Anna Biczók’s performance lecture Precedents to a potential future. Photo © Katarzina Chmura

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On and off the platform: dunaPart5, Hungary

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Anna Biczók’s performance lecture Precedents to a potential future. Photo © Katarzina Chmura
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Lena Megyeri
New voices at the Hungarian platform for performing arts – and new battles over state support and control

Organised biennially by Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, dunaPart – Platform in Hungary is a showcase aiming to present the most interesting productions and initiatives from the independent theatre and dance field in Hungary. At the end of November 2019, around 30 performances were presented over four days to an international audience of producers, reviewers and other theatre professionals. The programme was curated by theatre and dance critics and other professionals in the scene. From the colourful dance programme that included works by established artists as well as newcomers, I picked out four performances by young artists worth keeping an eye on.

Jenna Jalonen and Nóra Horváth brought a breath of fresh air to Budapest’s dance scene by organising the [D]OPEN your move festival, aiming to build bridges between contemporary and urban dance cultures during a day filled with performances, dance battles and a party. With their own company Collective Dope, the two creator-performers pursued similar goals: to collaborate with artists from different backgrounds and art forms, and to search for new ways of movement and performance that are easily accessible for younger audiences as well.


Collective Dope (Jenna Jalonen and Nora Horváth): DOPE ‘I just wish to help you’

The first work of their ‘I just wish to…’ trilogy1DOPE I just wish to help you – explores the relationship between active and passive bodies and raw physicality. It starts with the two women standing face-to-face with tense looks in their eyes. Suddenly, Jalonen drops to the floor, and Horváth rushes to help her back to her feet. This pattern repeats several times, while Jalonen throws herself more and more aggressively, with a clear intention to self-harm. Horváth doesn’t lose patience, and even tries to prevent her from falling; but through Jalonen’s resistance their duet slowly becomes like a wrestling contest. The self-harming tendencies get even stronger with the appearance of a bottle of rosé wine and a bag of white powder, which Horváth uses to make a snow angel. Their wrestling is stylised and very real at the same time, and a little scary as some (fake) blood trickles from Jalonen’s mouth towards the end. Is it possible to help someone without getting ourselves into trouble? The duet ends on an optimistic note: the two women stand in an embrace that provides a moment of stillness and safety.


Nora Horváth’s Beat – with Horváth and Gábor Ivanov
Nora Horváth’s Beat – with Horváth and Gábor Ivanov

Horváth’s other duet in the programme, Beat, easily merges styles from urban to Hungarian folk dance, from contemporary to twerking, in a simple narrative of ‘girl and boy meet in the disco and dance the night away’. The stylistic freedom and versatility is tamed by the rigorous structures of time and space, choreographed to the irresistible flow of Áron Porteleki’s musical score. It’s a duet for sure, and Gábor Ivanov was a wonderful and tireless partner throughout these intense 40 minutes; but it’s Horváth’s show after all, and her energy and youthful joy in dancing was completely contagious. No wonder she swept critics off their feet, and won the 2018 Rudolf Laban award for best contemporary dance work in Hungary.

Anna Biczók defines Precedents to a potential future as a lecture performance – but this is as much a play with viewers’ expectations as anything else in the piece. Sitting on the stage behind a table, she starts by talking about a performance where a female dancer sits on the stage behind a table. Stories in stories unfold like parts of a Matryoshka doll, and Biczók twists and turns around the text so often that we almost lose track. But that is intentional: she wants us to use our minds – she even lets the lights switch off on one occasion, to trigger our imagination – while she also provides some ‘background dancing’. She is a confident performer who can capture her audience’s attention, which makes up for the slight unevenness of the piece.


Lili Stern: Loop Pool (trailer)

‘What do you like about your body?’ Lili Stern asks some members of the audience at the beginning of her solo Loop Pool. Their looped answers will be replayed at the end; but until then, we go through a haunting and unnerving experience. Through compulsive, repetitive movements and some simple elements of scenery (a nylon curtain, flesh-coloured underwear), she creates a suffocating atmosphere that tells about how uncomfortable it can be in a body exposed to constant observation and unrealistic expectations – whether from society or from oneself. Stern’s biggest achievement here is to create a visceral experience: Loop Pool’s effects unfold much more on a sensorial than on an intellectual level.

Post-dunaPart

If dunaPart shone a light on Hungary’s independent performing arts scene, it was shadowed only a couple of days later by the leak of a parliamentary bill proposing major restructuring to state funding of the arts. The three most worrying points were: the planned abolition of the National Cultural Fund, one of the most important sources of state funding to the arts through regular open calls; a new power given to the government minister of human resources to appoint the directors of city theatres in Budapest; and axing all operational funding for independent companies. It was also reported that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was planning to pass the bill in an accelerated process, in only a couple of days’ time, without any negotiation with members of the scene.

Independent and private theatres had already been operating under considerable financial insecurity following funding restructures at the end of 2018, and reaction to the leak was swift. A public petition urging the lawmakers to reject the bill was signed by more than 50,000 people. A protest, attended by thousands, was organised where performers, theatre directors and Budapest’s new liberal mayor, Gergely Karácsony, spoke against the proposal, pointing out that it threatened the operation and independence of theatres. Leading actors spoke out in a video that was spread through Facebook. And many theatres asked their audiences for solidarity, taking photos with spectators after each performance.


Budapest Átrium Theatre, 8 December 2019: spectators raise palms in protest against the proposed culture bill, on the occasion of the 75th performance of Ferenc Molnár’s play One, Two, Three. Photo © Péter Lakatos
Budapest Átrium Theatre, 8 December 2019: spectators raise palms in protest against the proposed culture bill, on the occasion of the 75th performance of Ferenc Molnár’s play One, Two, Three. Photo © Péter Lakatos

As a result, the bill passed in a somewhat softened version. For now, the National Cultural Fund continues to exist (although its future remains uncertain). Previously administered by their local municipality, Budapest city theatres will now have to sign a deal between the municipality and the minister of human resources, who will jointly define their terms of operation, including the appointment of the theatre director. And the government insists that the operational funding of independent companies will be assured.

Even so, due to some vague wording and many unanswered questions, the situation remains far from secure or transparent, and many theatres continue to operate in uncertainty. Reducing a severe threat to a lesser one is in any case more a defence against encroachment than a victory in itself. The next edition of dunaPart may show a very different face. 

1 The second part of the trilogy, BEAT I just wish to feel you, was selected for AerowavesTwenty20


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Budapest, Hungary, 27–30 November 2019
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