The Collegian
Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Harrison reviews Hungarian State Folk Ensemble

Richmonders who were adventurous enough to partake in slightly further-flung folk music on the Friday after their own renowned festival were rewarded with a resplendent celebration of Hungarian nationalism at UR's Modlin Center for the Arts.

No shabby post-Soviet troupe of vagabonds, the dancers and musicians of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble proved that those dark days have long since vanished into the eastern twilight. The dancing was characterized, if anything, by its ebullience, and by all manner of foot-stomping and hand-clapping.

Clearly it was the men's show. Although the women had the advantage of a wardrobe in shifting, vibrant colors, the men consistently dominated in the dancing itself. There were many moments in which one felt the feminine presence served as little more than a prop to the masculine hijinks. Anyone with even a vague impression of Russian Cossack dancing, say from the pub scene in "Fiddler on the Roof," will have some sense of the ferocious physicality that impelled the dancing of these Hungarian men.

But whereas the dancing in that film was performed by men for their own social amusement, this dancing seemed to presume the presence of a female spectator. Often it suggested a thinly veiled mating ritual where, in exhibiting his physical skill, the young farmer vies for the affections of the milkmaid down the lane. If the presence of so many men within a single dance lent the proceedings an inevitable air of competition, the atmosphere was never less than genial.

Nowhere was the sense of performed masculinity more apparent than in the dances employing props. In one number, a soloist whipped out a long-handled ax. Just in case we didn't get the point, he made certain to place it briefly between his legs, a gesture repeated in the second act by a group of men dancing with brooms. This isn't to suggest that these dances exist solely as demonstrations of libido. Later on in that same dance featuring the brooms, the men proved themselves adept in twirling their alpine walking sticks.

The women were given moments of their own, albeit rather subdued in comparison. They certainly made the most of a vocal number that poked fun at village gossips. In an age of politically-charged sensibilities, this piece in particular raises obvious questions as to value of such a fiercely gendered representation of feminine life. Nevertheless, it was difficult to sustain such objections when faced with performers who so clearly enjoyed the act of presenting this sly bit of ancient social comedy.

It is unfortunate that space precludes an examination of the marvelous contribution from the ensemble's live band. The program rightly credits the splendid work of the company's artistic director-cum-choreographer, Gabor Mihalyi, but the presence of such an attribution highlights a central question underlying any artistic exposition of this type. Although the ensemble purports in its program to use the indigenous dances and music of Hungary in "creating its own unique dance rhapsody," one cannot avoid wondering as to the actual fidelity of their curation, especially considering their magisterially professional presentation. Even in an epoch preceding the genial cultural complications of mass literacy, to say nothing of such contemporary distractions as radio and television, is it really likely that anything approaching this level of proficiency could be found at your average village dance?

It was surprising that the dancing, which often reeled along at dervish-like tempi, should register as much in poignancy as it did in high spirits. The spectator supplies his own measure of sadness, every bit as potent as the dancers' exultation. For if these dances are about anything at all, they are surely about the youthful pleasures of two socially stratified sexes negotiating, perhaps for the very first time, that space which divides them. One sensed it in the face of one of the more youthful dancers, all wide-eyed innocence, and couldn't help but wonder if, in embracing his dancing partner, he was not also coming of age in that same instant. What a pity that our own culture seems to have almost forgotten such simple bliss.

Contact reporter D.M. Harrison at

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