Identity has become a dividing line in contemporary political discourse and an important element in geopolitical doctrines on both sides of a new ideological conflict. The human body is at the center of this conflict. At least according to the PM of Hungary, famous for coining the term “illiberal democracy” and for closing universities, whose recent speech outlined “race” and “gender” as threats to the ethnic purity and traditional values of the Hungarian nation. Poland itself has been on a similar course in clash with the EU.


The movie Boria is inspired by Zofia Stryjeńska, a great female Polish artist from the interwar period, a representative of art deco, whose work explores the dynamics of movement and ornament through painting. Her painting Seasons. November-December (Pageant I – with a deer) serves as a frame that both opens and closes the film and informs its imagery. 


With an ambitious scope, lavish costume design and complex choreographic direction in a series of framed stable single shots, the film unfolds as a procession of endless tableaux vivants which explore cyclical rural community life with its ups and downs. The paintings come to life from static poses, dancers almost like living statues, which then slowly become animated and speed up their movements to become a dance. 

A shot from Bória by Iwona Pasińska

The idyllic circle of life is interrupted several times by an expressive contemporary dance solo of a red-haired male dancer, an individual standing in stark contrast to the group. The lyrics of a folk song in the background tell a narrative about a poor orphan girl being attacked and bitten by angry hounds with no one coming to help her.


The folklore song titled “A ballad about the orphan” is performed by Malisz Mand, and I wonder: who’s the orphan of contemporary Poland? Is it non-white refugees, who are pushed back at the borders? Is it the queer Polish youth growing up in volunteer-policed LGBT-free zones? Is it Polish women whose bodies are object of restrictive abortion laws?  


The film explores the repetitive rituals of rural communities with both mundane and historical events that structure collective life: the harvest, the festivities, the marriage, the funeral, as well as the war: in one of the vignettes dancers are crawling on the floor in a barrack-style military training, while others are marching with black boots, weapons in hand, followed by wounded soldiers and widowed women. Images that for the first time in decades seem eerily familiar in Europe. 


We see the turbulence but also the continuity of the cycle of life. In this community, enclosed within national and linguistic borders, life prevails above all crises, identity remains intact, and tradition is preserved within the same soil. This is a beautiful lost utopia, idyllic and pastoral, a broken dream being resurrected with dangerous undertones, and unfortunately manifesting in policies of exclusion, pushback, and racism. Understandably, such images of unity and reassuring repetition serve as pillars of mental stability in an extremely divisive, turbulent, deeply confusing political time. 

Does this film uphold tradition or criticize it? Does it tick boxes while using doublespeak to expose the shortcomings in its context? The resonance of the timeless story about the individual being rejected or made invisible by the community, recalls a lot of contemporary equivalents in the numerous unfolding crises on the European continent. 


Unlike the avant-garde nature of the source material, which bravely re-invents folklore through modernist formal experimentation, this film proposes a sleek, safe, highly aestheticized version of harmonious cyclical community life with little regard to the political reality of contemporary Poland or the world at large. Folklore can be an endless source of inspiration, but its contemporary reinvention should overcome its political blind spots. I am afraid this naïve and idealized version of national identity can potentially feed into the most dangerous tendencies in our societies. 


The twist in the folklore song: after the girl dies, people in the village say “It’s all our fault. To this poor orphan – we did not give shelter”. Are we, as societies, still capable of this type of self-reflection and introspection? Are we still capable of feeling collective guilt, shame and admitting our mistakes? 

This material was created within the project Translation on Air – a section dedicated to dance for the screen or screendance. Every month we invite the professional and amateur audience, tempted by this intriguing symbiosis between cinema and dance, to join our readings, conversations, and discussions with active practitioners and choreographers in this field from the country and abroad.

The project “Translation on Air” is implemented with the financial support of the National Fund “Culture” under the program “Audiences” 2020 and “One-Year Grant” 2021.

Yasen Vasilev works in the field of contemporary dance as a creator, dramatist and critic. He graduated in Dramaturgy from the Sofia Academy (2013) and has a Master’s in Intercultural Communication from the Shanghai Theatre Academy (2016). The practical research for his Master’s thesis on the politics of dance, NUTRICULA (2015-) has been developed and presented in the form of workshops and performances on an international level. IMPOSSIBLE ACTIONS, a collective performance for 10 participants, prototyped during a residency in Taipei in 2019, was produced by Radar Sofia in 2021 and won the annual Sofia City Council dance prize. It is currently on tour for the 2021-2022 season, performed by local artists in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Norway, Malta and Belgium. Yasen is the co-founder of Radar Sofia and Drama Pact, a regular collaborator of Springback Academy and dramatist of the choreographer Ehsan Hemat (Iran/Belgium).