Budapest Journal Continued

As I intimated in last week's Voice (Here and Over There), contemporary dance in Hungary is subtly different from its cousin in the U.S.—more involved with the body and how emotions affect it, and generally darker in tone. Rarely are the feet busy; they simply carry a person to another spot onstage through walks or crawls (often true on our postmodern scene too). So much of what writer-coordinator Kate Mattingly, a bunch of critics from Eastern Europe, and I saw during the festival coinciding with our workshop was largely arm and torso art, except when a whole body fell. All week, the people I talked to easily condemned some pieces as not being truly contemporary or innovative, and I wasn’t always sure I understood what stringent personal credos determined the meaning of "conventional," although we often agreed on what we found most wonderful or most truly bad. Ballet, by the way, is something contemporary dance supporters and practitioners rarely mention or see&mdsh;perhaps because it was privileged under Communism at the expense of experimental dance.

We did see unusual, sometimes kinky movement. Réka Szabó, in a solo she performed for us in L1's handsome white studio in a former thread factory, began immobilized on an exercise board, talking in a high fluttery voice about how busy she was all the time (doing nothing, it turned out), and eventually plunking herself down on the floor, legs splayed. It was gratifying that, when she arose, she continued to move with the awkwardness her predicament warranted—limbs at odds.

Awkwardness also played a key role in What Sort of Tenderness . . ., a duet that Márta Ladjánski and Réka Szabó of L1 showed on one of the showcase programs. In the especially charming beginning, the two, looking like gawky kids, stood side by side trying to converse—or maybe to compete—in very squeaky off-key singing. Their dancing wasn’t quite as screwy as their vocalizing, but it had something of the same sweet gaucheness and hesitancy. I especially liked the way they studiously beat their fists on the air and then sat down with a jolt.

Often, choreographers seemed weak on structure. Batarita's one name Yours began with a compelling sight: Two women (the choreographer and Kitty Feyes) edged onto the stage, backs to us, stepping sideways and snaking their torsos sideways as well. Their costumes—long red skirts and bare upper bodies, blond helmet-wigs—emphasized a curious blend of sensuality and anonymity, the sense that these women were members of an unfamiliar tribe. We learned more about them through watching their turns with bodies seriously caved in, their wafting arms, and the way they slipped into slow unison or canon. I was disappointed when they finally touched in a way that seemed at odds with what they had established: One manipulated the other while the music all too obviously changed gears to taped violin and piano emitting a mushily sweet, repetitive melody.

There were some curious images on view. Our European colleagues were not pleased by dancing that I found quite satisfying in Yvette Bozsik's muddled Dance Therapy, and most of us, unlike the audience, were taken aback by what seemed the gratuitous use of a contortionist and a cerebral palsy patient being manipulated by his therapist. The European critics saw no racial comment in Ferenc Fehér's Medusa Piercing (a collaboration with video artist O. Caruso), while it was something of a shock to Mattingly and me to watch a white man painted a shiny black—his pink mouth, occasional grin, and pronounced eye whites evoking minstrelsy as he rolled and undulated jerkily, posed smugly, and crawled like a panther to gut-busting electronic music (we heard a lot of that). Tuning into primal and sensual qualities among the patterns projected on the floor (which sometimes oozed blood-red light), Fehér also, in a sudden white glare, relaxed his taut body and strolled to a new spot on stage, flashing us a grin.

Some Budapest theatergoers were reportedly shocked when John Jasperse's Fort Blossom played Trafó's black box and two naked men performed, in a very neutral manner, tender and intimate moves. Maybe it's the homosexual implications they found unsettling, because Gyula Berger and Márta Ladjánszki's Almost Three apparently passed muster. We saw this duet in a special, very effective showing at L1's studios. Berger, Ladjánszki, and an accompanying violinist turned a small white space into a joyless erotic playground. For the two—exiting and re-entering a couple of times as if to delineate the passage of days—humping a person humping a wall or using a foot to massage a partner's genitals were no more interesting than sipping a cup of coffee (which Ladjánszki also did). Their transactions became marginally more ingenious or elaborate, but their erotically obsessed partnership never really changed.

