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Compagnie Pál Frenák: 15 years in motion

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The 15 year-old Compagnie Pál Frenák celebrates its anniversary with a sequel to Tricks & Tracks, a play that debuted in 1999 and opened new dimensions in contemporary dance. A few days before the premier, Pál Frenák talked about the timeliness of the new play, the difference in generations and how culture and policy impacts contemporary dance.

BBJ: What has changed in 15 years? In what way is Tricks & Tracks 2 different from the original play?
Pál Frenák: Tricks & Tracks was more intuitive, you were bursting with energy but may have lacked the mental tools/means to bring it to life. Often I felt that energy was going to burst in a rather unconscious way. All that suppression that we were left with from socialism, those 40-50 years the Hungarian society had inherited – it felt like freeing yourself from a prison of information: and we brought it to life through dance in a language that was forbidden then.

I was one of the first in Europe who suspended dancers [from the ceiling with their ankles tied to a rope]: I was the first to turn the frontal approach – when dancers are in front of the audience and are grounded – upside down. By all means, it was a completely new approach for dancers as it deconstructed their place in relation to the surrounding space but also mentally, as they had to rebuild themselves in a new space. This forces them to learn a new relation of space and form.

We are in the middle of the creative process now. I ask myself every day what distinguishes Trick & Tracks 2 [from the original play], what is it I want to express? Generation shift is one thing, and the other important feature is the acceptance of the passage of time. Emese [Jantner] cannot take the same posture she did when she was 20 because 15 years have passed. She needs to see herself differently. We were struggling with this during rehearsals; she has to accept that she can’t take her original role – all this is incorporated in the play. The performers slip from one character to the other then slip back in their created roles.

Another interesting feature of Tricks & Tracks 2, which uses the first play as a source, is that in the past 15 years, four generations of dancers have evolved/passed. Emese Jantner, who was in her 20s at that time is now almost 40 years past. It is utterly different, and I feel is far more difficult for the young dancers now.

Why do you think so?
Corporally, they are more sophisticated: technically they are higher qualified. Yet the mental and intellectual power [is lacking]. They have difficulty giving a meaning to this level of technical expertise. There is so much information around and so many other factors come into play that they cannot find more sensuality. I feel 20 years ago it was easier for the young, but I may be wrong.

Politics and the historical frame were different then.
Exactly: Now there is freedom and we can’t handle it. Then we had something [to get away from], something we weren’t allowed to talk about. Emese’s generation sensed some of it. Today, there is a class who hasn’t heard of the holocaust and does not care about the Roma question. In our civilized world, there is some growing barbarism. 

Do you think the young understand a Frenák piece?
The problem is not necessarily with the new generation. If they come to a Frenák performance, they get really surprised. I hear 80% of the 18-20 years old asking: does such a thing exist? The cultural policy and the cultural atmosphere that guide initiators purposefully, the way dance theater programs are created tend to infantilize the audience. Unfortunately, it is getting worse. You would think there has been progress during these years. True, there is Trafó and a few other [theaters], but I don’t feel the openness that would allow contemporary dance to expand. In fact, I feel it less than 15 years ago. Artists are not treated in line with their worth either because of personal relationships or some requirements rule or because the provincial, narrative style still prevails [in the genre].

I often hear theater directors saying “I can’t risk it, the audience has the requirements”. The audience are not imbeciles: if you use a language, apply tools and space structure, they may not get a grasp of it instantly, but they do feel that was something else. Having watched a Frenák piece, people become more sensitive to their relation to space, to symbols. Many who decide what [dance] programs to run mistakenly believe that the audience needs to be told what they see instead of provoking thoughts with associations and in a creative way.

So we are where we were in 1989?
Yes, and that is what makes Tricks & Tracks 2 very timely. It reflects that times pass while we are stuck at the same place. There is a general, global problem with contemporary dance related to finance – due to the economic situation. I also owe it to the fact some conceptual ‘headhunters’ set directions and if you don’t follow those trends you will face difficulty.

How have you changed since Tricks & Tracks?
I might have been hardened, but have become more tolerant as well. What I can’t put up with is lies, not from myself, nor when someone tries to convince me they understood the task when they obviously didn’t. You can make a mistake, but resume your position and continue.

The way I structure my piece is creating a mobile unit of different elements, dancers enter and quit at different points, you can enter and quit, too. There is no need to understand each fragment; the point is to see a unit.

Pál Frenák was born in Budapest in 1957. His childhood was marked by the fact that his parents were severely hearing and speech impaired, making sign language his first means of expression. This rendered him especially receptive towards mimicry and gestures and other ways of expressing content with the help of the human body.

In the quest for his vocation, he left Hungary for Paris in the middle of the 1980s. He soon started working with many well-known artists from the world of classical ballet and studied Cunningham and Limon dance techniques. Frenák founded his French company in 1989 in Paris and established his Hungarian-French ensemble in 1999, based in Budapest and Paris at the time.

Comprising a variety of classical and modern techniques, Compagnie Pál Frenák stands for a unique style and language of dance. One of its most important characteristics is the use of mimics, sign language and body movements that reflect on various genres of contemporary circus, fashion, theater and music.

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