Film

Two Dance Projects Meld Hungarian and Romani Traditions

The documentary Three Dances and the stage musical Hungarian Nights approach modern Central European culture from vastly different standpoints.

From Three Dances (courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

When documentarian Glória Halász started filming the Hungarian Dance Academy, she was most interested in the young male dancers. “It’s not a typical profession among boys,” she acknowledged during the North American premiere of her film Három Tánc (“Three Dances” in English) at Film at Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera Festival 2019. The movie follows three boys ranging in age from 10 to 18 as they train for the upper echelons of European ballet. The youngest wakes up at 6:15 each morning to practice; he cries when he receives a B on his first-year exam. The two teenagers crunch their abs in endless sets of sit-ups and side planks. One admits he spent 18 months on painkillers, while the other confesses that he didn’t have much of a childhood.

The austere mood of Three Dances couldn’t be more different from the playfulness of Hungary’s Liget Dance Ensemble, a youth folklore group that performed at A.R.T./New York Theatres shortly after Three Dances played at Lincoln Center. Members of the ensemble presented a series of Hungarian folk dances, then put on the musical Hungarian Nights, which incorporates centuries-old Romani music and uses a Roma camp as its backdrop. The show offers a different view into Central European culture, one where white and nonwhite Europeans co-mingle and “common folk” influence culture more than the elite.

Taken together, Three Dances and Hungarian Nights illustrate how dance can both inflict pain and offer release — depending, perhaps, on the dancers and the tradition in which they perform. The presiding sense in Three Dances is that the children could (and perhaps should) be playing instead of torturing themselves in a dance studio. After the screening, one audience member even raised her hand to complain about the harshness with which the ballet teachers treat their (white) students. No such concern was signaled toward the mixed cast of Hungarian Nights. Throughout their numbers, the ensemble radiated smiles and laughter. Their acts required enormous amounts of concentration and agility, but unlike the ballets of Three Dances, these seemed designed to amuse. Most noticeable was the bootslapping — the men wore calf-high black boots which they used as percussion instruments, whipping their hands across the leather to keep viewers rapt.

From Three Dances (courtesy Film at Lincoln Center)

But the blend of Romani and white European traditions in Hungarian Nights also forces an uncomfortable question: Who gets to claim a dance tradition as their own, and who gets to perform for recognition? The cast of Hungarian Nights was largely white, and their dances were introduced as “gypsy” dances — a term many Roma consider hurtful. In a Hungarian context, these questions matter. The country’s 300,000 Romani citizens face increased levels of discrimination from the government and their white neighbors. The Roma people have long been persecuted, targeted for extermination along with Jews and other minority groups during World War II. Anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary has grown to such proportions in recent years that Human Rights Watch has continually declared the country unsafe for Romani. In 2012, an anti-Roma demonstration terrorized a community in the village of Devescer, as members of far-right political parties marched through the streets shouting their intentions to burn the Roma in their houses.

As a reaction to such discrimination, celebrations of Romani culture have proliferated in recent years. Examples include the internationally acclaimed 2013 Hungarian film Just the Wind (based on the real-life murder of a Roma family), Central European University’s new Romani Studies program, and Romani-influenced performances like Hungarian Nights. Yet such initiatives can have the unintended consequence of perpetuating stereotypes. The contagious joy in the dances of Hungarian Nights treads a fine line, on the other side of which lies the assumption that the Roma are “ostracized but happy.” Perhaps this is why viewers voiced more concern over nurturing white dancers than a problematic depiction of a minority. As much as these dances told a story, so did the responses of their audiences.

Three Dances can be streamed at Mediawan Rights.

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