The first major abstract ballet made for the stage at David H. Koch Theater (then the New York State Theater) was George Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, a work heavily steeped in Austro-Hungarian influence. The ballet’s fourth movement (danced at the 1966 premiere by Suzanne Farrell, Jacques D’Amboise, and a cast of 16 corps dancers) reveals how Hungarian folk dance has infiltrated classical ballet in America. The work also perfectly utilizes the theater’s expansive stage; tambourines shake and ribbons fly while skirts spin and legs kick to impossible heights, conjuring a level of onstage joy and abandon not easily topped.
Today, most professional ballet dancers have been exposed to Hungarian character dance. Yet though this exhilarating style is recognized as a valuable component to a classical ballet training, Tamás Solymosi, Hungarian National Ballet’s artistic director, knows that it cannot be the company’s selling point. Until 2011, when Hungarian-born Solymosi took the helm, the 150-year-old company presented works by primarily Hungarian choreographers, which sometimes integrated the merits of Hungarian folk dance into their folds, and attracted a proud and dedicated national audience to the Hungarian State Opera House.
Solymosi knew that a company too consumed by its cultural heritage could not stand as a world-class company. His own career as a dancer, with stops at the English National Ballet, Het National Ballet in Amsterdam, Vienna State Opera, as a guest with American Ballet Theatre, and on tour with Nureyev and Friends, taught him not only to value works by international choreographers, but of the absolute necessity for a solid classical foundation in dancers’ technique.
Seven years later, astonishingly, Solymosi has managed to give the Hungarian National Ballet a makeover, thus catapulting the company to the forefront of the international dance scene. With dancers from Hungary, Russia, Italy, Asian countries, and beyond, the 125-member company, trained mostly in the Russian Vaganova technique, performs over 110 performances each season with unmannered style and a refreshing pleasure of performing. And thanks to Solymosi’s time away from home, the company now has access to a repertoire by ballet’s heavy- weight choreographers, including John Cranko, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, George Balanchine, Harald Lander, Hans van Manen, Michael Messerer, Jiří Kylián, and Johan Inger. A glance at the 2018-2019 season repertoire says it all: In addition to Giselle, dancers perform Hungarian premieres of works by contemporary dance masterminds Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar (Bedroom Folk) and William Forsythe (The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude). Additionally, the program GIF, Girls in Focus, celebrates the company’s women, featuring Troy Game, by Robert North—a work created for men and performed by a cast of women since 2014. And naturally, the company still honors its roots with works like Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, featuring music by Franz Liszt, and Hungarian choreographer László Seregi’s 1972 staging of Sylvia.
In Budapest, the quest to connect classical ballet with cultural identity is directed toward the future. Outreach performances for young audiences present admirably mature works at the theater’s more intimate Erkel Theatre (including Johan Inger’s Walking Man and Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort) to draw in Hungary’s next generation of ballet goers. Dancers receive opportunities to choreograph; notably, principal dancer Karina Sarkissova choreographs a new work for each New Year’s celebration that dancers perform on location at Budapest’s famous architectural sites. The Hungarian State Opera house is currently undergoing major renovations to make it a state-of-the-art theater for the 21st century. Experimental performance space and storage facilities are being constructed at the Eiffel Art Studios. And Solymosi is spearheading plans to establish an academy to train future Hungarian dancers, drawing inspiration from other major companies around the world.
For Solymosi, the best indication of a ballet company’s level is its execution of the classics, hence his choice of repertoire for its United States debut. But the company’s overall forward momentum is still evident; the dancers, many of whom perform principal roles as corps dancers—a tactic that Solymosi has discovered jumpstarts the entire company to improve—exude fresh energy and pride in their work. Rudi van Dantzig’s Swan Lake and Michael Messerer’s Don Quixote are rife with opportunities to witness dancers infuse ballet with a unique flair for the dramatic—yes, also in the character dances. And three works by Hans van Manen in the program LOL—too formidable to be performed by the faint of heart and rarely seen in the United States—are true tests of technical strength and exactitude. “You have to set the bar just a little higher than anyone thinks is possible,” Solymosi explains. “That way, the goal is attainable, and everyone is proud to achieve it.” Precision and forward motion, the company demonstrates, is Hungarian dance for the 21st century, finally presented on a New York stage big enough to contain such energy.
Lucy Van Cleef is a freelance culture writer based in Berlin.