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Turning the Titanic

Posted on October 3, 2017

Graham Watts talks to Tamás Solymosi, artistic director of the Hungarian National Ballet

Many will remember Tamás Solymosi as a dashing lead dancer with English National Ballet; or perhaps, as a soloist in Amsterdam, a guest principal with American Ballet Theatre or touring the world with Rudolf Nureyev; just a few of the many companies graced by his elegant dancing.

Given such high attainment, it is perhaps surprising to learn that – on graduating from the Hungarian Ballet Academy – Solymosi was not offered a contract to join his national company. Disappointed – and following the footsteps of his elder brother, Zoltán – he opted for Dutch National Ballet and a journey in dance that was mostly explored outside of his native land.

“I was like a sponge, in the west,” Solymosi explains to me when we speak, after an 11am Sunday matinée of Manon, in Budapest’s grand opera house. “I was always looking for the best to bring to Hungary because I had this feeling that I would be director, but after the first 16 years, I wasn’t sure that it would ever happen! Then the opportunity came, in a second, when the general director called me.” Solymosi didn’t know the director, Szilveszter Ókovács, prior to the call, but he was offered the directorship, starting immediately, in September 2011.

Solymosi knew he had a huge challenge, which he likens variously to steering the Titanic away from the iceberg to stopping an avalanche in its tracks. He is fond of calamitous metaphors – Ground Zero is another favourite term. “When I arrived, people didn’t know what to anticipate and that always makes for insecurity.”

The biggest issue was that he expected everybody to work to the same discipline. “For me, the rule is rule,” he explains. “I couldn’t tolerate a situation where some could decide not to do what I am asking of them.” Another problem was repertoire. “This was the only classical company in Hungary and the only thing missing was classical ballet. At least, it was not looking how I wanted. So, I had to rebuild the repertoire from ground zero.”

Some of the dancers he inherited were no longer capable of performing classical roles. “When I took over the company, I had a classical ballet dancer who was over 18 stone and 58 years old. He was a union member and considered himself untouchable. We had a few dancers who could no longer perform double tours or two pirouettes but still insisted that they were dancers.   They argued that the most essential thing was portraying character, and I agree that acting is important, but if you don’t have the technique or the body condition then it is not pleasant to see. I was paying dancers a full-time salary and all they could do was the occasional character role. At the same time they were keeping young, talented dancers out of a job.”

Solymosi’s response to this intransigence was to introduce an annual qualification test, where an invited international jury assesses each dancer. “For me, the minimum level is how they arrived from school. That’s the entry level and it cannot ever be that they are less than that. I include Hungarian jury members, and many of the international members do not know the company, and it is difficult to say that the process is not clean. I grew up in a family that did not accept corruption; no dirty business. I like to put only clean water in a glass, as we say in Hungary.”

If dancers fail to meet the standard, according to the jury’s consensus, they are given advice about how to get back to their level. “To prevent a permanent deterioration of classical ballet technique, you have to stop the avalanche when it starts. When it is already down the mountain it’s impossible to reverse. If we can see something that is not so good as last year, there is still time, if he or she works well, to get the technique back. At the beginning, we had people that didn’t want to work. So, when we started the qualification some people had to go. There were court cases and bitter conversations, but we won out, in the end.”

Solymosi’s regime has made the company more international. In just six seasons, the dance ensemble has diversified from being entirely indigenous to around a 50/50 split between dancers from Hungary and the rest of the world. Given that such a multi-national policy caused a premature end to Johan Kobborg’s tenure as director in Bucharest, I wondered how Solymosi was faring with the same approach. “It was a big Tsunami,” he concedes. “Those who favoured only having Hungarian dancers found every possibility to attack me in the media and elsewhere. My response was that ballet and music are not constrained by national boundaries – they have a shared international language. I’m just hiring very talented artists.”

The first international audition had 120 hopefuls, but in the most recent series of auditions the number of applicants had grown to 750. Solymosi believes that the rise in interest follows the growing reputation of the company and the good things that are said about it within the dancers’ network on Facebook, twitter and in corridor gossip.

Another major change has been the relationship with the state-run Ballet Academy. According to Solymosi, problems have been ongoing for many years. He claims that when he auditioned for the school, only ten boys could get a place, from 1,000 applicants (and the ratio was ten to 3,000 for girls). “The numbers have gone down so that now its maybe just 50 applicants altogether, boys and girls,” he says.

