It seems Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk was frequently overshadowed by her sister, Lilia Skala, the glamorous actress best remembered for her Academy-nominated supporting performance in Lilies of the Field. Yet, Polk’s influence was perhaps even more profound as a pioneer in the field of dance therapy for special need children. Having previously dramatized her grandmother’s life in the one-person show LiLia!, Libby Skala now shines the solo spotlight on Polk in A Time to Dance, now playing during the 2009 Fringe Festival NYC.
As Skala tells her great aunt’s story, a portrait emerges of a woman of destiny. Born premature, Polk was not expected to live, yet thrived under the care of a loving nanny. Representing another mouth to feed, she forced her father to seek out new business opportunities. That lead to a very lucrative arrangement with the designers of the new-fangled garment snap fastener (or “schnap fastener”), which led to an association with an American factory that very likely saved the lives of Polk and her family during World War II.
In America thanks to the sponsorship of her father’s manufacturing contacts, Polk went through a period of personal and professional uncertainty adjusting to her new life. However, she would find her true calling in dance. A born teacher and a modernist through-and-through, Polk started modestly, simply teaching neighborhood children in her basement. Chancing by a school for the deaf, Polk impulsively offered her services to the principal, beginning a long career teaching dance to physically and developmentally disabled children. An inspiration to students and colleagues alike, she finally retired at the vigorous age of ninety.
Dramatically well structured, Skala ends the show with a moving episode that takes Polk’s story full circle back to Europe. Although Skala lays on the accent a bit thick at times, she convincingly conveys the indomitable spirit of the trailblazing dance therapist. Dance fans should note though, while there is choreography integrated into the show, Time is more about celebrating Polk’s life and love of dance than recreating her performances.
While part of the Fringe Festival, Polk’s story has the potential to appeal to a wide commercial audience as an inspiring story of the immigrant experience. A model of early feminism, Polk pursued her dancing despite family disapproval. In doing so, she touched the lives of thousands of children through her compassion and respect. An accessible show based on a rich life, Time runs through August 24th at the Lafayette Street Theatre as part of Fringe.
(Libby Skala photo by Damon Calderwood)