One of the founding fathers of neoclassical dance – whatever that may mean – in Europe, Hans van Manen, turned 85 this year. Call it a birthday celebration if you will, the Hungarian National Ballet paid tribute to the master with a triple bill composed of 3 Gnossiennes, 5 Tangos and Black Cake, all of them entering to company's repertoire on this occasion. 

On paper, Hans van Manen’s Nordic austerity and sophisticated vocabulary are a perfect match for Budapest’s noble, monumental spirit. But there’s more to van Manen’s style than steely elegance: its mood occasionally veers from polite, dry humour to sharp sarcasm and then latent erotic tension isn't at play. It takes a bold company to master such subtext. Now an ever-developing city, Budapest has so much more to offer than its faded grandeur, and the Hungarian National Ballet’s recent moves reflect just that. Once home to neoclassical works, in the mid-twentieth century, the company is increasingly attractive under Tamás Solymosi’s successful leadership.

The historical stage of the Hungarian state opera house being closed for renovation, the première took place at the Müpa, a trendy cultural centre overlooking the Danube. It embodies everything Budapest has stood for since Hungary joined the EU and it suits the van Manen triple bill perfectly. What's more, the small-scale theatre gave an intimate feel to the evening. 

An enigmatic bluish light bathes the stage where a piano, a man and a woman stand still. 3 Gnossiennes was tailor-made for Maria Aradi, born Hungarian, so it comes as no surprise that it was chosen to open the triple bill. The piece’s cold-hearted tone found an interesting echo in Aliya Tanykpayeva and Iurii Kekalo, both gorgeous dark-haired dancers. With her Eastern features and penetrating black eyes, Tanykpayeva tames a fire beneath the ice. Her vigorous dancing – sharp leg lifts and sober arms – took the audience by surprise. Kekalo, a classical ideal of ancient times, endowed the ballet with an Apollonian colour. The whole effect was spellbinding. The interest of the piece also comes from the fact that Satie’s achingly beautiful music strikes a chord with van Manen’s clarity of structure. 

Melancholy soon gave way to joviality, Piazzola’s crowd-pleasing music indicating that 5 Tangos was on the road. The company’s essence, though far from the latin aesthetic, seems well-fitted for the sensual, straight-forward spirit of this one-act ballet. The piece somehow appeals to national folk roots with some character-like steps and dancers ( notably Karina Sarkissova and Gergely Leblanc) seemed at home in 5 Tangos. There was a small cloud on the horizon though. Each tango is supposed to portray a different mood but the whole piece was performed with very little nuances. It was opening night, after all, and subsequent casts might have more time to tackle 5 Tangos' subtleties.

The company’s third foray into van Manen territory ended up on a tipsy note. A choreographic and theatrical take on a society party, Black Cake made me think of a Robbins piece revisited by Mats Ek. Its sarcastic humour, modern expressionism and depiction of couples' ups and downs make it the icing on the cake of the triple bill. Aliya Tanykpayeva, back with a new outfit (a glittering ballroom dress) and a new partner (Dmitry Timofeev) stole the show again. When, a glass of champagne in hand, the dancers addressed the audience in a fake drunken state, Black Cake proved an appropriate toast to the evening première. Champagne flew long after the last curtain call as a reception unfolded on stage to celebrate Hans van Manen and the dancers.


Jade's trip to Budapest was sponsored by the Hungarian State Opera.