Until the 1980s there were only eight professional dance troupes in Hungary, each of which was either a ballet or a folk dance company. These companies each premiered a maximum of two productions per year, and – aside the Győr, Pécs, and the National Ballet, who had a permanent performance venue, could present their work to the public only at festivals, or in a rented space. Only one professional periodical, the monthly magazine Tancművészet – and occasionally some daily papers – published news, articles, and reviews about the latest international trends and events. This self-imposed isolation from anything new, as well as the exclusive state control over all artistic issues and financial support resulted in a strongly centralized and monolithic dance scene, which, however, suddenly began to crumble in the early 1980s. Despite these efforts the hub and centre of the dance scene has remained Budapest, since the bulk of the companies is based here. The only exceptions are the five major provincial cities: aside from the ballet companies of Pécs, Győr and Szeged, each boasting an illustrious past, two recently established ensembles, Miskolc Ballet and a professional folkdance ensemble, the Bartok Dance Theatre of Dunaújvaros now operate outside of Budapest. Besides the Hungarian National Ballet and the three major folk dance ensembles (the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, the DunaArt Ensemble, and the Honvéd Dance Theatre, all of the independent companies enrich the capital’s dance scene, while none of the dance troupes formed in provincial cities (Veszprém, Eger, Debrecen) has been able to endure.
Prior to World War II there was only one ballet company in Hungary, the dance troupe of the Royal Hungarian Opera (now called the Hungarian National Ballet). The 1930s saw the first flourishing of the ensemble, as that was the time when it s chief choreographers (Jan Cieplinski from Poland, Gyula Harangozó and occasionally Aurel Milloss) tried to develop a repertory, adopting the artistic innovations of the Ballets Russes. At the same time the first generation of Hungarian modern dance – who referred to themselves as movement artists with reference to the German Bewegungskunst – maintained close connections with the centres of new dance of the era, namely the Hellerau and Laxenburg – and established a looser relationship with Rudolf Lábán – , while its most prominent representatives (Alice Madzsar, Valéria Dienes, and Olga Szentpál) developed their own movement systems, led private schools and dance companies. It was also in the 1930s that Bela Bartok’s and Zoltan Kodaly’s native Hungary saw the beginning of folk dance research, whose pioneers were accomplished ethnographers and choreographers. The “sovietization” of the 1948-49 period radically reshaped the arts scene as well: the one act dances in the repertory of the State Opera were replaced by full length standard works of the romantic and classical era, as well as by Soviet story ballets. The teaching of modern dance was banned by ministerial order; the schools closed down, the leaders of the companies suddenly found themselves in a vacuum and were deprived of their professional and existential means of survival. This autocratic grasp on the cultural scene gradually slackened from the early 1960s, when the first modern ballet in Hungary, Pécs Ballet, was formed, while the corps de ballet appearing in operatic interludes in Szeged, Miskolc, and Debrecen could not endure. The 1970s for the ballet of the State Opera was also the beginning of the career of László Seregi, whose works ultimately gave an unmistakable character to the company. And it was also the period that saw the emergence of the new generation of folk dance choreographers (Katalin Győrfalvy, Ferenc Novák, Sandor Tímar) who turned against the prevalent view in the professional ensembles that folklore is mainly festive decoration. These younger creative artists delved deeper and deeper into the historical strata of the dance traditions of the Carpathian Basin working out a new, contemporary dance theatre idiom. The next major shift occurred in the late 1970s, when Győr Ballet was founded, a company adopting the ideals of Maurice Bejart ‘s dance theatre, at the same time, the newly established Folk Theatre provided a permanent performance site for a folk dance theatre ensemble which used folklore not to tell stories, but as a universal and contemporary dance vocabulary. In the early 1980s private initiatives also began to mushroom. A few dancers started participating in short summer courses outside Hungary (Cologne, Dresden). The establishment of Creative Movement Studio followed, which invited guest teachers from abroad, while Szkéné, a university theatre, began to organize annual movement theatre festivals and summer courses (IDMC) in dance. Thanks to the efforts of Görgy Szabó, Petőfi Hall, established in 1986, opened its doors to renowned international contemporary artists, as well as an ever increasing number of Hungarian independent companies experimenting with diverse branches of art.
Following the 1989 regime change, Budapest was the first to begin subsidizing performances by various independent theatres, including dance theatres. This was complemented by the subsidy scheme of the Ministry of Culture, which provided financial support expressly for operation (infrastructure, management, communication). And ever since the Hungarian National Cultural Fund was set up, the dance panel of its advisory board – operating in a rotary system – has been making decisions about grant applications. Innovation in and experiments with dance vocabularies and genres- the crossing of boundaries between different art forms, the rewriting of past dance traditions, emphasizing physicality and visual elements, the use of new media, site-specific performances, the simultaneous use of words and movements, etc. – is chiefly in the focus of works by independent companies and creative artists. And since modern schools completely disappeared from the Hungarian dance traditions in the 1950s, the bulk of the creative artists who started their careers in the 1980s – Berger, Bozsik, Frenák, Goda, Horváth, Kovács, Ladányi – created their own theatrical vocabularies relying solely on their own imaginations. Having mastered the Limón or Graham techniques, or contact improvisation, some of them adjusted these to their creative ideas, while others developed their personal choreographic idiom though deconstructing folk dances.
The second generation (Fehér, Gergye, Gold, Ladjánszky, Pataky, Szabó, etc.) might as well be called the children of Inspiration, since these young artists were provided opportunities to present their works, form friendships, and receive residency grants as participants in the talent-spotting programme initiated by the Workshop Foundation. The even youngest ones (Hód, Rózsavölgvi, Bloom!) have already graduated from the Budapest Contemporary Dance Academy, the institution that introduced formal contemporary dance education in Hungary, therefore they find it natural to work in an unprejudiced, creative, and experimental environment, and to have the option of international cooperation made possible for them by the nature of the present global dance scene. The audiences of most of the contemporary dance performances are comprised predominantly of young and middle-aged spectators, a relatively narrow, but open class of people who are generally interested in contemporary culture, but when it comes to dance art, they almost never show any interest in traditional performances.
by Lívia Fuchs
(translated by Zoltán Galamb, edited by Attila Szabó)
original text published in Hungarian Dance Profile,
Lívia Fuchs (ed.), L’Harmattan Publishing House, 2011