Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble wows the crowd at the Palladium

An extended encounter with  a dance and music tradition previously familiar only in adapted forms can be like a peek into another world. Knowing the Liszt Hungarian rhapsodies and many of the works of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly allows only a "high-art" acquaintance with the people's music that gave those composers much of their material: scales, rhythms, structures.

The real thing has plenty of elaboration and detail all its own, while presumably retaining the generating significance of music and dance in traditions that go back centuries. The Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble, plus six instrumentalists and a singer, visited the Palladium in Carmel Saturday night. The program focused on group dances, most of them fast and deftly arranged so as to balance ensemble patterns with individual improvisation, each display of which was rooted in a similar dance vocabulary.

Women of the Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble
For the women, embroidered costumes with swirling movement invariably offered a visual spectacle. A consistent elegance and a charming,  demure vivacity marked their performance. In contrast, the male dancing was rigorously athletic, punctuated by hand slaps on thighs and calves and full of high full-leg kicks, jumps, and rapid twisting torso movements generated by sideways kicks from the knee outward — which would seem a punishing sort of motion even with proper training. But the troupe's men managed it with an unquenchable desire to display their skill.

More than two dozen dancers opened the show with a spectacular overture, focusing on the most prominent Hungarian folk dances:  the czardas and the verbunkos, which were to reappear throughout the program. The latter, a military recruiting dance for men, is familiar to classical-music fans because of its use as a basis for a lively movement of Bartok's "Contrasts," commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.

An intricate humorous interlude was "Gossip," for the women only, beginning with most of the participants seated, then launching into a nonstop patter of choral speaking and whispers to replicate the breathless chatter of the latest news and rumors common in villages the world over. It evolved into an ensemble song with outbursts of dancing. It made for quite an amusing tribute to the grandmama of today's electronic social media.

The other showcase for the women consisted of dances from Moldova, the easternmost region of Hungarian settlement, separated from the motherland by Romania. For this segment, the women wore modest head scarves and began with chairs in a circle before exuberant dancing took over, at one climactic point accompanied by thundering drum beats.

The best "suite" of dances focused on Kalotaszeg, a region in eastern Transylvania historically Hungarian but now within Romania's borders. It was attractive for its smoothly integrated visual appeal —  the women's costumes especially — and also the intense physicality and display of the men's dances, with a seamless segue into sequences for couples. Again, a planned spontaneity allowed us entry into a culture where individual variation is encouraged within a stipulated social context.

Musical interludes gave the dancers a rest and provided a showcase for the band. The cimbalom, played with a thin hammer in each hand, produces ghostly, quickly decaying pitches. That puts a premium on tremolos and rapid figuration to  articulate full phrases. The instrument's mastery demands forearm and wrist flexibility and pinpoint accuracy, as 100 strings lie across the open wooden box in front of the performer. This ensemble's cimbalomist had that mastery in abundance.

There was also a segment evoking the traditional Gypsy band, featuring highly ornamental, sometimes  lickety-split playing from the band's two solo violinists. The clarion voice of a female solo vocalist also got several opportunities for spellbinding display in the course of the show.

The company gave the impression of full-hearted involvement in putting across its culture to audiences largely unfamiliar with it. The show was effectively assembled from many components, bringing to the fore apparently all regions and influences that constitute traditional Hungarian music and dance.