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Five Dances – a modern ballet evening in Budapest

Posted on June 7, 2013

Five Dances – a modern ballet evening

Hungarian National Ballet, Erkel Theatre, Budapest – June 1, 2013

In its aim to attract newcomers to enjoy dance, the Hungarian National Ballet certainly got things right when putting together its latest evening of modern ballets. With pieces not too long to let attention wander, and accompanied by beautiful music with plenty of passion and comedy to please everyone, the two-hour programme did just what it set out to do. The 2,000-seat auditorium of the Erkel Theatre in Budapest was packed with all ages, from youngsters to oldies, and their enthusiasm for the programme was infectious. Whistles, cheering, slow (appreciative) handclapping followed the curtain calls, and for those more used to the big story-telling traditional ballet evenings the company is known for, this programme certainly opened eyes to seeing that dance without specific scenarios can be just as entertaining.

The company has had a new lease of life under its new director, Tamas Solymosi (in Hungarian, it is Solymosi Tamas as surnames are placed first), now in his second year. Known in the UK from his dancing days with English National Ballet, he has performed around the world – with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, with companies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Oslo, Munich – and he was a regular guest with American Ballet Theatre. Our paths crossed 20 years ago and he is just as charming, energetic and enthusiastic now, especially when talking about the future of the company (he’s just signed for another five years). “I have stopped dancing,” he told me, “because you need to be full ‘hands-on’ in this job. I think it is impossible to dance as well.” I watched Solymosi rehearsing two principals in one of the large airy studios in the Opera House and, jumping up to demonstrate difficult lifts and steps, he showed he still has the refinement and strength of his former days.

“I initially had to clear out a good amount of ‘dry wood’,” he continued, “and now the company is young, vital and talented.” This is evident in the company’s classy new brochure showing the principal dancers performing powerful leaps that would grace any of the world’s top stages. “That was my plan,” he said proudly. “We need to show we are not an old-fashioned company.” And because they are young, the dancers have families, so Solymosi’s latest plan for next season is to start a nursery in the Opera House, which will care daily for under school-aged offspring while parents work. “The first in a ballet company I think,” he said smiling broadly. Indeed, the studio had its fair share of little ones watching parents on the Saturday morning I attended a rehearsal of the ever popular, and financially rewarding, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. “The company is made up of 100 dancers, mostly Hungarian with 12 other nationalities, and there are plans to increase the numbers to 115 – our auditions will be next January,” he added. “There are at present 100 performances a year, which will increase to 120. Our repertoire is like a pyramid. The large base is ballet classics – story telling traditional ballets, many big Hungarian works – in the middle section comes modern works, and on top at the point, experimental works.”

The company uses two venues for its performances – the Opera House and the Erkel Theatre. “The prices are too high for most families at the Opera House with today’s low wages, so we keep them down for the Erkel. You can see a performance for one euro,” he laughed. Indeed, when I looked at my ticket in the third row of the auditorium, which had a perfect view of the stage, I note that it cost 500 forints – approximately £1.50. That’s the way to introduce dance to the public! And that was what the evening of Five Dances was about, for not only was there excellent dancing to be seen but the choice of choreographers was good to ease the way for new viewers: David Dawson, Wayne Eagling, Andros Lukacs and Jirí Kylián with the music of Richter, Wagner, Glass and Mozart.

London-born Dawson created his piece On the Nature of Daylight for an AIDS dance gala in 2007, and one could read into the six-minute piece the emotions of a love story with a sad ending. Dawson says that it is about searching for, and hopefully finding, the love of your life, and questions if that is the result of chance or luck.

The work opens with a man in a cotton shirt and beige pants, his back to the audience, opening raised arms in slow, graceful motion. Behind him, also facing the back, is a woman in a short white shift. They begin to move separately around the stage, reaching and stretching for the unknown until, with a sudden swoop, he catches her and twirls her around like a limp rag. There’s a magnetic pull between them for now, as soon as they separate, they snap back together with smooth, flowing action. The stage is dark save for a patch of light across the centre and the dancers bathe in this. Dawson’s style here is lyrical and fluid, and the dancers skilfully cope with his high, upside down poses and the slides across the floor like ice-skating champions.

In this performance, Alexandra Kozmer was elegantly smooth and poignant. A self assured and strong ballerina, she expressed herself in moments of joyous passionate entwining and leaps, while Zoltan Olah showed himself a sensitive and confident partner with beautiful lines, good technical skill and emotion. The piece is full of feeling and Richter’s moving score sets the mood. The ending is sad—just as suddenly as their meeting, he kisses her and they part.

