TWO famous folk dance companies are touring the United States at once, and one recent weekend the Boston area fairly resounded with the tread of soft leather boots and Slavic yips of joy as Mazowsze performed Polish dances in Lowell, while Moscow's Moiseyev Dance Company packed Boston's Wang Center. For two companies that were started only 11 years apart, the Mazowsze and Moiseyev are remarkably different - a difference that gives a hint of how a dance that starts in a village is changed by the time it goes onstage in a world tour.
The 150 or so dancers in the Moiseyev company each seem to have their own specialty. That is, there seemed to be at least that many impossible leaps, limb-flailing turns, and ways of traveling across the floor in a crouch. Just going through their paces in ``The Road to Dance,'' a piece set in a classroom, they had the audience numb with astonishment. Imagine a whole row of men sitting on their heels and kicking first one leg then another out from under themselves while advancing inexorably on the audience. If their incredible strength weren't enough, Moiseyev has them whistle shrilly at us as one of them bolts right over the others as if to ambush us.
By contrast, the Mazowsze's strength lay in its ensemble work. In fact, the handsome blonds were so unified that a Polish-American folk dancer friend called them the ``Polish Rockettes.'' The Rockette image is offset by spontaneity. They yip and hoot while they dance, and fully three-fourths of these outcries seem sincere. They also beam with their eyes while singing in piercing harmonies.
Their movement was almost always in patterns - circles, diagonal lines, circles-within-circles, and circles of couples, choreographed by Witold Zapala. They held their torsos upright, their heads high, and sometimes a hand rather aristocratically aloft as they spread before us an encyclopedia of their culture. The pace of the evening was brisk, but they seemed unhurried; they were where they needed to be at the right time. The dancing was varied, and they showed the different styles, all based on clever footwork, with clarity.
Of course, there is a difference between Russian and Polish folk dancing, but these two companies are also dancing in different directions. Igor Moiseyev was a dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet when he started his company out of enthusiasm for folk dance in 1937. He works best when he's telling a story. He leads us into a stunning Moldavian zhok with a little tale about how the village busybody gets a shy bumpkin together with a pretty girl. When they finally kiss, a line of men leaps in from the wings. They encircle the women, smacking the floor soundly with their black boots and holding their shoulders so rigid it looks as if the hangers are still in their costumes. The line of their shoulders makes the circle look geometrically perfect, and directs our eyes down to those boots, with skirts flying in between them. It's a brilliant, very simple moment.
``Partisans,'' a dance about ethnic mountaineers who fought with the Allies in World War II, has one very simple device. Dancers sweep around the stage in long, broad-shouldered, black capes that brush the floor. They move rapidly, but because they hold their heads and shoulders perfectly still, they look like they're on horseback. Moiseyev puts them in front of moving orange flames, and sends shivers up your spine.
He seems to want to tell travel tales after all his touring. The company does an Aragonese jota and an Argentine malamba with a heavy Russian accent, and he is reportedly looking for a jazz composer who will provide accompaniment for a ballet about the urban jungle. He is evidently not content to stick with the gopaks that made him famous.
Mazowsze, on the other hand, is a living museum of folk culture, and a glamorous one. Mira Ziminska, a former Polish movie star, started the company with her composer husband, Tadeusz Sygietynski, in 1948. With choreographer Witold Zapala, she has chosen to streamline her material, but leave it rich, detailed, and complicated.
The evening is like an orderly, harmonious explosion of vivid colors and vigorous stepping. The pace ranges from the stalking, elegant polonaise, still redolent of haughty, prewar ballrooms, to the double-time clogging from the Tatra mountains, which just warmed up the dancers for squat-kicks, leaping over their own legs, and clanking axes together while running in a circle. A grape-harvest dance is so slow and sweet, with dancers patiently twining and untwining garlands and vines, that you feel warmed by the sun. The kujawiak, a national dance, seems to embody this love of changing paces, going from an alluring hesitation to brisk, witty footwork in the course of one dance.
THE Mazowsze costumes are as dazzling as the dance. Ziminska has specialized in costumes, and the company still collects authentic pieces from Polish families. Deputy general director Jerzy Wojcik showed off some of them backstage during intermission. I hefted a wool and velvet skirt that may have weighed 25 pounds. Onstage, these skirts, striped in orange, red, green, and purple, open and close like beach umbrellas as dancers whip through countless perfect turns. Male finery includes Turkish-inspired, ballooning red-and-white-striped pants under trim blue vests with flapping knee-length skirts.
The Mazowsze's strategy seems to be to show just a tiny bit less, rather than too much. All the costumes, the brilliant colors, the steps, and the floor patterns make you dizzy, but after two hours you've seen the culture of 24 of Poland's regions. At the end, I wondered where the time had gone.
Igor Moiseyev goes for the sensational stunts and the dramatic, simple elements that make for a good tale. Even as he roves the world and looks to contemporary times, he's like the stereotypical shrewd peasant storyteller.
Mazowsze, sticking to the circles, lines, vine-twining, and polite bearing of the Polish village, opens to us a rich microcosm, and makes us suspect there's even more. Ironically, this view is the more sophisticated of the two. This company is well-traveled enough to know there's no place like home, choreographically at least.
The Moiseyev Dance Company performs at Radio City Music Hall, New York, through Jan. 31. Mazowsze performs in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, tonight; Detroit, Jan. 27-29; Ann Arbor, Mich, Jan. 30; East Lansing, Mich., Jan. 31, Feb. 1; Midland, Mich., Feb. 2; Cleveland, Feb. 3-4; Erie, Pa., Feb. 5; Dayton, Ohio, Feb. 7; Pittsburgh, Feb. 8; Danville, Ky., Feb. 9; Miami Beach, Feb. 11-12; and Tampa, Fla., Feb. 14-19.