performances in that city, the stop preceding Washington on Mazowsze's current worldwide tour. Yesterday's announcement of the defections was attributed to Canadian federal immigration officials.
The defectors were said to have predicted that other troupe members would be following their example. In an interview yesterday, two of the defectors, Bogdan Bor, 24, and Mirek Scibor, 28, were quoted through an interpreter as saying they left because they "wished to be treated as human beings with rights." They also said they had discussed the possibility of defection with their families before the tour, but did not fear for their relatives' safety because "Poland is not Russia yet."
Ziminska could not be reached for comment last night after the Kennedy Center performance. Tour manager Richmond Davis, employed by Columbia Artists Management, which brough the group to this country, said last night: "It's not my place to comment. My function is simply to escort them around North America."
In an interview earlier yesterday at her hotel, Ziminska made no reference to the defections (which had not yet been made public), nor did she dwell on the political and economic unrest in her country, confining herself for the most part to the artistic background of Mazowsze.
But she did tell, with some satisfaction, of the meeting she had with Igor Moiseyev, director of the great Russian folk troupe that bears his name.
"I said to him, 'Why must you take our dancers from Poland when you've got such a large country of your own to choose from? You dance better than we do, and jump higher. But look at your costumes and look at ours.' " Moiseyev asked her to advise him on the subject of costume, which is one of her specialties.
"At least," she now says, "that is one victory over the Soviet Union that we have."
According to Ziminska, political authorities in Poland do not interfere with the content of Mazowsze's programs. "We have not been censored in any way," she says. "In fact, we do one song that, if it were literally translated, would probably offend dignitaries in any country. On the other hand, we do suffer from censorship in another sense--none of the writings of our emigre' poets can be published in Poland."
Ziminska is 81. In her youth, before she founded Mazowsze with her composer husband, she was a very celebrated actress, a star known to the whole of the Polish populace for her dramatic roles, her singing and dancing, and her comic performances--"Chaplin in skirts," some called her. "I'm not sure if I was the best actress in Poland," she says, "but I was the highest paid. Also, I was said to have the most beautiful legs in Poland." On the company's recent visit to Los Angeles during the current tour, she says, an old admirer came backstage to plead "Please, can I see those legs once more!"
Ziminska accompanies her speech with energetic gesticulation. Her abundant hair is dark, her casual suit a soft red, her blouse a flowered print. When asked about the founding of Mazowsze, she replies, "Oh, oh, that is a long story. Probably I should order dinner, but at least we must have coffee," whereupon she bounds out of the seat to give the order. Later she orders cognac for everyone, including her translator.
Mazowsze (pronounced "Mazoffshuh") has made six tours of the United States since 1961, when it appeared at Loew's Capitol. In 1971, the troupe played Constitution Hall, and in 1973--the most recent previous Washington visit--it had its first Kennedy Center engagement. The company, which numbers more than 100 dancers, singers and musicians, takes its name from the central region of Poland, where Warsaw is located, and makes its home at Karolin, an estate some 20 miles from the capital city.
The establishment of Mazowsze was the fulfillment of a long nourished dream for Tadeusz Sygietynski, Ziminska's husband, who died in 1955 and was buried in Warsaw with the highest state honors. Sygietynski was a composer and conductor who had studied abroad with Max Reger and Arnold Schoenberg, and returned to Poland to cultivate his abiding interest in folk music. As Ziminska explains, Polish folk music and dance--like the folklore in other Western nations that underwent such turbulent upheavals as industrialization and international conflict--was subject in the past to a variety of corrupting influences. A man named Colberg, a friend of Frederic Chopin, launched an effort early in the 19th century to collect, restore and preserve the original folk materials; he published 56 volumes embodying the results of this life work.
Sygietynski took it upon himself to continue and extend Colberg's work. During the worst hours of the Polish uprising of 1944, in which 200,000 Poles were massacred by the Germans and Warsaw was reduced to rubble, Sygietynski asked his wife to promise that if they survived, she would join him in the countryside, where they would create a school to preserve and foster the national folk heritage. After many tribulations, including arrest by the Gestapo, they made their way to Karolin, where, in 1948, they began to organize the school. "The church organists and choir directors helped us to find gifted children, because they were familiar with their musical abilities," Ziminska says. The children, ages 12 to 16, studied reading and writing, but also solfe ge, singing, piano and dancing. "They all took a regular barre," Ziminska notes, "since we knew they needed a solid dance foundation." And in addition to teaching, Ziminska served as cook, nurse, seamstress and housewife. In the beginning, moreover, before the state subventions that were to come from the Ministry of Culture, the money for the school came from her own pocket.
By 1950, Mazowsze was ready for its first public performance, with some 80 youngsters averaging age 16 performing songs and dances representing two national regions. The following year, a great triumph in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot put the company on international footing. Since then, the troupe has toured the world, from Russia and Scandinavia to Canada and Australia. The present repertoire spans the folklore of 38 Polish regional subcultures, and the research continues--Ziminska says there are still six more regions to be investigated. The company recruits its personnel from throughout the country in annual auditions, during which around 300 applicants are screened down to 15, who, after a trial period, are finally narrowed to six new company members.
Because Mazowsze puts great emphasis on virtuosity and youthful elan, the pattern for most dancers who join the troupe at 18 is to perform for about seven or eight years, and then move on to other activities--dancing in opera, teaching, other professions. However, as Ziminska points out, dancers in Poland--along with singers and wind instrumentalists to a somewhat lesser extent--enjoy a considerable degree of security: after 15 years of professional work, they are eligible to retire on a state pension.
At the interview's end, Ziminska was asked if there were any other topics upon which she might like to comment. "You haven't asked me about my sex life," was the reply. "You know," she continues, "everyone in Poland thinks money just flows from the sky in your country, and I must say, one man asked me if I would stay with him, with my company, for four years. I've had three propositions since I arrived here!"