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Dance Heritage Coalition

Scope and Content Note Table of Contents Description of Series

Nirenska (Pola) Collection

- Biographical Sketch

Biographical Sketch

Pola Nirenska was born 28 July 1910 in Warsaw. From childhood she was interested in dance despite opposition from her middle-class Jewish family. Nirenska had little early dance training. At age nine, she participated in a summer dance camp for girls. Six years later she choreographed her first work, a dance set to Saint-SaŽn's Danse macabre, and performed it for her sister in the kitchen of her family's apartment. For recreation, she went to ballroom dances. Nirenska was also interested in gymnastics, singing, drawing, and embroidery. She attended a Catholic school where she was proficient in all art-related subjects and was commended for her scientific drawings. Secretly, she took a ballet class but did not care for it, choosing instead to study modern dance for a few months. At the age of seventeen, Nirenska pressured her parents to let her study elsewhere. She finally persuaded them by locking herself in a room for three days, refusing to eat or sleep, until they slipped a passport under the door. She was permitted to continue her studies on the condition that she promise to content herself with teaching and never dance in public.

In 1928 Nirenska used her dowry to study with Mary Wigman, Elizabeth Wigman, Hanya Holm, and Tina Flade at the Mary Wigman School in Dresden. Nirenska excelled in both dance and music -- particularly percussion. Mary Wigman felt Nirenska was gifted musically and should pursue study in music rather than dance. Much to her father's disappointment, Nirenska refused to shift her focus of study. In three years she graduated with first honors from the Wigman School.

From 1932 to 1933 Nirenska toured the United States and Germany with Mary Wigman's company. When the group returned, Hitler had risen to power and Wigman's school was guarded with Nazi soldiers. As a consequence, Nirenska and all other Jewish students were dismissed. In 1934 Nirenska won first prize for choreography and second prize for solo dance in the International Dance Congress in Vienna. Receiving these prestigious awards allowed her to tour Europe with a program of solos.

A scholarship from the Polish government enabled Nirenska to pursue her studies further. She studied briefly with Rosalia Chladek in Austria but found that Chladek's style did not suit her. During this period Nirenska had an engagement at the Opera in Florence. Mussolini's persecution of the Jews forced her to flee to Poland. In 1935 she moved to London where she married Count John Ledesma, a British film star and Royal Air Force pilot. Nirenska's career flourished as she performed for the Royal Air Force, collaborated with Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder, choreographed Broadway-style shows, founded a studio, worked for the Arts Council of Great Britain, and modeled for fashion designers and artists such as the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Around this time, Nirenska's parents and brother escaped to Palestine while the rest of her family refused to leave their home country; seventy-four family members perished in the war. Nirenska left London in 1949 after she separated from her husband.

Nirenska emigrated to the United States when Ted Shawn invited her to perform at the ninth season of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. In New York she studied with modern dance pioneers Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Jose Limon, Louis Horst, and Gertrude Shurr. Nirenska supported herself by washing dishes in an Italian restaurant and teaching at Adelphia College as well as Dance Arts in Carnegie Hall.

Nirenska made her American debut 16 February 1950 at Boston Conservatory. Dances such as Eastern ballad, A scarecrow remembers, St. Bridget: stained-glass window, Sarabande for the dead queen, La puerta del vino, Peasant lullaby, Mad girl, Dancer's dilemma, and Unwanted child were acclaimed by critics, who referred to her as the "Ruth Draper of the dance." While in Massachusetts, she continued teaching and held a position at the Berkshire Playhouse Drama School in Stockbridge.

In 1951 Nirenska was invited to join Evelyn de la Tour at her modern dance school in Washington, DC. During the same year, Nirenska was guest artist and head of the children's department at the Bar Harbor Summer Dance School. Doris Humphrey is thought to have suggested that Nirenska open her own school and company. In 1956 Nirenska founded the Pola Nirenska Dance Company in Washington, DC; by 1960 she had opened her own studio in a custom built home. The student population of professional and beginning pupils of all ages quickly grew to four hundred. Other teaching engagements included The Washington School of Ballet (academic staff), Madeira School in McLean, Virginia (head of dance department), and Glen Echo Dance Theatre in Maryland (choreographer in residence). With Louis Tupler and Ethel Butler, Nirenska founded the Performing Arts Guild, an association of modern dance companies in the Metropolitan area.

In 1969 Nirenska married Jan Karski, a specialist on communism and a former diplomat active in the Polish underground. Karski sent Nirenski a fan letter after he saw her perform, and six years later they married. In 1967 Nirenska joined her husband on a lecture tour to seventeen countries in Asia and French-speaking Africa, during which she gave workshops and master classes in Istanbul, Izmir, Athens, Thessaloniki, and Beirut. One year later Nirenska retired citing fatigue from teaching and running her studio. While in retirement, she focused on other creative outlets, most notably photography. She won awards in area competitions and became a professional portrait photographer. During her retirement, she also enjoyed volunteer work, gardening, performing arts, and travel.

During the 1980s Nirenska was urged out of retirement by leading dance figures in Washington, DC. Nirenska reworked some of her former dances before choreographing new solos and group pieces for the finest dancers in the area. She taught at The Dance Exchange with Liz Lerman, and was a teacher and resident choreographer at Glen Echo Dance Theater with Jan Tievsky. In 1980 she won the Metropolitan Dance Award. The Washington Performing Arts Society presented a concert devoted to Nirenska's choreography in March 1982 at the Marvin Theater. The event was a collaboration between The Dance Exchange, Glen Echo Dance Theater, and the Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria. Other performances ensued with dancers such as Liz Lerman, Jan Tievsky, Rima Faber, Sue Hannen, Betsy Eagan, Diane Floyd, Colette Yglesias, Sharon Wyrrick, Cathy Paine, Stephanie Simmons, Jan Taylor, and Meryl W. Shapiro. Hannen worked with Nirenska for more than a decade and eventually became her rehearsal director.

In July 1990, a farewell concert of Nirenska's works was presented at Dance Place featuring Rima Faber and Sharon Wyrrick. The entire Holocaust tetralogy was performed: Life (Whatever begins also ends), Dirge, Shout, and The train. The tetralogy is prefaced by a quote from Seneca: "In memory of those I loved . . . who are no more." Nirenska was fortunate always to be one step ahead of the Nazis, but the loss of loved ones had a profound impact on her life. Rather than graphically depicting events, Nirenska's choreography expresses the suffering of Holocaust victims. The tetralogy exhibits Nirenska's intense and powerful expressionist style at its finest.

Nirenska committed suicide 25 July 1992 in Bethesda, Maryland. She is remembered as a matriarch of dance whose works encompassed German Expressionism, the humanistic tradition of American modern dance in the Humphrey-Weidman vein, and the Holocaust. Her teaching contributions are notable as well: she stressed a serious study of dance history, composition, aesthetics, art history, drawing, music history, drama, and Labanotation. Wigman's influence can be seen in Nirenska's philosophy that every educated dancer should be able to read a musical score and play at least one instrument. In 1982 Nirenska said, "Look around, see people, buildings, everything, so you are able to pull all reactions to them into choreography." Throughout her career Nirenska acted as a clear reflection of the achievements of the pioneers of modern dance, and one can see her use of this philosophy in all her work.


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