During the 1960s and 1970s, Iván Nagy was the man who ballerinas sought out as their partner on stage. An excellent dancer, Nagy joined the Hungarian State Opera in 1960 and won third prize at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1963. The win helped launch his international career and he went on to dance with the National Ballet of Washington DC, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. However, it was his exemplary qualities as a danseur noble and partner that brought him his greatest honours. Among the many acclaimed ballerinas he worked with during his career were Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova, Carla Fracci and Gelsey Kirkland and his artistry was admired throughout the world.

Hungarian National Ballet in The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère
© Attila Nagy

After he finished dancing, Nagy directed a number of ballet companies, including Santiago City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and English National Ballet, and following his retirement in 2000 he became artistic advisor to the general director of the Hungarian State Opera in 2012. Sadly, Nagy died unexpectedly in 2014, and since then the Hungarian National Ballet has held an annual gala to honour his memory, which often includes performances by guest artists from some of the many international companies with which he danced.

For 2023, the evening (organised by the company’s artistic director Tamás Solymosi and held at Budapest’s magnificent, newly-restored Opera House) had a distinctly Hispanic/Latino flavour and, unusually for galas – which normally consist of endless showcase pas de deux, the programme was made up of three complete ballets, as well as a fair sprinkling of divertissements. It was, therefore, a refreshing treat and an excellent introduction to an ensemble I had never seen before.

Liza Gulyás, Máté Vincze Bertalan, Hungarian National Ballet Institute in Milongueando en el 40
© Attila Nagy

Solymosi is convinced of the importance of giving young student dancers the opportunity to perform on stage and so the gala opened with students from the Hungarian National Ballet Institute in an elegant account of the Polonaise and Mazurka from Marius Petipa’s Paquita, a ballet set in Spain. I had seen these young pupils dancing earlier in the day and was impressed on both occasions, not only by their smiling confidence, but also by their precision.

Next was “The Kingdom of the Shades” scene from Petipa’s La Bayadère, which was led by one of the company’s leading principals, Tatyjana Melnyik, and Italian guest artist Jacopo Tissi from La Scala, Milan. The ballet is a technical challenge for the female corps de ballet of Shades, who, at the start, descend one by one, down a series of ramps in an endless procession of arabesques until they eventually dance as one in the centre of the stage. The effect, when well done, is almost hypnotic and I thought the 24 women of the company acquitted themselves well, although I would have liked to see them give the choreography a little more breadth and air.

Yourim Lee and Motomi Kiyota Diana and Actaeon pas de deux
© Attila Nagy

Tall, dark and slim, Tissi covered the stage in a series of spectacular soaring jumps, his feet beautifully stretched, and he brought a sense of glamour to the role of Solor. As his Nikiya, Melnyik danced with a beautifully proud carriage to her head and back, and brought unflurried flow and control to the pas de deux, her limbs unfurling and radiating out into the air with luxurious smoothness. Her classical technique was peerless and she was very musical, even when the tempo of Ludwig Minkus’ rum-ti-tum music was taken far too slowly. In addition, Yuki Wakabayashi, Claudia García Carriera and Ekaterine Surmava danced strongly as the three solo Shades.

As a short interlude between Bayadère and the next longer ballet, Liza Gulyás and Máté Vincze Bertalan of the Hungarian National Ballet Institute appeared in Dénes Kovács’ Milongueando en el 40, a sweet little tango number to music by Armando Pontier, played live by the excellent Tango Harmony Budapest. The tiny tots certainly made me chuckle more than the performance of Sol León and Paul Lightfoot’s Sad Case, danced to recorded mambo music by Perez Prado et al, which tried far too hard to be quirky and intentionally funny through jerky, repetitive choreography. It was also too long, my patience running out ten minutes before the end. With their faces and costumes smeared in make-up, the dancers (the excellent Inès Furuhashi-Huber, Miyu Takamori, Valerio Palumbo, Motomi Kiyota and Carlos Taravillo Mahillo) worked hard to make it all work and at the same time demonstrated how versatile they were as artists.

After the interval, we were back in the world of Latin American music and dance with Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos. To music by Astor Piazzolla, the choreography gives only a very generalised, balleticised impression of real tango, but as a company showcase (most of the individual dancers, except Lili Felméry and Gergely Leblanc, were not named in the programme), it couldn’t be faulted. The ensemble looked strong and spruce and they performed with alacrity, especially Felméry and Leblanc.

Hungarian National Ballet in Hans van Manen's Five Tangos
© Attila Nagy

Then, to end the evening, three pas de deux, each with its own sequence of virtuoso steps, pirouettes and fouéttes, so it was a matter of personal taste which you enjoyed the most. Maria Beck and Ármin Balázsi Gergö brought confidence, style and a French flavour to the duet from La Esmeralda, apparently choreographed by Jules Perrot, although I found that hard to believe. Gergö had a particularly refined movement quality that made every jump and pirouette look smooth and easy, whilst Beck danced her solo with the tambourine with sophisticated élan. Much more flashy was the duet, Diana and Actaeon, created by Agrippina Vaganova in 1935 to insert into a production of La Esmeralda. Filled to the brim with bravura, showstopping tricks, the pas de deux was danced to the hilt by Yourim Lee and Kiyota, and had the audience roaring its approval.

It’s not often we see a highly refined performance of the pas de deux from Don Quixote nowadays, but that is what we got from Melnyik, this time partnered by Cuban-born Alejandro Virelles, a principal with Staatsballett Berlin. Virelles has old-school nobility and a chivalrous quality to his partnering, and he helped transform the duet from a technical “firework display” into something much more amorous and romantic. At this point in the ballet, after all, Kitri and Basilio have just married. Like Nagy, Virelles takes care of his ballerina, presenting her immaculately, yet not holding back the brilliance of his own dancing. With him, Melnyik shone. It was a lovely way to close a highly enjoyable gala.

Jonathan Gray's trip was sponsored by the Foundation for Hungarian Opera Ballet Students