Monday, August 17, 2009

A Time to Dance

I had tears of happiness in my eyes at the end of Libby Skala’s one-woman play, A Time to Dance, about her great aunt, Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk. As portrayed by Skala, Polk, an award-winning dance therapy pioneer, is bursting with joy, humor and a glowing life force.

It’s always uplifting to be around positive people, and Lisl certainly was that, in spite of hardships that included having to flee Vienna after the Nazis invaded and enduring a loveless marriage for more than a quarter century.

On a bare stage at the Lafayette Street Theatre, with no props other than a tambourine and maracas, Skala captures a life that spanned the entire 20th century. For an earlier presentation of this show, she won the Best Solo Performer Award at the 2007 London Fringe Theatre Festival. Now she brings this extraordinary story to the New York International Fringe Festival.

Right from the start as she dances onstage shaking her tambourine, she becomes Lisl as, with an Austrian accent, she tells her story. Born in 1902 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Lisl was a tiny baby who was not expected to live. Skala is funny as she describes the parents waiting to their child to hurry up and die, but that child wasn’t going anywhere and so her father, who sold ladies’ notions, had to take on extra work. This led him to a man who had just invented the snap but didn’t know how to market it. Lisl’s father knew, though, and all became rich.

“I knew there was a reason I stayed alive,” Lisl says triumphantly. She adds to this by revealing that after the Nazis took over she and her husband, who was Jewish, were allowed to leave Austria because they were guaranteed jobs in the New York snap factory. They then got out the whole family. “Thanks to me,” she says, gleefully shaking her tambourine.

That spirit is upheld throughout the 70-minute performance. When a youthful Lisl says she wants to be a dancer, her father is adamant that she cannot. “You will bring shame on this family,” he says, so she goes to work in his factory “where I cry over the typewriter.”

Without her father’s knowledge she does take dance lessons and this decision, like her staying alive as an infant, has a major impact on many lives years later through her work teaching dance to emotionally, physically and mentally handicapped children. She became a pioneer in creative dance and taught at the Children’s Center for Creative Arts at Adelphi University and in her own studio. A cofounder of the National Dance Teachers Guild, she would go on to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association.

Lisl drew strength throughout her adulthood from a voice that told her “I will take care of you.” She trusted that voice, believing that she had lived before her earthly life and that she would live on after death. “I am protected,” she says at one point.

Luckily, thanks to her great niece, Lisl’s life story has been protected as well. It seems Lisl’s spirit refused to die, just as her body had when she was a baby, because it was actually her grandmother that Skala had initially been interested in. In 1998 while writing her first solo play, LiLiA!, about her Oscar-nominated grandmother, actress Lilia Skala, Libby Skala interviewed her aunt Lisl. (Her grandmother was nominated for her role as the mother superior in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”)

“To my frustration,” she writes in the Playwright’s Notes, “Lisl diverted each question with stories from her own life. . . Disappointed that I hadn’t found the material I sought, the interview tapes were stashed away and forgotten.” But after Lisl died in 2001 at the age of 99, Skala wanted to hear her voice again and remembered the tapes. “What a gift she gave in that interview,” Skala writes. “She is indeed a star in her own right.”

As is Libby Skala. She betrayed not one false note or step and was shimmering as Lisl. She is accompanied by enchanting music from a CD entitled “Wake Up! Calm Down," the music her aunt used when working with children. (It can be purchased at

I strongly encourage you to see this beautiful show. Performances run until Aug. 24 at the Lafayette Street Theatre (Venue #5), 45 Bleecker St. between Lafayette and Mott Streets in NYC, on Tues. 8/18 at 8pm, Thurs. 8/20 at 9:45pm, Fri 8/21 at 3pm and Mon. 8/24 at 9:45pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at or by calling 1-866-468-7619. For more information on the show visit

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