The first Hungarian Ballet Grand Prix wins hearts and plaudits

Drive an hour and a half from Budapest and you will reach an inland paradise on the shores of Lake Balaton. Veszprém is this year’s European Capital of Culture, an initiative that offers an opportunity to introduce lesser-known regions to other European states. This award for Veszprém happily coincided with the establishment of the first Hungarian Ballet Grand Prix which ran 26th–29th June.

The competition, the initiative of Tamás Solymosi, director of the Hungarian National Ballet, attracted around 200 entries from 18 countries, the ages ranging from pre-competitive at 7–9 and the eldest at 18 years. The competitors were predominantly in the younger age groups which resulted in excitement levels that went off the scale as tiny people congregated, accompanied by tutu bags almost as big as they were. The categories also included those who were not in professional training programmes which opened welcome wider inclusion and the ensemble work in this section, showed both good technical standard, creativity and definite dance enjoyment. Who would have thought a bout of flu could inspire a dance work!

Within the last 2 years, Radina Dace, the artistic director of the Hungarian National Ballet Institute, has contributed a great deal to the success of the competition, while Annamaria Isky, chair of the board of trustees, ensured smooth execution and fundraising. The European Capital of Culture award had also resulted in an imaginative restoration project in Veszprém. The ActiCity Dance and Movement Arts Center was developed on the site of a former children’s hospital built in 1905, abandoned for decades and ripe for renewal. The impressive new centre opened in May this year.

The old building is fronted by a gracious façade and adjoining is a modern building that offers space for training and performance to accommodate groups and activities, ranging from ballet to folk dance to rock climbing. This facility was a positive boost to the Grand Prix with plenty of space for classes, rehearsals and performances in the new building. For the climax, the Gala performance, an outdoor theatre was constructed and thankfully this took place on a balmy evening.

Winner of the Youth Grand Prix and €2,000 was Cecília Porkoláb, a Hungarian dancer who is studying at the Hungarian National Ballet Institute at the State Opera on a scholarship. She gave an emotional and technically very accomplished performance of Nikiya’s solo from La Bayadère. She is tall with lovely proportions: her superb arabesque line, supple back and balances that hovered on air made this solo an ideal choice. The winner of the Junior Grand Prix and €1,000 was Marta Barbeiro from the International Conservatory of Ballet and Dance, in Leiria, Portugal. She gave a spirited performance of the famous La Esmeralda solo working strongly on the music, her technical assurance ensuring her poll position. Both winners were also gifted engraved Varga Art Crystal vases, one of Hungary’s most prized traditional handcrafts.

In addition to the competition, students were able to participate in a range of designated classes with top quality teachers. My favourite quote came from Ildikó Pongor, one of Hungary’s greatest dancers and teachers: “You kick… it’s Folies Bergère. Very nice, but it’s not ballet!” It is such an important message at any dance competition where social media focuses on the high legs and multiple turns at the expense of artistic quality. Albert Mirzoyan’s classes were also a joy. His warmth and wisdom filled the classroom as did his deep-rooted knowledge of how best to help a student improve. Winners were chosen by the jury chaired by Tamás Solymosi, and included dancers from the Hungarian National Ballet and some of Hungary’s most distinguished dance artists and teachers. Kateryna Kukhar, principal dancer from Ukraine Ballet was a welcome guest as jury member and teacher.

Many of the awards at all levels included a gift package to participate in a short-term summer course of workshops and ballet classes with ballet masters of the Hungarian National Ballet Institute. The Institute was founded in 2016 and caters for students from 4–14. Currently 140 children attend the Institute where they gain a professional dance training based on the Vaganova method but also including many styles of dance. Solymosi noted the importance at the school of finding the joy in dance and this was evident in the many young performers from the Institute.

