Pairing these ballets together in a double bill is a courageous move for any ballet company.  Both ballets are extreme compilations of vigorous ballet technique, detached from the vaguest hint of narrative. They are works for serious balletomanes; without the hiding places that performers might find in a full-length, story-based work. Those ballets require virtuosity in bursts, often punctuating less onerous scènes d’action; these ballets require a lexicon of the toughest dance vocabulary, from start to finish. The intense concentration on classical form makes it inconceivable that they could ever be danced to perfection.         

The Hungarian National Ballet in <i>Etudes</i> © Szilvia Csibi | Hungarian State Opera
The Hungarian National Ballet in Etudes
© Szilvia Csibi | Hungarian State Opera

Just seven weeks (and the Atlantic Ocean) separated their premières: George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations opened in New York on the 26th November 1947, as a vehicle for Ballet Theatre’s Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch; followed by Harald Lander’s Études, for the Royal Danish Ballet, in Copenhagen, on 15 January 1948. This close proximity could be coincidence but I suspect that in the austerity of those immediate post-war years, their many similarities might indicate a contemporary predilection with the purity of classical form that also witnessed, for example, the creation of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, in 1946. 

So, it was a brave step for the Hungarian National Ballet to present them, together; and in three casts. I saw only the second cast (on two consecutive nights) but it was enough to convince me that there is considerable strength-in-depth within this company. In particular, one must applaud the excellence of the ballet masters for the overall magnificence of the corps de ballet across both works (36 supporting dancers being required in Études, alone).

The intimate setting of the 459-seat Festival Theatre, situated within the outstanding Müpa cultural hub, next to the River Danube, gave an unusual and fascinating close-up view of ballets that are normally seen in much larger venues (the Budapest Opera House is currently undergoing renovation). The downside was the necessity for recorded music, which inevitably loses the authenticity of a live orchestra.

Theme and Variations is stylistically close to Symphony in C, made by Balanchine, earlier in 1947, initially for the Paris Opera Ballet (as Le Palais de Cristal) and the finale bears structural similarities to the conclusion of Diamonds (the last movement of the full-length Jewels). The original costumes for these ballets were all designed by Barbara Karinska but, for this Hungarian production, Nora Rományi has created her own version of beautiful sequin-appliqued tutus in a vibrant shade of lemon with skirts resembling the petals of a flower.

A glimpse of Aliya Tanykpayeva, on film, in the lead ballerina’s adagio/pizzicato solo from the 4th variation, emphasised my frustration at not seeing her in the first cast but Lea Földi was a sparkling alternate; elegant, unhurried, always firmly in control of her technique without ever appearing to be thinking about it. Zoltán Oláh, her partner, has a noble bearing, spins well and jumps with impressive elevation; but, the physical effort of his lifts was sometimes obvious, and he seemed often more concerned with the mechanics of the movement than conveying his enjoyment to the audience. 

The Hungarian National Ballet in <i>Etudes</i> © Szilvia Csibi | Hungarian State Opera
The Hungarian National Ballet in Etudes
© Szilvia Csibi | Hungarian State Opera
The twelve variations to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 last around half-an-hour; at twice this length, Lander’s Études is a marathon test of endurance. It was dubbed an “anti-ballet” by the legendary American dance critic Arlene Croce: partly because of the absence of any plot; but also due to the work being structured around the concept of daily ballet class, normally hidden from an audience. It begins at the barre, where the corps of ballerinas – in two groups, distinguished by black or white tutus - have just their legs illuminated; before moving to centre work, progressively building to the exhilarating excitement of flashing diagonals of leaps as dancers traversed the four corners of the stage, and the complex patterns of the finale.

Lander constructed this hour-long compilation of ballet exercises beautifully, encapsulating a virtuous circle by choreographing this triumph of classical form to Carl Czerny’s virtuoso piano studies. To add heart to the proceedings, there is the gem of a central interlude that appears as a miniature capsule of Les Sylphides, with four ballerinas and a “poet”; clearly evoking the romanticism of the Danish ballet tradition.      

The three soloists were outstanding. Karina Sarkissova delivering the vital emphasis given to the central ballerina with sublime elegance and vitality; qualities that remained vibrantly undiminished throughout her various solo exercises and the gorgeous “Sylphide-like” pas de deux. She was strongly supported by Gergö Ármin Balázsi and Gergely Leblanc, both of whom managed to combine ebullience, endurance and strong technique throughout this epic marathon.     

Immediately before each performance, as the house lights dimmed, a heart shape was illuminated on the velvet curtains: a minor detail but one that represents the love of ballet form, purely for its own sake, which is manifest in these two works, made seven weeks’ apart, almost seventy years’ ago; and for which this programme was a fine anniversary celebration.            

Graham Watts' press trip to Budapest was sp[onsored by the Hungarian State Opera