Gender questions were raised obliquely in E. Sch. Eroto by Krisztián Eroto, who began crude and raw in a pool of light, jerkily channeling Egon Schiele's twisted visions into a self-portrait, and ended by turning away from us to reveal a Javanese mask on the back of his head. The old back-to-front trick—in service to delicate features smiling enigmatically at us, a drape around the dancer's hips, and rippling arms—symbolized the complexities of gender all right; yet in the slightly rambling choreography, the image's curious magic actually undermined the seriousness of the idea.

Pál Frenák, one of the week's main attractions, also tackled gender. Frenák, who works most of the time in France, has, I was told, slightly disappointed his home-country fans with his last few works, but they welcomed this new one with cheers. Part of a projected triptych, Fiuk (The Hidden Men) features the males in his company (the second part will be for the women, and the sexes will meet in the third). The most theatrically vivid and resonant part of the dance involved Miguel Ortega, Attila Gergely, Rolando Rocha, André Mandarino, and three fat ropes that hung from the ceiling of Trafó (in Pest). The ropes generated glimpses of idiosyncratic behavior or demonstrations of personality. It mattered that one man tended to clamber up and down, another to twist himself in his rope as if it were the coils of a snake, another to run and swing. Once three of them collaborated to twine the ropes in a deranged maypole, and the fourth writhed above its twisted center. Sexuality could be as simple as humping ropes in unison and lying on the floor in the dark, grunting in orgasm; or as stridently ambiguous as crawling naked on hands and knees, while electronic baa-ing popped into Fabrice Planquette and Attila Gergely’s score, and then invitingly turning their butts, the cracks x-ed out with tape, toward us.

The muscle man poses; the locker-room yells and waving of arms by men framed in a lit doorway as a straggler headed toward them; the stream of brutal language spat out at the end by a guy who'd been curled in a big white saucer—all these expressed male aggressiveness in clichés that seemed more agreeably self-mocking than the scenes in which Frenák gingerly investigated men’s more feminine side. Here was the messy application of lipstick that recalled Pina Bausch; the man who temporarily donned a tutu with only one shoulder strap in place and looked at a loss; the man in a long, tight, white dress and boots who sidestepped, staring fixedly at us. As is sometimes true in a collage structure, the pieces—some of them fascinating—stuck together but didn’t always strike sparks off one another.

I have a feeling that some of the young spectators who adored Frenák's work wouldn't have been so enthusiastic about Gerzson Péter Kovács's Pictographs, although the audience in Buda's intimate Mu Theatre was vociferous in its applause. What Kovács created was a dance about—guess what?—dancing. It was also about a human soul. On a dimly lit stage, almost in silhouette, a middle-aged man in black with an impressive mustache watched, while four musicians (two violinists—one the composer, Ferenc Kovács—a violist, and a bass player) began to spool out slow, slightly eerie, gypsyish music (unnecessarily miked, alas). As if trying to recall a vanishing tradition, G. Kovács began to move—more or less in place—drawing himself up, taking a step (were his eyes shut?). As the music grew in volume and intensity, he began to swivel his feet, to whip one leg around the other, to summon up small heel clicks. The tension was palpable—as if some imprisoned memory of Magyar folk dance were trying to break out through his body. Authentic steps emerged only fitfully, sometimes wild or distorted: a sudden squat, a slap of the leg, a hitch kick, the proud lift of a torso. This dance was also about the musicians. They marched around him, closed in on him, jammed with him quite jazzily, egged him on. Pictographs had the aura of an ordeal, a mission to dredge ancient dance steps out of the shadows and onto a modern body. It was the only time all week that I walked out into the night with a spring in my step.

I should mention that the second edition of the Criticism Initiative: Improving the Quality of Dance Criticism in East/Central Europe was held at Trafó in Budapest (the first edition took place in New York City in 2001). The program—with sessions led by Kate Mattingly from New York, Nina Vangeli from Prague, Tamás Halász from Budapest, and me—was organized by the Workshop Foundation in Hungary (Gergely Talló, director, and Gabor Pinter, his assistant) and supported by both the Foundation and Dance Theater Workshop's Suitcase Fund).

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