“If you go out into the street you can see how much Budapest has changed,” Solymosi continues, “and the directors of the school have to be very sensitive to what is happening outside.” He tells me of his recent visits to both the Vaganova and Moscow Ballet Schools. “I was astonished by how much they have changed,” he says. “They are very proud of their foreign students. For me, this was, like, ‘Wow’. These are the best schools and the directors are saying they have a wonderful system that can teach anyone, regardless of nationality.”

For the past five years, the Hungarian Academy has also been taking foreign students, but he believes “they are always one step behind the other schools. They need to be proactively searching for talent, especially in Hungary. They should also take care of the teachers because the old ones are retiring and are not being allowed to pass on their knowledge, so the circle is being broken.”

In September 2016, Solymosi opened his company’s own school. The catalyst actually came from the immediate needs of the stage. “We would bring in kids from the school to perform as children in the ballets, but because the State Academy became a university with many other things to do, it became very difficult to schedule them for our ballets. It was so bad that we started to do our schedule to fit in with the kids, which is clearly the wrong way around. Also, they started to push the price so high that we were paying just a little bit less for the kids than we were for a corps de ballet dancer, and I found that insulting for our professional dancers.   The final straw was when they refused to allow the kids to perform in Manon, because they didn’t see it as a proper ballet!”

Even though the new school was launched at short notice, 200 children applied to join (Solymosi expected around 35). Seventy-five youngsters, aged between six and 11, are now enjoying this new training and their parents have an innovative payment structure where their monthly costs are mitigated by the fees earned by their children on stage. “They started in September and, in December, we had 27 performances of The Nutcracker, with a lot of kids in each show and now we have Manon, Le Corsaire and Swan Lake coming up, which all need kids for market or village scenes, and so it is much easier for them to finance their place at the school.”

Finding boys is always a problem and Solymosi has now hired a dancer from the company, on the verge of retirement, to act as a talent scout in schools throughout Hungary. He has not, however, given up on the traditional ballet school. “When the kids from the government school come to the opera house to watch a ballet, I can still see the light shining in their eyes. They want to be dancers; and so I’m just hoping that this will now be very healthy competition and we can help each other to improve our respective students’ opportunities.”

Solymosi believes strongly that the influx of talented international dancers has brought the standard of Hungarian dancers up to a similar level. “It’s always important for young dancers to see good examples they wish to emulate. Dancers develop the same way, wherever they come from, and to find a reason to kick out somebody, just because they are foreign, is awful. They come here to give their talent to the Hungarian people; they pay their taxes; and they are settling and planning a life here. The younger generation is very open: Hungarian or foreign, whatever, it doesn’t make much difference to them. In my opinion, as well as raising standards, an international company creates a much better atmosphere. When I go into the studios I can see that it is a nice competition; I can see smiling faces. If I look ten years ahead, I can see our future ballet masters and the future teachers in the school. The circle is closing again.”

It would be wrong to overlook the fact that many Hungarian dancers have also prospered under Solymosi. Gergely Leblanc was a first-year corps de ballet dancer when the new director arrived. “In the old system he would have sat for years, under the barre, not getting possibilities until much later in his career. For me, this profession is so short that we have to give opportunities to talented dancers as quickly as possible; that is what I did with this guy. I arrived and already – a few months later – he was dancing the leading role in The Nutcracker. Of course, when I put his name down for it, there was outrage: ‘How can I dare to do that; he’s a corps de ballet dancer in the first year!’ I said ‘I don’t mind, he will be fine’ and he made his debut and it was wonderful. I could see already that the protesting voices were a little bit less. When a dancer proves he is good on stage, what can they say? On top of that, you know, he’s Hungarian.

“I have to underline it. I’m looking for talented people. When we are on stage, we are working for the audience. We are trying to tell a story and we are holding each other’s hands, not throats. We want to be the best for Hungary. We have to have the attitude of working together, doing the best we can. The next step is that we would like to show the company abroad.”

Solymosi is changing the fabric of the ballet company as well as its personnel. A major redevelopment of the opera house, which began in June 2017, is starting with the renovation of the ballet studios and then proceeding on to the stage, updating it to account for new technology. Simultaneously, the company is taking over a vast, vacant railway building in central Budapest – just 15 minutes’ drive from the opera house – that will house the company’s workshops, provide much needed storage and rehearsal space, as well as a new 600-seat theatre with a stage identical in size to that of the opera house. All of this will release space for new ballet studios inside the opera house. The whole of the renovation is scheduled to take just eight months, with the company returning to the opera house in April 2018. In the meantime, the 2017–18 season will begin at the company’s second home, the 2,000-seater Erkel Theatre.

