Encore in Budapest


Wilma Salisbury
Plain Dealer Dance Critic

For an ethnic dance company in Middle America, an invitation to perform in the Old Country is the ultimate honor. Csárdás, Cleveland's Hungarian dance company, won the coveted prize early in its history.

Founded in 1994 by executive director Richard Graber, the ensemble first traveled to Budapest in 1998 to participate in a gala concert organized by Sandor Timar, former artistic director of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble and now director of Timar Folklor. So successful was the Csárdás performance that the dancers were asked to return two years later to help celebrate Timar's 70th birthday.

This week, members of the Cleveland troupe are back in Budapest rehearsing for a gala at Pesti Vigado ("place for merriment"). The performance will be the last event in the magnificent cultural center before it closes for renovation.

Csárdás will be the only American company in a huge cast that includes Hungarian dance ensembles from Japan, England and Hungary. All participants were selected by Timar, who is producing the show.

"Sandor is still active at 73," Graber said. "He is a very generous man. He gives freely of his knowledge."

The Csárdás dancers discovered the depth of the renowned director's knowledge five years ago, when Graber commissioned a work from Timar and his wife. The piece, "Dances of Sarkoz," will be performed at the gala by members of the Cleveland company.

Because Csárdás was invited to participate in the program just a few weeks ago, only four of the 11 adults in the company were able to juggle their day jobs and arrange to take the trip. On short notice, the Ohio Arts Council contributed $2,500 to help pay for airfare, and a couple of small local foundations kicked in an additional $500. Friends of the company are providing lodging in a Budapest apartment.

During a rehearsal at the Movement Arts Center in Medina, where Csárdás and its school are based, the dancers ripped through the rapid turns and stamping steps of Timar's vigorous choreography. The men did tricky jumps. The women showed off their fancy slippers in fast footwork. All wore heavy costumes decorated with elaborate embroidery.

"The men of Sarkoz wanted women of wealth," explained Karen Majewski, dance consultant for Csárdás' female dancers. "The women were considered prizes. They were rich, proud and flashy. They showed their status in the richness of their costumes. The more decoration, the richer the woman."

To make their full skirts fuller, the dancers wear "butt pillows" beneath their petticoats. To keep the backless slippers on their feet, they curl their toes.

The colorful costumes were handmade in Hungary, and so was the less-showy clothing the dancers wear in "Dances of Szatmar."

This fast-paced work was choreographed by Zoltan and Zsuzsa Zsurafszky of Budapest. In the Csárdás repertory, it's paired with a stick dance from the same region. Originally a competitive dance performed by shepherds, the bravura solo is a specialty of Csárdás artistic director Christopher Smith.

Besides performing the Sarkoz and Szatmar dances at the gala, the Csárdás couples will join other ensembles in the grand finale, "Dances of Rabakoz."

During the dancers' nine-day stay in Budapest, Graber plans to acquire folk materials and research music appropriate for new choreography.

Smith, an accounting assistant for an Alcoa business in Northeast Ohio, will make a courtesy call to an Alcoa office near Budapest. Majewski, a folklorist with a doctorate in American culture, will shop for authentic village costumes in flea markets. She and Elizabeth Krajcz, a chemist for a hazardous waste company, will spend their evenings checking out urban dance houses.

Both women are so devoted to Hungarian dance that they commute weekly from their homes in the Detroit area to rehearse and perform with Csárdás.

"I was forced into Hungarian dance at age 5," Krajcz said. "I liked it as a child. Then I quit until 1999, when I joined Csárdás, and I grew to love it."

Graber, the son of Hungarian immigrants, loves everything about his cultural heritage. Smith has no Eastern European roots. But he is sometimes mistaken for Romany. Both men are striving to keep Csárdás stable at a time when money for the arts is tight and funding for ethnic dance companies is particularly difficult to raise.

The company currently operates on a budget of more than $100,000, and the dancers are paid only when they perform. Unhappy about the inadequate compensation, Graber would like to offer monthly stipends.

The visit to Budapest, he says, will strengthen the company and its mission to promote appreciation for the ethnic arts in the Midwest. "We don't get invited to Budapest every day," he said. "This trip gives us new energy to keep this unique culture alive."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

wsalisbury@plaind.com, 216-999-4248

? 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

Copyright 2004 cleveland.com. All Rights Reserved.


Csárdás Dance Company
P.O. Box 770641
Cleveland, OH 44107
Tel: 440-668-6500