Thriving Hungarian traditional music and dance is travelling the world
Established in 1951, The Hungarian State Folk Ensemble performs across the world, bringing the traditional folk music and dance culture of the Carpathian Basin to its audiences. While this traditional folk culture is at the heart of the Ensemble (all of the performers have a degree in dance and have studied with masters to learn and represent these cultural traditions) this is far from a company stuck in the past. Talking with the company directors, Director/Choreographer Gábor Mihályi, and Artistic Director István Pál Szalonna, it is clear they are enthusiastic about bringing these art forms into the modern day.
“Even the more traditional shows have contemporary elements,” explains Mihályi. “What you see in the performances is around 70% based on the Carpathian Basin’s folk traditions and folk dances, then we mix this with modern dances to give a contemporary frame to our shows. I believe we have to focus on the current times, we can’t work with 10-15 year old cliches”.
While being passionate about the Carpathian Basin’s rural folk dance and music, Mihályi is keen that the Ensemble’s performances allow room for progression and, when exploring new work, he acknowledges the importance of creating a dialogue around what remains relevant to contemporary society.
“We have a wide generation of dancers in the company. Different generations can portray roles in different ways so we discuss with our dancers what tradition means to them. We talk about what we need to keep from it, what we need to put away because it’s no longer relevant or useful, and we reach a consensus on our ideas” says Mihályi.
With around 10 different shows a year, and 100-120 performances, there’s certainly opportunity for the Ensemble to explore and experiment. “We have a wide audience, who have different preferences, so while most shows focus on traditional aspects, we do include contemporary shows as well” Mihályi says.
However, Mihályi recognises the unique placement of the Ensemble and is clear that they are not aiming to create contemporary ballet performances. “We can only be unique if we follow our own traditions and convey our cultural heritage. Then we can be different from other nation’s dance companies,” Mihályi notes. “I’d say that Hungary is a world leader in collecting folk dances and music, it has a tradition that goes back around 140 years. Hungarians collected music all around the Carpathian Basin, in every village. Here [at the Hungarian Heritage House, where the Ensemble are resident] we have an archive consisting of more than 1000 pieces, and the director continues collecting pieces with his professor. The Hungarian Academy of Dance also has the biggest archive in Europe of folk music”.
It is this rich resource of cultural knowledge and heritage, alongside their own contemporary influence, that the Ensemble draw on in the creation of their performances - and which they will bring to London audiences when they perform their show Liszt Mosaics at Sadler’s Wells in June.
Inspired by the music and life of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, Mihályi explains that the show revolves around three main themes: Liszt the Hungarian, Liszt the priest and Liszt the virtuoso.
“Even though Liszt is the most famous Hungarian composer, we don’t really see dance performances based on his work in Hungary. We felt a certain lack and wanted to do something about it”, Mihályi says. “We started to examine the work of Liszt, through music and dance, and found the three themes that we felt were important to explore”.
There is no storyline to Liszt Mosaics. Instead the performance unfolds through an exploration of Liszt’s music, alongside the music of composers who influenced his work such as Paganini and Chopin and, naturally, traditional Hungarian folk music and dance.
“We have scenes where we focus on our traditions, and scenes where we focus on Liszt's music and his life,” explains Mihályi. “We found it was the music that guided us. That also influenced our visual elements - we display sheet music on the stage a lot, you can see it on the costumes and on the set design.”
As such, the performance features two violinists who each represent two different types of music. Mihályi tells us that one violinist represents Paganini’s music, who had a strong influence on Liszt (Liszt played arrangements of his music on the piano) while the other represents the rural folk music of Hungary.
“Liszt’s music is the music of Hungarian Romanticism and that period” Mihályi continues. “What links Liszt and our traditional folk dance and music is the rhythm - the rhythm has its roots in Hungarian culture”.
“Each dance has a rhythm to it, we wanted to recognise that when we were collecting these pieces together” adds Artistic Director István Pál Szalonna, before enthusiastically tapping out the rhythms of different dances on the table. “Aside from the lyrical pieces, we wanted to focus on and capture those fast rhythms within the pace of the work”.
Watching the Ensemble perform in their home theatre at the Hungarian Heritage House in Budapest, the intricacy of these rhythms is striking. Along with the accompanying music, often performed live on stage, the layers of sound created through the dancer’s complex footwork and body percussion gives their dance an infectious joie de vivre
While there are moments that are more serious or melancholic, that playful spirit runs through the work. As Mihályi points out, Liszt himself lived a boheme lifestyle (he only became a priest later in his life). “We wanted to represent that Liszt was a boheme” says Mihályi. “We want to wink at the audience now and then. After all, we’re not in the 19th century. We represent the 21st century and 21st century people who are modern, lively, friendly”.
That expression of life through movement is, perhaps, at the core of both Mihályi’s ethos on dance and the Ensemble’s work. “I believe we love dance because we can express and explain things that words cannot,” explains Mihályi. “We convey feelings and visions through movement. We convey traditions, nostalgia and memories. I believe dance conveys this well.”
It is that sense of humanity, combined with sharing the traditions and heritage of Hungary, that the company hopes will connect with their audiences when they bring Liszt Mosaics to Sadler’s Wells in London 3rd June.
Written by Rachel Elderkin