The group work offered interesting choreography and a great deal of enjoyment. Winner of the Best Choreography Award was Purple Letters from the Conservatory in Leiria. The text spoke of the relationship between parent and growing children and was given a thoughtful, innovative interpretation in contemporary movement from these young people in the Youth 1, 15–16 age group, Valentina Penya, Clara Riquito, Núria Fernandes, Darius Tamosi, Sarah Reynolds and May Barrutia. Riquito, Fernandes and Reynolds went on to give a quality interpretation of the Odalisques Pas de Trois from Le Corsaire which also proved a gold winner. The visitors from Portugal made a very positive addition to the Grand Prix. The Conservatory, under the direction of Annarella Sanchez, is one of Europe’s top private dance schools which showed in the quality of the work the students presented.

Coming from even further afield, were the students of the Taipei Junior Ballet Education Center: Tzu-wei Chuang, Yuan-Jen Chang, Yi-le Yang, Chia-Chen Lui, Elissa Ma and Addison Ma. Their group work, Showery Rain, won Gold in the Junior 1 category, 10–12 year group. It was a beautifully crafted and structured work showing excellent training and rehearsing in an innovative contemporary style.

The Junior 1 category had any number of delicious solos, duets and trios. Young Benjamin Dietl from Austria and a seasoned competitor even at his young age, bounded onto the stage in glittery tailcoat in an exciting, technically challenging neo-classical piece entitled Ballet Beats and gained a first. Among the eighteen sponsored students from Ukraine was young Maksym Burdeiny, boldly waving his sword in an excerpt from Spartacus and also a Gold medal winner.

The trio from Harlequinade was danced by the talented Julianna Éva Pollák, Johanna Steiner-Isky and Liza Gulyás, students at the Hungarian National Ballet Institute. Beautifully dressed in gold tulle, they danced on pointe with surprising confidence, bravely pirouetting and enjoying the experience. One of my favourites for the quality interpretation was Nora Strnadová from the Czech Republic for her Giselle Act 1 solo which gained gold. It was carefully adapted to her age, showing clean lines and positions but sensibly trimming down the diagonal sautés on pointe. The joy of it was her understanding of the character; the young Giselle, hopelessly in love and offering her heart in her gentle gestures.

There were several boy/girl duets. Memories of a Meeting danced by Johanna Steiner-Isky and Viacheslav Hosachynskyi, won gold in the competition and hearts at the Gala. Exquisitely dressed, she with her parasol, they meet in the park for a brief liaison. Laura Berki and Máté Lukács Kiss also in this age group danced with charm to music by Offenbach. In both there was the start of ballet partnering in supported balances and learning to present your partner with grace, definitely designed to win over the audience! A clever touch of comedy came in Insomnia by Lara Tóth with Dorottya Kis as a weary sleeper who is pestered by a gadfly!

There were also contemporary solos of note. Gundega Guna Reinika from Latvia was a striking presence in a black leotard dancing It’s Happening Again. She had previously danced the rather stately solo from Talisman and now showed her ability in fluid modern dance punctuated by strong high extensions. In a much younger group Adél Pálfi, was a fiery little witch (depicting Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family) dancing with passion to Vivaldi’s Winter. A well-considered choice, at the invitation of Tamás Solymosi, came Eva Török who specialises in dance for those with special needs dancing a duet with Alexander Stuchlik. It was something different and meaningful and a welcome addition.

There were further solos from the Ukrainians studying in Budapest. Mariia Prangova dancing Heartbeat, used her height and length of limbs to good effect in a dramatic and intensely expressive modern interpretation. Also dramatic but in a very different style was another La Esmeralda. This time Arina Kurbatova, with sparkling eyes and high extensions.

A highlight was definitely the Grand Pas Classique performed by Núria Fernandes and Darius Tamosi from Portugal. They tackled this hugely challenging pas de deux with confidence and rock-solid technique. The pair carried off the tricky balances, the tours, the fouettés in a very stylish rendition that really gave a professional finish to the Grand Prix. The Hungarian National Ballet closed the evening with Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos but, in reality the evening belonged to the aspiring young dancers who filled the evening with their hope and joy.

This article and Maggie Foyer’s trip was sponsored by the Foundation for Hungarian Opera Ballet Students. The Hungarian Ballet Grand Prix is supported by Veszprém European Capital of Culture 2023.


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