Thursday, 21 April 2016

My Trip to Hungary

Zero Ballet Contemporary Dance Studio, Budapest, Standard YouTube Licence

Just under two years ago I met a dancer called Mel Wong (see Introducing Mel 27 June 2014). I met her in Sheffield and gave her a lift to Lincoln where we attended Chantry Dance Company's Sandman and Dream Dance workshop (see Chantry Dance Company's Sandman and Dream Dance 10 May 2014). That was a memorable day for me because I made the acquaintance not just of Mel Wong but also of the organizers of the workshop, Paul Chantry, Rae Piper and Gail Gordon. It was also the first time I danced on stage in an improvisation. Gail made a film of us which encouraged me to put my name forward for Northern Ballet Academy's end of year show when I had the time of my life.

Mel shares my passion for dance but knows far more about it than I do. She has a real prospect of making a career in the art even though she has come to it late. She was offered training at some of the leading contemporary dance schools in the UK but had to raise vast sums of money for her fees at very short notice which proved to be impractical. Last year she received an offer of training and employment in Hungary which she accepted. On our last trip back to Yorkshire together from KNT's Saturday class where we both trained I told her that the London Ballet Circle was planning a trip to Budapest to attend the première of Sir Peter Wright's production of The Sleeping Beauty for the Hungarian National Ballet at the Budapest Opera House and that I would join that trip to visit her in April if she liked and we could see the performance together (see The Hungarian National Ballet's Sleeping Beauty 24 Feb 2016). Mel said that she would like that very much so I made arrangements to keep that promise as soon as details of the show appeared in the Circle newsletter.

I must admit that the prospect of visiting Hungary filled me with some trepidation. I had been there in 1987 when the Communist Party was still in power and I did not like it one little bit. My late spouse and I had boarded a coach in Vienna early in the morning and drove the few miles to the Hungarian border where we crossed yards and yards of razor wire and watch towers till we reached a customs post. There we had to surrender our passports while officials checked our luggage and paperwork refusing admission to several members of our group for no apparent reason. That process took hours and we had to wait in a dreary, overpriced cafeteria where we could buy the most unappetising refreshments for US dollars. When we were eventually allowed on our way we passed through a flat and dusty landscape punctuated by the occasional moribund looking village until we reached the equally depressing capital.

There we were housed in an uncomfortable overpriced hotel where the food was awful, the floor show was worse and the plumbing didn't work. We were escorted on a boat trip by a minder who took every opportunity to remind us of the supposed superiority of her country's economic system ("every Saturday afternoon is a holiday here except for essential workers" she crowed). There was nothing to buy except in dollar shops where we would have been fleeced mercilessly. I was fleeced once in a restaurant for ordering some Hungarian brandy for my late spouse who fancied a digestif. Everyone we met had been surly and some, like several bus loads of Soviet conscripts at Buda castle, were downright offensive.  One lot nearly capsized their bus gawping and pointing at my spouse. Clearly the first time they had ever seen a black person. I hated Budapest with a passion and was never more relieved to get out of a country when our coach eventually pulled away from the Austrian border after another long wait at the customs post where our remaining tatty Hungarian bank notes had to be surrendered.

Although I surmised that things must have changed since Perestroika I couldn't help thinking that I was giving up a lot to visit Hungary. Had I stayed in England I would have seen English National Ballet's She Said and Reimagining Giselle at the Royal Opera House and the Chantry Dance studio naming ceremony in Grantham (see What's in a Name? 22 Apr 2016).  However, I was buoyed up by Mel's invitation to attend her adult ballet class with Imre Andrási which was to take place between 10:00 and 11:30 on the day after our arrival. As you can see from his CV, Imre trained at the Hungarian National Dance Academy and has had a distinguished career as dancer, teacher and choreographer. The list of pieces that he has choreographed is truly impressive and he has worked abroad as well as in Hungary.

The flight from Luton with Wizzair had been OK - a notch or two above easyJet certainly - but I was reminded of the old order more than once when the transfer bus showed up late and the receptionist on the front desk of our hotel told me that the deal that I thought I had made through was not in fact available. There were more reminders of the ancien regime the next morning when a text from Mel warned me that she was running late because buses had been diverted for a half marathon. Then I got a call that she could not make it at all and could I find my way to the studio. She directed me to an intersection called Octagon where I was to take a tram to a stop called Mechwart liget. Not knowing a word of Hungarian and not finding anyone who could speak a word of English, French, German, Spanish or Italian, Silly Me got on the wrong tram and ended up outside the synagogue before realizing that I was going in the wrong direction.

