Hungarian National Dance Theatre
The women look like dancers. In their circle skirts and petticoats and coloured aprons and long hair woven into neat plaits with ribbons, there’s little doubt they are about to leap about. But the men? They are different ages and shapes and sizes. They wear hats and moustaches, and many of them look more ready to lift a beer in a bar than a woman on an open air stage high on Buda hill in the capital of Hungary.
But then the music starts up with the arrival of a six piece band. Or rather it blasts off. With four fiddles, a double bass and an instrument that looks like a cross between a piano, a harp and a drum (called a cimbalom I find out later), the band is a high energy marvel, feeding its beat directly into the feet of the performers.
This is a Hungarian rhapsody
On they come, the men and women who make up this troop of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. And for a full hour they grip us with their leaping, slapping, swinging, lifting rhythms in the Carmelite Courtyard of the National Dance Theatre or Nemzeti Tancszinhaz. This is indeed a Hungarian Rhapsody weaving in the melodies of folk music, the acrobatics of the men, the lyricism of the women and the traditions and games of each.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that up until now we have had a bad day. Negotiating our way into Budapest by bike was a hot, stressful experience. The quiet and green spaces of the island of Margritsziget provided the only light relief from the traffic filled streets and uninspiring suburbs. And even that brought its own challenges, as most of Budapest seemed to have gone there to rent wheeled things. It was like being dropped into the Whacky Races as we were confronted head on by whole families on four wheeled bike chariots with granny at the helm. Then there were the boy racers in pedal cars, the electric wheeled vehicles that weren’t quite segways but came from the same stable, the ice cream pedalo’s pushing their wares, as well as the odd bus and car.
The show has a magic touch
One kilometre from our hotel and Cameron burst into tears and said he wasn’t going any further. The Receptionist at our randomly chosen city centre hotel then added to our stress by insisting we wheel our bikes into reception (and the trailer through a revolving door) at the same time as a coach party was checking in.
But all this is forgotten in the joyous experience of this traditional show. It’s impossible not to smile as the fiddlers get faster and faster, each trying to outdo the other. It’s impossible not to laugh and applaud as the men keep up with them; clapping and slapping their legs and heels and calves and anything else that moves. It’s hard not to be moved by the atmospheric lighting and the courtyard and the lilting and haunting melodies of the women as they move in lines that have no beginning or ending.
Keeping history and tradition alive
The Hungarian State Folk Ensemble has been entertaining audiences since 1951. Its aim is to present all folk related Hungarian genres on stage; music, singing, dance, show dance and folk plays, and its repertoire has made it one of the mostly widely performing ensembles of the world. But tonight, it’s an intimate performance for about 100 people, who now, as a full moon appears above the stage, snuggle into the soft wool blankets provided by the theatre company. And just when you think they can’t get any faster or give off any more raw energy, they do.
By the end of the performance my hands are almost as raw from clapping as theirs must be from slapping. Our children are entranced too, until the performers try and haul them on stage for the after-show dance workshop. Hannah looks terrified when one of the suited and booted men seeks her out.
Back into a fairytale
As we leave and wander into the quiet night, the whole of Budapest twinkles beneath us, inviting us to be part of its current traditions. And forgetting my tiredness from nearly four weeks of cycling with only one day off, forgetting that my feet are blistered from pedalling, I decide that tonight I’d like to go to a Hungarian wedding. Tonight I’d like to meet a Hungarian man who can dance.
In reality it’s a bag of crisps for dinner, before putting three tired cyclists to bed, while Stuart goes looking for a pair of authentic black Hungarian dance boots to keep me happy.