The Warsaw Debutants' Ball 'An Invitation from Fryderyk Chopin'

Click on photographs to enlarge

Debutant tableau vivant and performance by Przemyslaw Pankiewicz of the Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No:1 'The Military' that opened the
Warszawski Bal Debiutantow

The Debs dancing a splendid Mazur - one of a number of spirited Polish dances during the evening which included an oberek and a krakowiak as well as innumerable Viennese waltzes

In recent years there has been an attempt to resuscitate some of the old aristocratic traditions of the great noble families in Poland. This charity ball known in Polish as the Warszawski Bal Debiutantow is under the patronage of the Polish Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and is in its sixth year. The beneficary will be the newly established Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Equipment Rental Centre which is located in a finely restored Vodka Distillery known as  Koneser situated in the fascinating and developing bohemian artistic area of Warsaw known as Praga, an historic suburb on 'the other side' of the Vistula. 

At my age to attend a ball featuring glamorous young people from old Polish aristocratic circles may be considered optimistic at worst and foolhardy at best. But on Saturday evening I donned my black tie outfit from Eve & Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane London (robe makers since 1689) and set out with Zosia, the beautiful Polish princess, seductively dressed in a black ball gown with transparent lace and revealing divisions in all the right places. Well it was in a charitable cause to be rubbing shoulders with the young Czartoryskis, Bylickis, and Tarnowskis. There was a smattering of 'foreign' artistocratic debutants too such as the immortally named Constance de Bazelaire de Boucheporn, Jadwiga von Thun und Hohenstein, Amedee de Radzitzky d'Ostrowick and Alexander O'Rourke-Potocki. In fact there was an entire weekend of activites for the young people but I was limited to the ball.

The event began in a very Polish fashion with many of the dinner table allocations printed on small cards  being forced into a shambolic mound at the end of a long trestle table (particularly from 'K' onwards). Again in the customary Polish fashion, the masses leaning over each other, apologising and hopelessly shuffling through the almighty mix-up was taken in good part. The scrum was accompanied by that familiar Polish laughter that erupts self-effacingly when confronted with any sudden and unexpected reversal in life.

The ball took place in a vast marquee erected on the lawn below the Royal Castle and attached to a monumental colonnade originally designed by the architect Jakub Kubicki in 1818. The Kubicki Arcades, now a Public Space for events and concerts, are a triumph of engineering and sensitive restoration only completed last year.  At one point in 1995 the arcades were slowly sliding down the escarpment towards the Vistula River and oblivion.  

The marquee was filled with beautifully set tables scattered with rose petals, candles and Chopin chocolates in a box shaped like a grand piano (actually surprisingly delicious), a huge dance floor and immense stage holding a full traditional dance 'big band'.  Speeches of welcome for the 'High Patronage' of the event by the Warsaw Mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and the Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (who was unable to attend). The  'Military' Polonaise Op. 40 No:1 by Chopin was excellently performed in a robust interpretation by the young pianist Przemyslaw Pankiewicz (but unfortunately with all the repeats which makes it an interminable piece so familiar has it become).

This was followed by The Grand Entrance of the Debutants and spirited Polish dancing of the oberek (a fast 'spinning' dance), the mazur (a folk dance originally from the Mazovia region around Warsaw which became hugely popular in ballrooms throughout Europe in the nineteenth century) and the krakowiak (a dance from Krakow supposedly imitating the movement of horses). They also danced some romantic Viennese waltzes. One can quite easily agree with Napoleon's high estimation of the refined and elegant beauty of Polish girls (alright.....alright....'women'). Some couples were clearly at a professional level of ballroom dancing and one young 'officer' with a particularly dashing moustache and stunning partner in clinging cream silk, a beautiful Polish 'reed', convinced me of the safety of the Polish aristocratic gene pool despite the strenuous efforts by neighbouring barbarians to wipe it from the face of the earth.  

Dinner was served from 9.15 pm. It was a rather mediocre affair and tepid  but serving 800 guests a piping hot meal simultaneously is beyond even the 'swearing chef' Gordon Ramsay I expect. Interspersed with the 'big band' numbers were the results of the fancy dress competition Fryderyk Chopin and his time (won by a lady in a huge ballgown printed with Chopin's music - a week in Tuscany for four people in a luxury villa hotel. Yes, quite a prize.

I would have given the crown to the deliciously erotic ball gown  inspired by the Man Ray photograph  called Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) of 1924. The black gown had a fine flesh-coloured netting back, dramatically open and plunging,  on which the f holes of a string instrument were embroidered in black diamantes (Swarowski crystals?). Clearly the gown was inspired by the famous picture by the American photographic artist and Surrealist painter Man Ray. Using a photograph of his model Kiki posing nude in a turban, he had transformed her into a musical instrument with a few deft brushstrokes. She was thus objectified and her beauty appreciated at once. Certainly I could not take my eyes of the lady in question - brilliant. Needless to say (perhaps even disappointingly) she was not revealing quite as much further down as Kiki did in the wild 1920s photograph.

Man Ray gelatin silver print Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) 1924

I danced a jive and something slow with one of my favourite ladies of all time, Professor Irena Poniatowska from The Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. She really is a miracle of energy, exuberance and brilliant intelligence. I just hope I have even a small percentage of her joie de vivre when I am her age.

Zosia and I 'waltzed the night away' but I had forgotten many of the dance steps (particularly the 'reverse') of the Viennese Waltz learned at great expense many years ago for the Vienna Opera Ball. Spinning makes me so giddy these days! The debutants did a witty turn when they reversed the dance roles - the girls took on the role of  the boys and wore tailcoats while the boys rather ineffectually, but very amusingly, tried to become dancing girls with folkloric shawls.

By about 2.30 am my feet (and also Zosia's high heels) had become impossibly painful appurtenances and so we headed back to our home by the Vistula on the northern borders of the city.

A joyful and uplifting evening of some style and distinction. All that was missing were some splendid nineteenth century Polish cavalry officers in full dress uniform and a dashing military ambience.


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