The city has been a center for contemporary dance since the founding of Polish Dance Theater in 1973. Writing about the company on its 25th anniversary, cultural reporter Ewa Obrebowska-Piasecka remembered "watching the troupe evolve, watching how it was leaving behind the petrified tradition of ballet learned in school to enter the complex and multifarious age of postmodernity."

Today, Poznan postmodernism has a new home atop a downtown maxi-mall: Stary Browar, a red-brick monument to contemporary art, with several exhibition and performance spaces on three floors, carved out of a former brewery.

"Before the studio spaces in Stary Browar were opened, there was no regular year-round place where people in Poznan could watch dance," says Johanna Lesnierowska, who curates and programs the center for the Kulczyk Foundation. "There was a great hunger for this because the presence of Polish Dance Theatre already educated the audience.

"We are filling a gap, introducing the audience to the new trends of research in dance, to choreographers who are looking for new definitions of dance."

Among the discoveries in Stary Browar's first year: the dancing iconoclasts of Teatr Dada von Bzdulow. This group from the city of Gdansk performs the collaborative "Several Witty Observations," a propulsive, free-form exploration of themes from the writings of celebrated Polish author Witold Gombrowicz.

Using large, transparent air mattresses as props and sometimes as partners, the three dancers increasingly focus on the theme of identity theft — not merely the act of stealing credit cards or an identification number but appropriating someone else's personality, even if that means assuming a new gender.

Along the way, all sorts of deliberate fake-outs take place involving disruptive lighting and sound effects, and the cast's passing out slips of paper to the audience and even deflating the air mattresses. But the forceful, technically sop histicated dancing is never anything to laugh at. That is, not until the men lumber through a brilliant parody of that new cliché of contemporary dance, the oh-so-sensitive male duet — here, a disastrously clumsy, sweaty gymnastic tangle.

"This piece is full of meaning, with lots of levels," Leszek Bzdyl, the company's charismatic firebrand, says at lunch the next day. "There are technical levels, dramaturgy levels, levels of emotion. Some people look at it as a game involving the techniques of dance. Others see Gombrowicz. The rest might see it just as a crazy time. That's how we built it. Because at this moment, we are for everybody."

The same week, a radically different style of accessible contemporary movement theater is offered just outside Poznan on Lake Malta, usually the site of an enormous family amusement park. Across the water from its trampolines and giant rooster and clown slides stands an enormous plum-colored tent in which a former member of Cirque du Soleil and several veterans of Polish dance and theater ensembles have staged "Ocelot — the Spirit of Artistics."

Reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil

CIRQUE fans would find the expressive content familiar — fantasies and nightmares, temptresses and monsters, rock exotica — all experienced by the kind of ordinary guy who just might be plucked from the audience. But this is a small company (17 performers plus musicians) for this kind of challenge, so versatility is at a premium. Everybody has a specialty — and a lot of sidelines too.

Piotr Wasik, for example, functions as a snake dancer, contortionist and aerialist, and in all of these areas he is pretty much world-class all the way.

What "Ocelot" needs is simply a way of focusing its remarkable cast — and its intrinsically Polish identity.

Although Silesia was originally the charmingly rustic part of Poland where the 1870 ballet classic "Coppelia" was set, this region has been heavily industrial for so long that it is way off tourists' radar.

Here you'll suffer Gingerbread Deprivation Syndrome. Until recently, steel mills and coal mines polluted the landscape, undercutting such tourist-friendly enticements as a silver mine founded in 1492, historic wooden churches and storybook castles.

Many factory towns in Upper Silesia are reportedly sinking down, down, down into the abandoned coal pits underneath, but one of them — Bytom, a few minutes outside sprawling Katowice (population 317,000) and just 160 miles from Warsaw — houses what is arguably the most influential contemporary dance center in Poland.

Jacek Luminski will tell you that he founded Silesian Dance Theatre in Bytom 15 years ago partly because the local government and inhabitants wanted to establish a cultural institution to bring recognition and respect to the region.

But he also founded it, he says, because "Warsaw and Krakow always have the pretension that they have the culture that is the best developed in Poland. They never wanted to investigate any new sources for artistic growth."

Their loss. Within a short time, Luminski gave Bytom an innovative, high-profile company as well as community outreach and audience development programs, professional workshops and seminars, and an annual festival that provides local audiences with exposure to a range of Polish contemporary dance.

On the same balmy Bytom night, for instance, you might see Victoria Fox's "Déjà Vu," a breezy piece for Dance Theatre "Direct" that makes a legless woman in a wheelchair the equal partner of two dancing gymnasts. Or Ryszard Kalinowski's brooding solo "Bellissimo" for Lublin Dance Theatre, in which the superb Wojciech Kapron starts off consumed by pain but achieves a metaphysical state of grace.