When I eventually reached Mechwart liget, Mel fetched me from the tram stop and led me to the dance studio. I had missed the warm up and pliés though I was very well exercised by the stiff walk and climb up several flights of stairs to the dance studio which, I think, is the the same as in the video. I changed into my leotard, tights and shoes, shook hands with Imre and took my place at the barre in time for tendus. Mel stood next to me and guided me through Imre's instructions which were very much the same as I would have expected in Leeds or Manchester except that there was a lot more work on demi-pointe. Mel explained to me that was a feature of training in Hungary which had been influenced heavily by Agrippina Vaganova. The idea was to build up strength in preparation for pointe work but it was also useful for jumping. The centre work included a nice adagio, some balancés, a soutenu and then a pirouette from fourth. We then did some chaînés and posés, a few warm up jumps followed by some changements and glissades.  All too soon it was time for the reverence.

There were some six or seven of us including me. All were very pleasant young women, very like the members of Karen and Ailsa's classes in Manchester or Jane Tucker's in Leeds. I had bought some sweets in a union jack tin with a photo of Buck House at the duty free shop in Luton to share with my fellow students. I am glad to say they seemed to like them. I also bought some Scotch for Imre because I remembered from my previous trip that whisky had been like gold dust in Hungary. Imre charged 1,500 florins for his 90 minute class which is £3.82 at current rates of exchange. The class took place in an incubator called Inkubator Ház which houses a number of interesting dance companies including Zéró Balett in whose studio we trained. Mel has drawn my attention in particular to Eva Duda, the Workshop Foundation and Inversedance/Zoltan Fodor Company. Clearly, some good work takes place in that incubator as you can see from the video above. Mel told me that she had gained much from working with those organizations.

After class Mel guided me to the Déryné Bistro near her home where we consumed a most delicious meal alfresco. I ordered Wiener Schitzel and was served the largest that I have ever seen in my life together with some lettuce and lime sauce while Mel had an enormous freshwater fish.  The bus to the restaurant took us past the castle and I noticed for the first time just how beautiful Budapest had become. The city had blossomed since my first visit. Folk were smart and relaxed. There were panhandlers sleeping rough but no more than in Leeds or Manchester. I found much less surliness than I had found before and although the restaurant meals and seats in the Opera House were not exactly cheap nobody tried to fleece me. Above all the dollar shops had gone as well as the apparatchiks who had been so tedious last time.

The meal left very little time for us to get ready for The Sleeping Beauty which started at 18:00. Fortunately, my hotel was almost next door to the Opera House so I didn't need long. The Budapest Opera House is tiny compared to Covent Garden but it is decorated beautifully. It reminded me a lot of the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam.  Mel and I were in the centre of the fifth row of the stalls so enjoyed the best view in the house. The performance was very good and I shall review it soon. During the intervals I explored the theatre and found a shop where I bought a t-shirt and Degas fridge magnets for one of my ballet teacher's daughters and a theatre bar.

Ten of us from the United Kingdom including Mel had come to see the show and Sir Peter Wright is the London Ballet Circle's patron. He had invited us to meet him back stage after the show. We arrived to find a party in progress. Sir Peter introduced us to the Artistic Director who invited us to join in. After speeches by the Director and Sir Peter and photographs we all tucked into the food and drink.
Sir Peter Wright and Jane Lambert
(c) 2016 Mel Wong: all rights reserved
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author

As you can see from the photo I got to talk to one of the great names of British ballet as well as Denis BonnerAliya Tanykpayeva who danced Aurora, Dmitry Timofeev who was Prince Florimund, the talented young Canadian dancer Danielle Gould who danced the white cat and will be featured in a future article and many of the other dancers and staff of the theatre.

Sadly, I did not meet Ryosuke Morimoto who used to be a member of Ernst Meisner's Junior Company, as he was not in The Sleeping Beauty but he seems to be doing very well for he is dancing in Space Fantasy (Planet in Turmoil; The Martian Chronicles) which is opening tonight. I am sure all his chums in Amsterdam and elsewhere will join me in wishing him chukkas for the show. If the YouTube trailer is anything to go by it should be quite a performance.

It was good to see Mel again and see her doing so well. A lot of friends including her teachers at KNT, Hype and Northern Ballet had sent their love and she returned it to them. My visit to Hungary was a very fleeting one but my impression of the country had made a complete about turn. Budapest is a fine city, the Opera House is a beautiful theatre and the National Ballet is definitely one to watch. I hope it comes to the UK soon but in any event I look forward to returning to Budapest and seeing it there again soon.

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