GYOR NATIONAL BALLET FROM HUNGARY AT THE JOYCE

Photo by Bela Szabo, of Gyor National Ballet’s Rite of Spring, from here.

Reviewed by Christopher Atamian.

Györ National Ballet (at The Joyce January 26-31)

From the land of Bartók and Kodály, strudel and palascinka, comes Hungary’s Györ National Ballet, a vibrant dance company that everyone should have the pleasure of seeing at least once during their next New York appearance.  It takes considerable originality and artistic vision to re-interpret Petrushka and Rite of Spring with the verve and sometimes breathtaking visual appeal that Györ brought to the Joyce on January 26.  The company was founded in 1979 by two graduates of the National Ballet Institute.  Led by Janós Kiss since 1991, it has since won accolades worldwide: all twelve members that performed here are talented, vibrant and passionate dancers with evident balletic training behind them.

The presentation at the Joyce, titled “A Stravinsky Evening” was dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The original Petrushka ballet was of course choreographed by Mikhail Fokin but this version, credited to Dmitrij Simkin and James Sutherland presents a fresh look at the well-worn story.  Here Petrushka (Bálint Sebestyén) is transformed into a free thinker who resists communist indoctrination, while the sorcerer (Balázs Pátkai) is a party leader in uniform who tracks him down, interrogates and tortures him. Both Sebestyén and Pátkai dance their roles beautifully.  Pátkai is appropriately rigid and authoritarian (but sinuous and sinister as well) while Sebestyén is equally adept at performing different tempos and phrasings—at one point he dances torso nu to a particularly sensitive segment of Stravinsky’s music with rare, almost spellbinding sensuality, as if he were actually in a trance: his body quivers all over as he moves arms and legs into languorous serpentine positions. The other dancers are also attuned to soft almost ethereal body movements; as a whole they executed beautifully but their strength was surely the seemingly effortless synchronicity that they achieved with the Stravinsky score.  The piece ends as it begins with a fast-paced pop-inspired communist scout march—a lovely bookend to the Stravinsky. The dancers again perform as communist scouts, mainly running in place and repeating a few movements in synchronicity—illustrating with deft alacrity that complete oxymoron known as “happy totalitarianism.”

This Petrushka presents the type of work that European companies often still perform best: intelligent, classically-based work updated for contemporary audiences—based in literature or myth, the stories told seem fresh and relevant.  In the program notes, Simkin avers: “I present here, not dolls with human feelings…as in Fokin’s work, but humans who act like puppets in a society controlled by propaganda where misleading the masses and brainwashing controls the whole society.” Simkin and Sutherland introduce current themes and update ballet’s sometimes archaic fairy tale themes, while presenting innovative movement not slavishly hampered by traditional technique and point work.  The scenery and costumes, also by Dmitrij Simkin were arresting: a large shining red star hung over a stage; a large head of Lenin lay in the background. The piece sometimes lacked subtlety—Stravinsky is already domineering enough as it is without being hit over the head with an overt political message; and when the Lenin head was rolled around and literally knocked everyone to the ground, you sort of just sighed at the obviousness of it all. But that is small criticism surely when compared to its overall depth and beauty.

Attila Kun’s Rite of Spring was sheer delight.  Here the set changes to minimalist and ultra-modern: a white rectangle surrounded on the edges by a black border, all of it glinting like marble under the stage lights.  The eleven dancers of both sexes, all equally beautiful physically, wear only white—the men in long pants, bare-chested in cotton frocks, the women in culottes and asymmetrical tops that made them look as if they had just come down an Hervé Leger catwalk.  At one point the dancers sit down facing each other two-by-two to apply ceremonial paint, remaining stoic in light of what is about to take place. The clean lines and unencumbered choreography create the illusion that perhaps we are not about to witness something terrible.  And the lithe Lilla M. Horváth is simply astounding as “The Chosen One,” both as an actress and dancer, even as she futilely fights for her life and gasps her last breath. The other dancers—all assistants and too numerous here to mention—defy time and place, something almost Egyptian or ageless in their presentation as if they had walked off an episode of Stargate, noble in demeanor, sporting long limbs and almost extraterrestrial in bearing! As the piece comes to a close, the dancers have not only presented a pagan sacrifice, but also the idea of renewal and hope, much like modern Hungary emerged from communist rule, proud and independent.

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