Reich-and-Bach. Not the Swiss waterfalls into which Sherlock and Moriarty drop to their deaths (to save you looking it up, they were the Reichenbach Falls); but the disparate composers for two of Jiří Kylián's ground-breaking sextet of dance creations, collectively known as the Black and White ballets. It is hard to imagine two works that bear so much similarity, made within twelve months’ of each other, being so different.

Jiří Kylián's <i>Sarabande</i> © Attila Nagy
Jiří Kylián's Sarabande
© Attila Nagy

Sarabande (1990) began a leitmotif – to be continued in Petite Mort (the last B&W ballet, made a year later) – where Kylián's minimalist purpose is partially represented by bodies and costumes being separated.  Here, six elaborate, full-length Baroque gowns open the evening, starkly pinpointed in light, like prize exhibits at a costume museum. They appear just momentarily before darkness engulfs the stage and when illumination returns, the costumes are suspended mid-air, with six men lying beneath them, like turtles suddenly relieved of their shells. They are posed as if caught in mid-butterfly stroke, and Sarabande is punctuated by these snapshot images of uniform shapes and costume rearrangement (shirts pulled over heads, leggings down around ankles), each revealed after transient moments of darkness. As in all Kylián choreography, there is so much rich, inventive detail in every sequence of movement. The men are angry; they yell and snarl. The sound of Sarabande – Dick Heuff’s bespoke electronic rearrangement of Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin, mixed with brief snatches of the original composition – is often uncomfortably loud; and the first thunderclap is unsettling for anyone unprepared for it.  

Jiří Kylián's <i>Sarabande</i> © Attila Nagy
Jiří Kylián's Sarabande
© Attila Nagy

Just one cast of six men was chosen for Sarabande, whereas I saw two different groups of eight women in Falling Angels; which may speak volumes about the relative gender strength-in-depth within the Hungarian National Ballet, now undergoing an upwardly-mobile transformation under the leadership of Tamas Solymosi, who has been in post as director since 2011. While these guys gave their all to the visceral intensity of Sarabande, straining facial expressions and contracted torsos to the limit, their uniformity was often not quite as synchronised as it should be. It was the one work in the evening's programme that appeared to need further fine tuning. 

Falling Angels was a delight on both evenings; perhaps even more so with the second cast.   The incessant, repetitive, ritualistic rhythms of Steve Reich's Drumming (part one) require precision accuracy in the collaborative interaction of the eight women throughout the rolling – yet always unpredictable – flow of Kylián's choreography: merging classicism with explosive contraction; beautiful line with discordant distortion. This is fifteen minutes of unrelenting concentration by the dancers that should be transmitted – through the frenzied African heat of Reich’s minimalist beats – in no less measure to an equally attentive audience. At the end, the dancers’ combined effort is there for all to see, in the dark stains of sweat liberally covering their simple black leotards. 

Jiří Kylián's <i>Falling Angels</i> © Attila Nagy
Jiří Kylián's Falling Angels
© Attila Nagy

The creation of Falling Angels at the Nederlands Dans Theater preceded Sarabande by a year and Kylián's assistant – then and now – is Roslyn Anderson. She came to Budapest to oversee this staging and her attention to the fine detail of a work she has lived with for over a quarter of a century was superbly absorbed by all sixteen dancers across both casts. Impactful lighting is a major element of both Kylián ballets: Sarabande closes with just the faces of all six men picked out in spotlights; Falling Angels has a sequence in which the women stand behind a horizontal beam of light, uniformly illuminating specific parts of their bodies. And, this overarching theme of carefully controlled lighting continues into the opening sequences of Harald Lander's Études, where a dozen anonymous ballerinas in black tutus perform exercises at the barre with just their legs lit. This stark exposure would magnify even the tiniest lapse of any dancer being just a split-second out of harmony, but – with great credit to the coaching of Angéla Kövessy and her team – their uniformity of timing is nothing short of exemplary.  

<i>Études</i> © Attila Nagy
Études
© Attila Nagy

Created upon the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948, Lander composed a series of some twenty ballet scenes to illustrate the components of a class (from barre to centre; adagio to allegro). One can easily see it as part of a post-war fashion for creating performances by purely demonstrating the language of ballet; sitting alongside Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet (made later in the same year); and George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (1947). The Russians caught on a while later with Asaf Messerer’s Class Concert (1961). The uniting theme is that no company can perform any of these ballets without exceptional strength in depth. Études requires up to fifty dancers, any one of whom can let the side down! It’s an ideal ballet with which to get a company in shape as a season-opener. 

As with both the Ashton and Balanchine counterparts, the centrepiece of Études is the principal ballerina and both these casts were led by stunning, albeit distinctly different, performances. The première featured the vivacious charisma of Karina Sarkissova; and the second cast lead was Tatiana Melnik, whose fast footwork was evenly matched by consistently gorgeous épaulement (the correct placement of head and shoulders, so often overlooked). Both Russian ballerinas are recent acquisitions: Sarkissova arrived in 2013 and Melnik has only just transferred from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. 

Karina Sarkissova in <i>Études</i> © Attila Nagy
Karina Sarkissova in Études
© Attila Nagy

Lander plunders the classical repertoire with non-narrative references to the great romantic and classical ballets (there are allusions to both Les Sylphides and La Sylphide; to the Pas de quatre and Giselle – and, like Hilarion and Albrecht, some of the guys must feel that they are dancing themselves to death by the end)! With a flourish of confidence in his casting, Solymosi threw out a risky challenge to a 20-year-old artist from the corps de ballet, Gergö Balázsi; debuting in the demanding role of lead male soloist, in the second cast. He started nervously but quickly found the confidence to tackle Lander’s virtuoso challenges with considerable aplomb.

Balázsi is a real homespun find to set against Solymosi’s recruitment of foreign dancers as an expedient to enable a paradigm change in standards. The last time I saw this company, at this theatre, was in 2007, when both the ensemble and the venue seemed in dire need of renovation. Since then, the Erkel has undergone a major transformation to become an attractive modern theatre (twinned with Budapest’s elegant nineteenth-century opera house) with a sumptuous box-like proscenium and unimpaired visibility throughout the auditorium. It seems clear that Solymosi is the architect of a similarly effective metamorphosis of Hungary’s national (and only) ballet company. Back in 2007, it was a stale, stereotypical, central European purveyor of atrophying classical productions; now, here is a company that is clearly aspiring to – and achieving – a true international standard with a diverse repertoire to match.