I recently had the privilege of seeing a performance of Preludium Słowiańskie (Slavic Prelude) by the Art Color Ballet in Krakow, Poland. The Art Color Ballet is a modern dance company established in 1998 by Agnieszka Glińska, an award winning Polish dancer and choreographer who earned her M.A. at the Akademia Pedagogiczna studying under Piotr Jargusz. Combining modern dance with the art of body painting she has put together numerous shows and competed in Body Art Festivals internationally with her company. This particular performance was a celebration of the pre-Christianized Slavic people, an artistic representation of their ancient Polish ancestors and an acknowledgement of the nation’s tribal roots.
Like many Native Americans from Brazil to Illinois the pre-Christian Slavs also had a mound culture (there are four mounds in Krakow alone) which was most likely inherited from the Vikings who themselves possibly picked it up from Native Americans in one of their many trips across the Atlantic to lands they called “Vinland” over 2,000 years ago. Cultural exchange was a sign of mutual respect among people encountering each other and establishing mutually beneficial relations. It is from the Vikings that the Iroquois borrowed the longhouse and the word sachem which meant “a gathering”. The word is rooted in the Nordic and Slavic word sejm meaning the exact same thing and still used today. Not only did the eagle play an equally significant role in the Slavic world as it did in that of my ancestors but they also shared the totem pole in common with the people of the Northwestern US, Canada and Alaska. The Polish version is exhibited at the Museum of Archeology in Krakow. Native Americans had medicine men who were frequently referred to as Shamans by Europeans because the word Shaman was a Slavic (Russian) word rooted in the Hindu Shramana which meant a “seeker” or “mystic”.
These various parallels are surface similarities, however. Beneath the surface they were much more like our ancestors in that they were a tribal people living with their natural environment as extensions of it. They didn’t view their mountains and rivers as scenery they moved through or backdrops that they stood before as so many modern people do today but saw a connection and interdependence in all living forms. We today are divorced on many levels from those ways of living and thinking if we are completely honest with ourselves – both Poles and modern Native Americans. For this reason the show was titled “Slavic Prelude” because it was a symbolic representation of the lifestyle once lived that now exists only in our collective memories, rooted in oral traditions and archeological evidence. It was not meant to be a portrayal of the specific tribes or how they actually lived.
In the performance the drumming, dancing, singing, body painting, lighting and other elements revolved around the four seasons and celebrated the Slavic deities attributed to them. There were four particularly beautiful scenes that remain with me still. The first involved drummers and painted women dancing to celebrate the harvesting season. At one point, synchronized with the drums, the women began seducing the men by throwing grain up and outward in all directions onto the stage perfectly timed with the beat. The effect was hypnotic. A second scene involved a thunder storm and a woman dancing chaotically in the rain while paint seemed to appear as if by magic covering her hands and spreading up her arms to the rest of her body. Later in the show leaves of various colors fell from above and the entire tribe danced around a man, symbolizing a god, who crouched throughout the scene on a post. As the rhythm picked up and the song ended he stood and they closed in around him. To watch the show was like seeing the spirit of a people reborn – something I can relate with personally.
Leaving the theatre I was wondering why I have never seen a show like it celebrating Native Americans prior to European colonization. That is something I would personally love to be involved in creating. It occurred to me that the reason is rather obvious. Unlike Poles we Native Americans are an occupied people who do not control our lands and we’ve been on defense mode for so long just trying to survive under a government that has been actively trying to destroy us that we haven’t had the opportunity to turn our focus toward the future . . . until now. A Native American Renaissance is currently underway. To see a Polish artist creatively looking back to pre-history and drawing inspiration from her research told me that this renaissance is going to be a global movement as people around the world turn toward their Native origins to root themselves as nations in ancient traditions. But, perhaps that is my own personal interpretation (and dream). What makes shows like this so great is each viewer is free to understand it however they do.
If you have never seen a performance by the Art Color Ballet and are ever in Krakow (Poland) I would highly suggest that you look them up online, find them on Facebook or contact them directly to inquire about their next performance dates. You won’t be disappointed.