From war-torn Warsaw to Pawlikowski’s Cold War, the incredible story of the singing folkdance ensemble taking the WORLD by storm
The Mazowsze folk song and dance ensemble has played the role of Poland’s informal ambassador of culture for seven decades and rightly deserves its position as perhaps the largest and most successful folk group in Europe.
It has been said that Pope John Paul II and Robert Lewandowski have made the best careers outside of Poland, but it would be hard to deny Mazowsze a place on the podium.
When Paweł Pawlikowski rebadged the ensemble as ‘Mazurek’ to feature as the backstory for his Cannes-winning cinema hit Cold War, it was hard to decide whether the film boosted the ensemble’s global profile or whether it was the other way round.
Success on this scale and over that length of time does not come easily though, and it is the product of many factors. Chief among them are the rich Polish folk culture that the ensemble draws on, the solid basis provided by the founders Tadeusz Sygietyński and Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, and the group’s well-oiled organisation.
The one element that stands out, though, and that is encoded into the ensemble’s DNA, is passion. This passion, which exudes from every member, is genuine and infectious, and is woven throughout the whole organisation like the intricate patterns on the thousands of original folk costumes in the group’s collections.
It is a passion for singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, but it is also a passion for Poland, its culture and its traditions.
One person who exhibits this passion by the ladle-full is Serghei from Moldavia. “For me, the Mazowsze ensemble is the heart of Polishness. Many people today are searching for their national identity and Poles can find it here like nowhere else,” he told TFN.
In his fourth season with the ensemble, Serghei’s path to Mazowsze was less typical than his fellow performers. “I come from an Orthodox family in Kishinev, but my grandmother is Polish. Every Sunday when I was a kid she told my parents that she was taking me to the cinema, but she took me to the Catholic church,” the brawny singer explained.
“I learned how to be a Catholic, but I also got to keep the money my parents gave for the cinema tickets,” he beamed.
This link to Poles living abroad has been an important reason for the group’s countless foreign tours. During the long evening of People’s Poland and to some extent even today, for Poles cut off from their home culture, often thousands of miles away, Mazowsze’s enormous folklore repertoire was a beacon of Polishness and a symbol of patriotism and the homeland.
Back in Poland, still keeping a watchful eye over the performances and always present in spirit at the ensemble’s leafy headquarters in the Mazovian village of Otrębusy, 30 km from Warsaw, are the late founders Tadeusz Sygietyński and Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska.
The idea to create the ensemble was born amidst the horrors and misery of the Warsaw Uprising. Trapped in the burning city, Tadeusz, a pre-war composer, and Mira, an actress, made a commitment to each other that if they emerged from the inferno alive they would dedicate themselves to finding, preserving and cherishing the traditional folk repertoire of Mazovian villages.
The couple traversed the flat Mazovian landscape in search of songs and dances that had accumulated over centuries of peasant life. They recorded what they discovered and Tadeusz adapted this cultural treasure into arrangements that still enrapture audiences today, none more so than the melancholic song Two Hearts, Four Eyes that permeates Pawlikowski’s Cold War.
On these trips, Mira would rummage through the attics of peasant cottages picking out original folk costumes, many of which are still worn by performers.
Back at the headquarters, work started on selecting performers from the surrounding region. Mira’s vision was that all the dancers should be the same height and their faces should exhibit characteristic Slavic features. By 1950, the group was ready and it had its debut in Warsaw’s Polski Theatre in the same year.
Shortly after Tadeusz died in 1955, Mira took over as director and maintained an iron grip on the ensemble until her own death in 1997.
One of the current performers, Tadeusz, who has been in the ensemble for 32 years, remembers his audition in front of the formidable director. “When I arrived at the palace there were over 600 hopefuls, so I didn’t think I had any chance,” he explained to TFN.
“I was in the army at the time and I wanted to get out; I also wanted to travel abroad, so I gave it my best shot. After 15 minutes Mira looked at me and with a flick of her finger sent me to the small group of the lucky ones. I’ve been here ever since,” he recalled with nostalgia.
TFN’s visit behind the scenes coincided with a lunchtime performance of Polish Bethlehem, a patriotic nativity spectacle from 1904 updated with Warsaw Uprising elements.
Three of the female dancers were chatting together as they applied their stage make-up when we caught up with them to ask about the challenges of performing in these kinds of spectacles.
“The toughest thing is changing costume so many times,” Paulina explained. “Sometimes we only have a few minutes and each costume has many different elements, so there is a lot that can go wrong. We always manage though,” she smiled.
Like everyone we met, being a member of the ensemble, in whatever capacity, is the fulfilment of a dream for Paulina. However, simply singing and dancing well is not enough to join the team: “You also have to be able to work under pressure and get on with other people. Having the right psychological profile is really important, especially on tour when we are together 24 hours a day,” she revealed.
If this heart of Polishness has a holy inner sanctum, then it is definitely the costume department. The thousands of original items gathered over the years, largely by Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, constitute a repository and source of knowledge of folk costumes from every region of Poland.
Over the years, the ensemble has developed standards for 42 regional costumes, from which around 20 can be seen during a typical show. Made from traditional materials such as wool, flax and hemp, and decorated with brocade and lace by skilful local folk artists, they can weigh up to 14 kilograms. However, on stage the effect of the swirling skirts is graceful and mesmerising.
With 120 performers who might change costume as many as six or seven times during a single show, costume department head Rafał Orłowski has his hands full. “Our work consists of adjusting the costumes to each performer so they look their best,” he explains.
“We also do a lot of conservation work because many of the costumes are registered historical treasures,” he adds. “My work completely fulfils me, I have no desire to do anything else. The most important thing for me is to give something back to the group,” he radiates.
Seeing the backstage preparations and understanding the history behind the ensemble produces a much greater respect and appreciation when the day’s show gets underway with a vigorous and colourful group sequence.
The men, in peacock-feathered hats, leap, spring and tumble with spirited enthusiasm, while the women pirouette and twirl in well-honed unison. Coming together in pairs, the dancers trace intricate patterns accompanied by at times haunting and at other times rambunctious harmonies and melodies from the choir and orchestra.
A beautiful solo by an improbably gifted five-year-old girl, supported gently by a chorus of golden angels, produces spontaneous applause of solidarity from the other children in the audience. A gasp of excitement lifts into the auditorium when a young Warsaw insurgent enters the stage to give his report to the Virgin Mary, who was crowned as Queen of Poland in a previous scene.
The look of genuine wonder and joy on the faces of the children is heartening and it is perhaps the best evidence that the Mazowsze ensemble is performing its role of protecting the flame of Polish identity with distinction.
Today’s director and also the orchestra conductor Jacek Boniecki explained to TFN: “Mazowsze, from the very beginning of its existence, for 70 years, has been talking about Poland, about Polishness, and its message is aimed not only at those of us who live in Poland but also to the Polish community living in other countries.”
As it enters its eighth decade, this sacred flame, under the ensemble’s stewardship and with its passion, is unlikely to be extinguished any time soon.