"There were these three strange men who kept hanging around the theater and the dancers asking to buy them drinks and getting them drunk. They told the dancers they would have a good salary and a nice apartment if they left. There was something about the eyes of two of these men that suggested to me they were not quite good characters."
Mira Ziminska, the 81-year old artistic director of the Polish folk dance troupe Mazowsze, was talking yesterday about the defection to Canada by 11 of 108 touring members of the troupe. The 11 defected in Hamilton, Ontario, Friday night. The defections were made public Monday night, the same evening the troupe began a six-day engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Ziminska said that other company members who were approached by these men, but remained unpersuaded, told her about their blandishments. She said that one of these same men has reappeared in Washington and is still trying to induce other dancers to defect. She said she could not identify the men in any other way. Asked whether the company was taking special security measures or being especially watchful in the wake of the defections, she said, "Never." Backstage at intermission Monday evening in the Opera House, there was no sign of unease, stress or guardedness among the company personnel.
"I consider that it's just not right, what they did," Ziminska said through her interpreter.
"I hire people for an entire season," she said. "If they leave before then, they should tell me in advance, so that I can make other arrangements. No one is tied to the company for all time."
Reflecting on life in Poland of the future, she said: "You have to have a fortune teller for things like that. Who knows what will happen? Maybe we'll have a king in Poland; right now, Mira Ziminska is Queen of Mazowsze and decides where the company goes. What can a person do? If an earthquake comes and the houses fall apart, people build them up again in the same spot. These are very nerve-wracking times. Why do people shoot at people in the streets? They shot at my pope, at your president. A virus is loose in the world--so is it so strange that a few young boys change their minds?"
Of the 11 defectors, 10 were performers--singers and dancers--and one was a masseur. A wire service dispatch Monday night quoted two of them as saying they left because they "wished to be treated as human beings with rights."
What is likely to be the reaction in Poland? "Perhaps the minister of culture will call me in," the former actress and comedien said, "and say, 'Madame Mira, how unpleasant!' But I will be able to point out that I and the company have fulfilled all our obligations."
"Who knows," she continued with a broad smile, "maybe they'll put me away, and I'll become a heroine. I want to be a heroine--why not?"
The company's response to the incident, said Ziminska--who refers to troupe members and alumni as her "children" or "grandchildren"--was "a great deal of mutual energy and pulling together, like a family." "They all worked very, very hard," she said, "to make the necessary substitutions in casting, and Monday night we did everything to fulfill our contract with the impresario. I was happy with my company and proud of it."
Ziminska said that although she had debated with herself whether to bring up the subject in an earlier interview on Monday, she decided that for the company's sake--to keep attention focused on its artistic merits--she would try to keep silent about the defections until the news had been made public. She also said that she herself had no advance warning of what was going to happen.
To an extent, Ziminska feels the defectors were guilty of a betrayal. Three of them came to her in Hamilton to say goodbye, but she refused to speak to "people who do not behave professionally." "I would have let them go after this tour, even without finishing the season, and with no recriminations," she said. "But their leaving when they did means that the others have to work that much harder--that's what disturbs me the most, that they let their fellow dancers down."
Other dancers from the company, in other circumstances, she points out, have left in the open, with discussion and agreement beforehand. One dancer went, with her blessing, to join Maurice Bejart's company in Belgium. Another dancer, with the troupe now, has a pending engagement in West Berlin as soon as the tour is over. Still another, who has a child who is an American citizen and whose mother is in Chicago, is taking a year's leave from the company after the tour, to be with her family in this country.
"I don't understand anything right now," Ziminska said. "Is it the money that's so attractive to them the defectors ? It's true things are very hard in Poland--we are a poor country and we are going through a crisis. But I think they were a little cowardly. I know a few things about some of them that are not very complimentary, but I'd rather not speak of it. I want to be a gentleman to the end."
Ziminska founded Mazowsze in 1948 with her composer husband, Tadeusz Sygietynski (who died in 1955), and has led the company on each of its six tours to the United States since 1961. The Kennedy Center is the last stop on the current 13-week tour, which has taken the troupe to 52 U.S. cities and the one--Hamilton--in Canada. Ziminska said the company fully expects to undertake an already contracted tour of France, Belgium and Switzerland starting in May, and that she has informally accepted Columbia Artists' invitation to return to the United States during the 1983-84 season.
"I think," Ziminska said, "that the body of a human being has its own cleansing powers--it's a catharsis. And so it will be with Mazowsze. The company's work will go on, and I can guarantee you, the company will be even better."