The Bartók Spring International Arts Week commemorated the 140th anniversary of the Hungarian composer’s birth with a packed programme that included this world premiere of Balázs Vincze’s Vasarely Etudes for Ballet Pécs. It celebrates the leader of the Op Art movement, Victor Vasarely (born in Pécs as Győző Vásárhelyi), commemorating both the 45th anniversary of the Vasarely Foundation and 60 years since the formation of Ballet Pécs. 

Vasarely Etudes
© Anett Kállai-Tóth | Bartók Spring

Vincze has been inspired by ten Vasarely works in the Pécs museum that is dedicated to the artist; and it is not just his neoclassical choreography that has been motivated by the paintings, but also the set and costume designs and a new score by Richárd Riederauer, which is an attractive mix of orchestral, jazz and electronic music.

Vincze’s concept is to bring Vasarely’s art to life for a quartet of elegant visitors to a gallery’s glitzy private viewing. They appeared at the outset, clinking champagne flutes and applauding, and returned regularly throughout the ballet. Their dialogue is obviously key to a full appreciation of the work but, excepting a brief quotation from Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage…”), the copious text is spoken in Hungarian (without subtitles).         

Although Op Art (short for Optical art) is a term first coined by Time magazine in 1964, it describes a genre that existed in Vasarely’s paintings from at least three decades previously (his work, Zebra, painted in 1938, is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of Op Art). Most pertinently in the context of dance, the principal illusion of Op Art is the suggestion of movement in the abstract patterns that typify the genre and it is this association that the ballet exploits to the full.

Vasarely Etudes
© Anett Kállai-Tóth | Bartók Spring

Evidence of grid patterns is omnipresent from the very beginning, starting with the arrangements of nine dancers dressed in varying shades of blue largely moving organically in a cluster: the women wearing mid-length skirts and wide-brimmed, crown-less hats. And then a dancer wearing platform shoes holding out a large cape designed in black and white squares with four other dancers dressed in a similar pattern joining him in bouncy movement as they quickly switched from leg to leg on a dark reflective floor lit sombrely in blue.

An onstage musical interlude followed with an accordion player (Tamás Kéméndi) and a chanteuse (Anna Györfi) singing a montage of well-known French songs, including La Vie en rose, illustrating Vasarely’s move to Paris, in 1930. Off-kilter images of paintings in the backdrop were reflected in a grid of nine platforms rising from the stage, each occupied by a dancer wearing a full black body shroud, which they removed in sequence. Having returned for a further discussion, one female guest remained behind to witness living works of art: a sculpture on a plinth and then a duet representing the artist and his model. Later, a woman sketched grid-like patterns in paint on a male dancer’s body and the four actors returned with gestures suggesting artists measuring their subject.

Vasarely Etudes
© Anett Kállai-Tóth | Bartók Spring

In what one must assume are further references to Vasarely paintings, a male dancer in t-shirt and shorts was joined by a group with their arms slanted diagonally downwards; and a group of female dancers wore skirts that inflated like large ochre balloons. Wearing identical spectacles with severe black frames, the four guests then returned for another conversation, introducing the next interpretation of Vasarely art in a slow section dominated by large, red, squashy beach balls. The men used them like athletes in training, leading to a sudden and surprising aerial routine, complete with somersaults above the stage. 

Vasarely Etudes
© Anett Kállai-Tóth | Bartók Spring

The penultimate Vasarely image concerned six young women posing seductively while a saxophone and percussion dominated Riederauer’s excellent score. Two of the guests examined large images in the backdrop, to be joined by a line of eight male dancers, dressed casually and performing movement influenced by street dance to the music’s insistent electronic beat. They removed their tops to reveal t shirts with symbols on their backs which must have meant something but not to me.

The final sequence saw the dancers drop from the front of the stage, one-by-one, the last falling as if shot; and the gallery guests sprinkled petals into the void before finishing their conversation about Vasarely. The work ended as the dancers – now themselves dressed as visitors – returned to the gallery to view images of the Op Art paintings projected onto the backdrop.    

Although the simplicity of Vincze’s intentions to capture the illusion of movement in Vasarely’s abstract art is plain enough and the mix of Op Art painting, design, music and movement was certainly attractive, the essence of the artist and his motivations remained elusive; at least, that is, to anyone not fluent in Hungarian.


This performance was reviewed from the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks live video stream

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