From Czardas to ‘Hatikva’

 ‘Getting to know tradition for me is like exploring a road that leads to the depths of a garden full of secrets,” says Gabor Mihalyi, director of The Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, which will perform Transcarpatia Invoked on June 4 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv and June 6 at the Haifa Auditorium.

Regarded as the best folklore ensemble in Hungary, the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble was established in 1951. Its aim was to collect and play authentic folk music and to preserve the Hungarian folk dances and traditional costumes of Hungarianinhabited areas by presenting them on stage for the public. During the decades of its existence, the ensemble has performed a rich and colorful repertoire that turned them into a top touring group, appearing in more than 60 countries across four continents and winning the admiration of their audiences.

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The choreographies are all based on authentic dances, some of them collected in isolated villages with dance elements dating back hundreds of years. The folk music that inspired Liszt, Bartok and Kodaly is rendered on stage by an ensemble playing authentic traditional instruments.

The show, whose full name is Transcarpatia Invoked – Thence and over the Passes, brings together the rich and colorful traditional culture of the different nations that inhabited Eastern Carpathia – Hungarians, Ukrainians, Russians, Romanians, Gypsies and Jews – emphasizing the common roots and portraying the similarities that resulted from sharing the land and its historical past. They present a selection of dances, from the exhilarating Hungarian Czardas to uplifting Romanian and Russian dances, exciting Gypsy dances and even pagan dances, through to moving Jewish wedding dances. The ensemble is comprised of more than 20 virtuoso dancers who also join in the singing, a Gypsy ensemble, a traditional Hungarian orchestra playing traditional instruments, and talented solo singers. In all, there are more than 40 performers on stage dressed in opulent costumes who deliver an evening of exhilarating music and dance, as well as touching moments evoked by authentic photos from the past.

Gabor, who has been the director of the ensemble for more than two decades, says he has been looking for new ways in which to bring the rich Hungarian cultural traditions to the stage. He was inspired by his role model Bela Bartok, the Hungarian national composer.

“Bartok proved in his music that tradition and contemporary complete each other. In my work, I combine traditional folk dance and music with contemporary ones and bring to the theater stage a modern creation that represents our national values,” he says.

Gabor seeks to follow in the steps of his predecessors, the legendary founder of the ensemble Miklos Rabai and Sandor Timar, who was considered “the enfolder of the dance house movement.” He feels that his role is to incorporate contemporary music and dance with the traditional folk art.

“It is absolutely clear to me,” says Gabor, “that traditional culture is nothing less than the personal road that leads to it. Culture will only truly become culture if it is incorporated by someone because culture is something that is alive, something that lives on in people, in today’s modern people.”

He adds, “Contemporary folk dance art that is rooted in tradition, which I believe the Hungarian Folk Ensemble brings to the stage, translates old dance and music culture into today’s language and makes it part of the present, makes it personal.”

Transcarpatia Invoked moves between the traditions of the ethnic groups that lived in the area. Although today it is part of the Ukraine, many of its inhabitants still consider themselves Hungarians. It follows the history of the region through a series of black-andwhite photos that tell the story of the indigenous people that inhabited Eastern Carpathia through the years.

The video that opens the show, setting the historical background, is followed by a surge of color and sound as the dancers and musicians burst onto the stage, dressed in costumes of the different ethnic groups, set to music with exhilarating rhythms. A string of lively dances follows, from Czardas and Gypsy to Russian and Romanian, pagan and Jewish dances.

“The Jews were an integral part of the people who inhabited these parts; therefore, it is only natural for us to incorporate their music in the show,” says Gabor. “The Hungarian audience recognizes these melodies and knows their origin,” he continues.

“Everywhere we perform, people recognize this or that melody and relate to it as their own, be it Ukrainian, Romanian, Russian, Gypsy or indeed Jewish.”

For the Israeli audience, the surprise comes somewhere in the middle of the evening. Following an energetic dance that represents the harvest, with the men dancing with their sickles and the women whirling around in their embroidered shirts, puffy skirts and floral wreaths, the stage is emptied, and a solo singer delivers a powerful rendition of “AvinuMalkeinu” in Hebrew. The Gypsy ensemble then plays a number of melodies. And if you think you recognize “Hatikva” as part of it, you won’t be wrong.

“I was born and raised in the Ukraine,” says the artistic musical director of the ensemble, Istvan Pal Szalonna. “There I learned the Jewish melodies. Until today I and my ensemble play at Jewish weddings, and I bring this music from there.”

Istvan plays the violin with his ensemble, which includes a clarinet, violins, an accordion and a cimbalom, a traditional instrument that has a very important part in the show.

Besides the talented musicians of the Hungarian band and the Gypsy band, as well as the solo singers, all twenty-some dancers not only perform their intricate dance moves, but they also sing along at the same time, tapping their feet and exciting the audience. The sweeping music and dances will stay with you for hours after the show and will undoubtedly make you want to burst into dance as well.

The Hungarian State Folk Ensemble will perform on June 4 at 8 p.m. at the Opera House in Tel Aviv; June 6 at 8 p.m. at the Haifa Auditorium. For Tel Aviv tickets, call (03) 692-7777. For Haifa, call (04) 866-2244.