Dawson leaned some of his skills and style from his years at Dutch National Ballet when Eagling was director there. In Duet, created by Eagling in 1995, there were a few déjà-vu moments of Dawson in the lifts and floor sliding. In this production, the wondrous music of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde – played live by the Hungarian National Ballet orchestra under its conductor Imre Kollar – sent shivers down the spine. The aria, sung by Maria Farkasreti, added poignancy and heartache as she sang of the heroine’s last moments before she, like Tristan, dies.

The dark stage reveals two dancers silhouetted in a posed high lift at the back of the stage before blackout. Then, appearing left front, the ballerina’s torso is lit and she begins slow, deliberate steps backwards until the man catches her. As with Dawson’s piece, there are a lot of precise lifts and elegant dragging. In Duet, Eagling has created expressive and poetic choreography that flows and fills the surging passions of the music. There was a last-minute change of cast due to injury, and perhaps that accounted for the diluted “surging passion” on stage. While his dancing was to be commended, Make Bato made little eye contact with his partner and missed opportunities to make his emotions speak out. He became more often the manipulator, rather than the lover of the beautiful Dace Radina, whose supple and pliant body breathed the necessary passion and desire. Alas, there was only one moment for an intake of breath from the audience, and that was when the two suddenly came together on the ground and looked at each other tenderly, as Wagner’s theme soared. After all the music’s ecstatic risings and fallings, the piece came to a quiet ending with the boy tenderly carrying off the woman who was wrapped around him like a big hug.

Whirling is a piece that has already been performed by the company. Its creator is Hungarian-born Lukacs who, after graduating from the Hungarian Dance Academy, studied at Elmhurst School for Dance. With music by Philip Glass, the piece is just that – whirling and swirling of hands, legs and bodies – with lots of running and windmilling arms for eight couples. The women have loose hair, and wear black shifts with low backs while the men are dressed in shiny black plastic biker shorts. – The movements are quirky and yet clever. It is perpetual motion – as one dancer leaves, often with fleet chaîné turns, the next arrives. Just watching the pace and energy leaves one breathless, and it is no surprise when the dancers “choreographically” collapse on their backs on the floor at the very end from exhaustion.

After the interval – and the audience’s speedy return to their seats (Royal Opera House take note) – the curtain rose for two of Kylián’s works from his famous Black and White Ballets. I missed English National Ballet’s recent performances of Petite Mort, which was created for the 1991 Salzburg Festival to celebrate the bi-centenary of Mozart’s death, so it was good to see the work, and see it performed well, by this company. Starting in silence, the men slowly walk on backwards, each balancing a fencing foil on a finger. They show off their instruments with precision and perfect timing, wrapping the foils around their bodies, necks and knees, picking them up from the floor with their toes, and splicing the air with dangerous sounding swooshes. Swiftly, they rush to the back and return with a silken swathe that ripples and billows, engulfing the stage. Just as smartly they retreat with it, revealing the women lying submissively on their backs beside the foils. Ah, now the scene is set for some sexual hi-jinks – some quite explicit.

The ballet, with six men in flesh coloured high-waisted shorts and six women in back-laced corsets, reveals the contrasting emotions of aggressive and sexual behaviour and tenderness. Kylián fills every moment with beautiful images and dynamic challenging choreography. All the dancers were slick and technically proficient, dancing with grace, control and commitment. The youngsters in the audience especially loved the large, black panniered dress forms that rolled on castors around the stage with the women inside them. With luxuriant intensity, the orchestra played Mozart’s soothing Adagio and Andante from his Piano Concertos in A major and C major (plaudits to pianist Gergely Teleki).

Six Dances is another highly entertaining work by Kylián that brought many chuckles from the audience. A weird collection of white-faced dancers with bright red lips, dressed in what Kylian calls “Mozartian underwear” – pantaloons and petticoats – stand staring out at the audience with bewildered and embarrassed stares. The women’s hair is frizzed outrageously and the men have curled powdered wigs. The era may be Mozartian, but underlying the work is evidence of today’s universal dilemmas and conduct. The ballet is humorous –talcum powder showers as the dancers turn their heads or pat their bodies; the steps are misshapen and off kilter; the pace is swift and entertaining, with plenty of comic action. The black dress forms return to make more appearances, this time in Pythonesque moments with men inside them – one sporting a beard and long bright orange curls! The fun and games continue until the finale, when the dancers again stare out at the audience in bewilderment as soap bubbles flutter down from above. The audience went wild with whistles and cheers, and the clapping went on for many minutes. The Erkel auditorium was filled with smiling faces as the curtain finally fell.

Pictured above is Andros Lukacs’ Whirling. Photograph by Szilvia Csibi.

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