Solymosi is quick to praise the arts-oriented government in Hungary. “We are very lucky because our government supports the arts. I hear that companies in other countries have to send away a lot of dancers whereas our company has grown by 25 per cent, over five years, to stand at around 125 dancers, today. When the renovations are finished we will be like the Maryinsky, with three stages to perform on, and that will probably mean more performances, more dancers and musicians and that the government will support us with bigger budgets, as well.”

Unfortunately, some things are still taking time to change. “I still have long fights with the union”, explains Solymosi, “but, I’m not the type of a man to give up on things.” A recent battle has been over the union’s successful negotiation of a three-month summer holiday for the dancers. “I would say that a good month is reasonable and after, dancers need a couple of weeks to get back in shape. Only then can we start to rehearse, but, of course, the union has different ideas about work and how we should do it. The head of the union squeezed out from management more than 70 days’ summer vacation, starting in June and running until mid-September. This was a death penalty for a dancer. If they have that much vacation, they will need one and a half months’ to get back in shape. It’s too much time not to be working. We had invitations to perform overseas during the summer break and dancers who wanted to do it, but I was not allowed to agree to it. That is no way to develop a company.”

After the first long summer break, Solymosi was proved right. “What happened was that the season started and straightaway we had some really serious injuries”. In April 2017, this collective contract was broken and company members were able to continue to take class and accept performance invitations over the summer, if they wished to do so. Solymosi estimates that about 80 per cent of the dancers continued to work throughout the summer.

There are still many problems. “Our schedule is more difficult than planning to fly to Mars,” Solymosi argues. “There are so many rules that it’s almost impossible. Now, when we have a rehearsal, after every hour we have to provide a ten-minute break. I absolutely understand that. No problem. After an hour, ten minutes; and again, another hour, ten minutes. After the final hour everyone goes home and are paid 30 minutes for that time, but the union then asked, ‘After the last hour, where is the ten minutes break?’ I said, ‘but they are going home and we are already paying, for half an hour, for them to go home.’ The union argued that we were stealing time and so we had to agree that each rehearsal would now begin with a ten-minute break! We have to be the only ballet company in the world that starts a rehearsal with a break!”

Another of his anecdotes relates to a dancer who has been with the company since 2011, but that he hasn’t seen during his time as director. Hungary has very generous maternity leave regulations, allowing the mother three years’ paid leave after giving birth. When Solymosi joined as director, one dancer had just begun her term of absence. At the end of the three years she called him and said she was pregnant again, so another three-year absence began. Solymosi had just discovered, at the time of this interview, that when that term finishes she will be entitled to all of the holiday she did not take whilst on maternity leave, which, with generous holiday contracts agreed by the union, adds more than another year to her absence from the company.   Solymosi says he is in favour of generous maternity leave, but he cannot see how a professional dancer can resume a career after a seven-year break from daily class and performance.

Solymosi’s plans for the repertoire in future seasons are appropriately ambitious. He will dedicate a whole evening to the works of Hans van Manen, as well as a full evening of ballets danced to music composed by Bela Bartók. In 2018–19, he plans another appeal to Hungarian audiences with the long-awaited return of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling and he is seeking to bring John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias to the company. He also plans to develop new choreography from Hungarian creatives, a process begun with this season’s full-length A Streetcar Named Desire by the company’s ballet mistress, Marianna Veneke.

“I would like to put this company on the map,” says Solymosi. “If someone says Hungarian National Ballet, I want everybody to know the reputation of this company.” However, this upward trajectory has been challenging. “This place is like the Titanic. You can see the iceberg and you try and try to turn away from it; but it all happens, so slowly. This is now my sixth season and I can see that we are just beginning to find a different direction. It’s an international company now, not just local people. The dancers that have come here have brought a lot of talent, a great attitude and a strong work ethic. I’ve also been fortunate to have the support of the same general director that appointed me, throughout this time. Together, we have made a kind of transfusion that is just starting to take this company on a course towards the international reputation I aspire to achieve.”

Photographs: TAMÁS GACS.

Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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