Legendary Holocaust refugee’s choreography returns to stage for first time in a generation

Pola Nirenska’s Dirge, from her Holocaust Tetraology, will be danced by D.C.-based Company E this weekend as part of a program devoted to Polish choreography at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson
Pola Nirenska’s Dirge, from her Holocaust Tetraology, will be danced by D.C.-based Company E this weekend as part of a program devoted to Polish choreography at the Kennedy Center.
Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson

Pola Nirenska has long been a legend in the Washington dance community. The Polish-born refugee from the Holocaust settled in the District of Columbia in the 1950s, where she built a dance studio in her home, and taught and choreographed for decades. But it’s been a generation since any Nirenska choreography has been seen on stage.

This weekend, Washington-based Company E will take its first steps in reviving perhaps Nirenska’s most important work, Dirge, from the choreographer’s Holocaust Tetralogy made two years before her death in 1912. It will be part of a program devoted to Polish choreography called Generations on stage Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

The evening also features works by contemporary dancemakers of Polish descent, including Who Let the Dogs Out, by Lydia Vos and a world premiere by a 26-year-old up-and-coming choreographer from the National Ballet of Poland, Robert Bondara. And two local dance artists — choreographer and teacher Deborah Riley of Dance Place, and longtime producer and administrator Douglas Yeuell, who directs Atlas Performing Arts Center, will receive the endowed Pola Nirenska Award, instituted in the choreographer’s memory by her late husband Polish resistance leader, diplomat and professor Jan Karski, who died in 2000.

At just 11 minutes long, Dirge, with a score by Ernst Bloch, packs a punch by depicting with grim foreboding that awaits Jews and other victims of Hitler’s Final Solution.


Born in Warsaw, Nirenska trained and performed with European dance master Mary Wigman before moving on to Austria, Italy and then England when Nazi and fascist control became an inevitable reality.

Faber noted that Nazis forced Wigman to fire her Jewish dancers, among them Nirenska. When I interviewed Nirenska in 1990, as she was completing her Tetralogy for its world premiere in the District, the aging choreographer recalled the 72 members of her own family that she lost. She had little to share materially, beyond her memories.

It took her nearly a lifetime to confront those memories and the pain of that loss. The choreography that resulted draws on Nirenska’s own history and experiences as a Jew fleeing the Nazism — leaving behind her loved ones to a terrible fate.

While Holocaust Tetralogy is one among many Holocaust-themed dance pieces, and Company E founder and artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson has been seeking to revive it for nearly a decade, not only for its subject matter, but for its artistry. Just as the Holocaust needs to be written about, spoken about, and historicized for current and future generations to understand its importance in world history and contemporary events, Emerson said, choreography must be seen to be remembered.

“Not only is this a great piece of work containing solid, elegant, powerful choreography, but Nirenska is fundamental to the development of dance in Washington,” he said.

He wants new generations of dancers and others to understand the critical contribution Nirenska made to dance in this city and help keep that memory alive.

To revive the piece after more than a quarter of a century, Company E director Emerson turned to Silver Spring-based dancer/educator Rima Faber, a student of 20th-century modern dance icon Martha Graham and a former Nirenska dancer. Faber played the role of the mother in the 1990 premiere of Dirge at Washington’s Dance Place. Now 71, she is reprising her role this weekend with four of Emerson’s company members. Faber spent hundreds of hours with Nirenska, working in her basement studio.

Sometimes it was so painful, Faber recalled, that Nirenska would retreat upstairs as the dancers ran through the choreography. Dirge is the second section of the four-part work, which Emerson hopes to remount in its entirety and tour internationally within the next year; this weekend’s performance is the first step.

It took a week for the Company E dancers to learn the piece. In rehearsals, Faber tried to convey more than the steps. She sought to resurrect Nirenska’s intent and the elemental magnitude of the work. While the five women form an ensemble, each also plays a specific role — mother, older sister, youngest child, middle sister. Using a videotape of the 1990 version for reference helped, but more important were the stories Faber told the dancers: “I’m working with Pola’s intent … telling them the stories Pola told me about her family and her experiences, and stories about Pola.”

Often, as Faber coached the dancers in the spare, sculptural choreography, she would say, “Less, not more.” Most difficult for the dancers has been finding the weight and grounded nature of the movement style Nirenska used because today, modern and contemporary dance training favors a looseness or release of the muscles. In one classic Nirenska moment, the dancers bend their splayed knees deeply, their pelvises dipping toward the floor as their clasped arms reach skyward.

This oppositional gravitational pull is emblematic of the ethos of the work itself. Even as the dancers are weighed down by the grim reality of the Holocaust, they never give up hope entirely.

Generations: Poland, with Company E featuring Dirge, by Pola Nirenska, at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 and 23 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington. For ticket information, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/

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