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Flash Review 1, 2-28: Courage
Celebrating Gyor's "Purim"

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- The story of the Jews in Hungary is one of the most tragic in the century just past. After centuries of robust participation in public life, Hungarian Jews were deprived of their communities, felled by pogroms and massive deportations to Nazi death camps, and subject to virulent anti-Semitism, both in government policy and on the street. Great courage is required to face up to such a history -- especially since anti-Semitism is far from dead in Hungary. And great courage is what the Gyor National Ballet demonstrated Sunday night at the Joyce in "Purim," an evening-length ballet based on the biblical story of Esther, with choreography by William Fomin and Istvan Juhos, libretto by Robert Ben Turan, and music by Ferenc Javori and his Budapest Klezmer Band.

Simply in cultural terms, "Purim" represents a remarkable collaboration. Janos Kiss, the company's director, had the idea to create a ballet based on klezmer music; he is not himself Jewish. In an interview with The Jewish Week's Daniel Belasco, librettist Ben Turan described the project as "a positive instance of the 'coexistence' of Jews and Christians in Hungary." When "Purim" premiered there three years ago, an anti-Semitic faction of the community sent a warning: do not present this ballet. But the show went on -- to wildly enthusiastic acclaim. It's not difficult to understand why average Hungarians would celebrate this creation. It represents a very public embrace of a people who for too long have been forced into the shadows, a passionate reappropriation of Eastern Europe's Jewish culture.

By taking as their text the story of Esther -- a tale of the liberation of an entire community through the courage and determination of one woman -- Kiss et al. show an imaginative seriousness. The story allows them to delight in the happiest day of the Jewish year, while at the same time paying tribute to the suffering that leads up to it. In the biblical narrative, the Jews are tricked and oppressed by King Ahasverosh's lieutenant, Haman. The king is in love with Esther, who bravely gives herself to him in marriage, then tells him that if he kills her people he will have to kill her too. The king chooses Esther's side, then orders Haman's execution on the same gallows on which he planned to execute the Jews.

Gyor National Ballet's production follows the biblical story, but tells it quickly (sometimes too quickly) through a dozen or so scenes that interweave the life of the Jews under Haman's iron rule with the personal drama of Esther and the inner struggle of the king. It's a beautiful idea to have the ballet begin and end with an Old Jew in a black coat and hat (choreographer Fomin) unrolling a Torah scroll; it centers the work in the reality of Jewish faith and history. It's ingenious, too, to have the seven members of the Budapest Klezmer Band onstage with the dancers. Sometimes perched atop the pyramidal structure at the back, sometimes intermingling with the performers, the musicians carry their incredibly joyful, soulful songs all over the stage. This music, this story, and these people, they seem to say, are still very much alive.

Fomin and Juhos's choreography shifts between vigorous traditional Eastern European steps and somewhat nondescript modern/jazz moves. Some passages seemed designed merely to fill time and space; some steps (like a jump-up-and-roll-on-the-floor bit for the men) were repeated so often that it began to look like laziness on the part of the choreographers. Character came through the astonishing stage presence of the dancers rather than through distinctive movement. There were more than a few dead-air moments, especially in part one, in which I found myself just watching the band instead.

But at many points in between (as in Esther's solo at the beginning of part two) the choreography shone with elongated lines, striking shifts of the body between horizontal and vertical planes, and virtuoso passages for the male dancers. To a relentless drumbeat, Haman's henchmen savagely beat the five men who represented Esther's Jewish community. Those same five had some very special moments, particularly in a haunting dance around a water basin, set to a song for solo voice and drum, in which the mournful voice of prayer came right through their shuddering bodies.

A duet for Esther and the King on their wedding day was sweet and playful -- Esther lovingly butted her head against his stomach -- and, in a passage full of peace, an angel in blue silk appeared to Esther under a canopy of stars, breathing out a blessing through long arabesques and multiple turns, then sending Esther's troubled companions off to safety with a quiet push of her floating arms. When Haman was finally hanged, the joyous onlookers -- whom Esther has saved -- tossed their cloaks into the air again and again, almost in slow motion. The finale was an exhilarating dance of liberation. In general, the choreography did best when it moved beyond the easy jump-and-turn combinations it sometimes fell into. When focused, the ballet found -- in sharp leaps, keening backbends, and unusual port de bras -- the physical language of the music.

It also found, in New York, as enthusiastic a response as it reportedly found among dancegoers in Hungary. The house was packed (with WASP-looking women and little boys in yarmulkes alike), the applause was long, and the company gave a raucous encore of the final dance, at the end of which the artistic director came out, kissed his hand, then touched the stage. Despite some vagueness in choreography and some haste in storytelling, "Purim" is an extremely impressive achievement -- one hopes, not the last of its kind.

The passionate leading dancers were Szabina Cserpak (Esther), Balazs Patkai (King Ahasverosh), Otto Demcsak (a gentle giant as Esther's uncle Mordechai), Ervin Muller (Haman), Hajnalka Szantai (Vashti, the king's deposed queen), Laszlo Zadorvolgyi (Tseres, a courtier to Haman), and Krisztian Horvath (another courtier). Ingrid Gottlicher created the simple yet richly textured earth-toned costumes. Along with composer Javori, the extraordinary Budapest Klezmer Band featured Isvan Kohan, Katalin Fenyo, Anna Nagy, Gabor Kiss, Gabor Tamas, an d Balazs Vegh.

Gyor National Ballet takes "Purim" on tour to Germany next month.



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