Early Days of Modern Dance in Hungary by Dr. Gedeon P. Dienes

Thank you for the invitation to this very important conference in dance history. Let me say a few words about myself. I have been watching, partly practicing and certainly studying non-balletic theatre dance for some eighty years. I use the term non-balletic because we have no jointly agreed terminology for what I am going talk about.
1. In the early 20th century some dancers felt they could move freely on the stage, ignoring the strict rules of highly developed ballet technique and traditional aesthetics. One of the many was an American girl, Isadora Duncan who – together with several others (like Loie Fuller in Paris, the Wiesenthal sisters in Vienna, Maud Allan from Canada and so on) – discovered that the human body could perform many more expressive movements than had been registered in ballet technique. These “rebels” moved “freely” on the stage, whence one of the first terms of new theatre dance became “free dance”. Since Isadora (and others) exercised the deepest impact on Europe, another term was born: Central-European dance, or German dance but luckily these are only used as historical terms. In the early decades of the last century the German term “Bewegungskunst” took over; it means something like “art of movement” and is difficult to translate into other languages.
Beside dancers, some teachers also started to think about a new kind of dancing, like the Austrian Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, the German Bess Mensendieck and the Hungarian-born Rudolf Laban and so on.
2. Hungary, a Central-European country, could not resist these impacts (nor did we want to) and was ready to fall in line with some of them. In the tens of that century this impact manifested itself along three line represented by three “school-founding mothers”: in 1912 Dr. Valéria Dienes (1879-1978), with PhD in philosophy, aesthetics and mathematics, a disciple of the French philosopher Henri Bergson and inspired by Isadora’s dance and Raymond’s Greek gymnastics, in Paris brought to Hungary the idea of free dance meaning that the human body moves according to its natural laws called orchestics. In the same year Alice Madzsar (1885-1935), a disciple of Bess Mensendieck, back in Hungary, started to study and teach a characterology of human movements viewed from the angle of health and beauty. In 1917 Olga Szentpál (1895-1968), back from Hellerau with a diploma of the Dalcroze method, opened a course on the relationship between dance and music with emphasis on the former. These three basic schools did more than teaching: they organized dance groups, developed their own methods and theories and produced artistic performances.
3. Teaching and performing activities lasted in the Dienes School from 1912 to 1944, in the Madzsar School between 1922 and 1937, and in the Szentpál School between 1917 and 1951. The founding mothers felt the necessity of analysing human movements in order to develop and explain their new methods and systems.
3.1. The orchestic school of Valéria Dienes developed a technique based of the laws of natural movements, producing dances to music (Bartók, Beethoven etc.) and poetry (Babits, Tagore etc.) and arranging the very first “Hungarian-born modern-dance” performance in April 1917. Further dance plays were “The Princess who Never Laughed” (1919, m. by Gy. Kósa), a post-war longing for peace called “Waiting for Dawn” (1925, m. Medieval Greek), or “Three Poets’ Portraits” (1930), biblical plays, like “Eight Beatitudes” (1926), historical dramas like that of the first Hungarian prince “Saint Emeric” (1930), “The Lady of Roses” (1932), the “Fate of the Child” (935), “Patrona Hungariae” (1938), and many others (m. by L. Bárdos).
As far as theory is concerned, “Everything that moves produces changes in space, in time, in energy and, when this is done by a conscious living being, it also carries a message”, says dr. Valéria Dienes in her “Orchestics – System of Movement”. The analysis of these relations yields three physical disciplines, namely plastics or stereotics (for space), rhythmics (for time), dynamics (for energy) and the fourth discipline, a psychological one, is symbolics (for meaning or message). With symbolics dance achieves its social function, communicating messages from person to person. This function is subject to the four laws of evologic: time synthesis, absence of identicalness, evolution and irreversibility. Time synthesis means that ever-lasting present consists of individual past and future, diversity means that no-one and nothing is identical with anyone or anything. Evolution means that everything changes in time into what it has never been and whatever has been done can never be undone (i.e. reversed).
3.2. Alice Madzsar was concerned mainly with problems of beauty and body culture, and had a strong inclination towards the working-class movement. Her best known works are the „Fetters”, a seven-part social dance poem (1930, m. by Kozma), „Ayrus’ Daughter” created in collaboration with the poet Ödön Palasovszky (and often performed after 1930 to textual accompaniment) and the anti-war pantomime „Contemporary Suite” (1933 (m. by Szelényi) composed together with Magda Róna which – owing to it’s revolutionary message – was banned by the authorities.
A. Madzsar evolved a practical method of life-long body culture beginning from pregnancy exercises through baby gymnastics to aesthetic moving. See her book “La culture physique de la femme modern” according to which beauty is not a gift but an achievement. Her dance compositions relied on what was called complex” or total theatre” including verbal accompaniment, light effects and stage design, evolved in co-operation with the poet Ödön Palasovszky.
3.3. Olga Szentpál’s most fertile and many-sided creative period began in 1930. „Fair Maiden Julia” was the first attempt at staging a Szekler folk ballad to music by Bartók. One of Szentpál’s most expressive works “Metropolitan Symphony” showing the ups and downs of society was produced in the Chamber Theatre in 1932.
The words linking the scenes of the grotesque dance play „Baby in the Bar” (text by B. Balázs, m. by Wilhelm Gross) were recited by O. Ascher. The symbolic story of 1932 is about a baby left in a night club, growing fast after every gulp and overpowering all males. The dance legend „Mary Maidens”, a pilgrimage to an icon, was a combination of folklore and free-dance elements. (m. from István Volly’s folk music collection).
O. Szentpál’s „Dance, A Book of Art of Movement” in Hungarian, consists of two main chapters: Morphology and Functionology. Morphology deals with the smallest unit of moving or of posture, whose elements are start, evolution and arrival. The smallest expressive unit of artistic movement is the motif which may be introductory, auxiliary, transitional, and concluding motif. Funtionology analyses the physical and psychical qualities required by artistic movement. – It should also be remembered that Labanotation was introduced to Hungary through her school and has been used in folkdance research since the 1930ies.
4. In order to get a more complete picture of the modern dance stage in Hungary it should be mentioned that foreign modern dancers visited this country in very large numbers during the first half of the 20th century. I only quote the most characteristic names, like Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Grethe Wiesenthal, Ella Ilbak, Mary Wigman, Rosalia Chladek, Lotte Wilke, Alexander Sakharoff and Clotilde von Derp, Gret Palucca, Niddy Impekoven, Ellen Tells, Valeska Gert, Harald Kreutzberg, and many others.
5. To cut a long story short, it should be noted that after WW2, art-of-movement practices (teaching and performing) were banned and only ballet and folkdance were allowed. Nevertheless the “preserving and transmitting generation” so-to-day rescued this trend by teaching it under different names and in clandestine places. Belonging to this generation were Mária Mirkovszky (1896-1987) in orchestics, Lily Kállai (1900-1996) in the Dalcroze method, and Sára Berczik (1906-1999) using a gymnastic-centered complex method.
6. Though these artists had preserved the Hungarian traditions in modern dance, the early eighties witnessed a heavy impact of American modern dance in the form of young Hungarians having studied abroad. They have introduced the Graham technique, the Limón method etc. and today there are dozens of individual initiatives, like minimum dance, gently or less gently erotic compositions, acrobatics and break, dances accompanied by projections or by verbal text or by some percussive mixture. Nevertheless I shall mention only one modern company actually called “One More Movement Theatre” because they rely on Duncan-Dienes traditions, in fact on orchestics, which they have developed along individual lines.
This has been a very sketchy summary of what happened in modern dance in Hungary in the past century. If you need more information, consult my Hungarian-English book “A History of Art of Movement” published recently in Budapest.

Budapest, June 2005

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