All it took was a bored businessman, a mix up over VIP tickets, a conversation with Irish-American dance legend Michael Flatley over whiskey and cigars and finally a meeting with choreographer Sándor Román for ExperiDance to be born in 2000.
“It is unique, what we have achieved in Hungary, because so many little things had to come together; it is a miracle,” says ExperiDance producer and co-founder Tibor Vona. Our interview is conducted via a translator, but that phrase - “It is a miracle” - is delivered in English. It clearly still resonates deeply with him.
A little background is important to this story. Vona dances as a boy, but his parents, although they teach him it is more important to add value, to create something long-lasting rather than just make money, dissuade him from taking matters further. The creative spark, however, is there.
He goes on to marry a talented ballet dancer, an ex-classmate of Román’s “first generation” of dancers. That link means Vona’s wife is invited as a protocol guest to the Budapest premiere of the dance show Román has choreographed called “One Thousand and One Years” (now part of the ExperiDance repertoire). Vona, who has gone along as her “plus one” says the show leaves him “amazed” and “deeply touched”.
Three months earlier and Vona is running a magazine that has been highly successful for more than a decade, and is the main media sponsor for the Michael Flatley “Feet of Flames” production that plays in front of 70,000 Hungarians at the Budapest Arena in 2000.
A mix up in tickets mean the Vonas find themselves with the ultra VIPs in the front row, right next to Flatley’s parents. They had already been invited to the VIP after party, but the connection with the parents also gets them to the cast party in a pub on Sas utca, and into conversation with Mr. Feet of Flames himself.
“Why come to Hungary?” Vona wonders, “why do one of your biggest ever shows here?” Flatley tells Vona his company studied the market. There is a tradition of dance, people have enough money and cultural inclination to come, but are starved of innovative talent.
It is a lightbulb moment for Vona, who says he will make Hungarian dance famous again, until Flatley remarks “Good luck, Dude, but where is your product developer, your choreographer?” At the premiere of “One Thousand and One Years”, Vona is introduced to Román. He has met his product developer.
“I am quite a spiritual man,” Vona says now. “When I received so many signs in such a short period of time, I decided I had better pay attention! It was quite an emotional decision, it wasn’t that we had some great financial plan we had worked out over six months. But there was passion, and a willingness to work hard.”
That passion began to resolve around a need to reintroduce Hungarians, and particularly young Hungarians, to their folk-dance traditions. Vona says the existing dance companies were all locked into one rigid way of performing that didn’t appeal to the so-called “internet generation”.
“We wanted to innovate, do something new, but we had no model to follow in Hungary. Flatley saw a niche in the market, and recognized that people were interested in something really modern and new.”
Vona says Román and he are very different characters, but each understands the role and importance of the other.
“Basically, we can say that everything that goes on behind the curtain is Sándor’s responsibility, and what goes on in front - finding venues, finding partners and so on -, that is my role. But underneath it all there is total respect. If you can respect diversity, you can work together successfully for 18 years. I think that is what Hungarian people need to learn again; to be able to cooperate as often and as much as possible, in all areas of life. But how lucky I am that Sándor will come to me and ask me what the market needs.”
The journey has taken them from an idea formulated in one room of a flat in 2000 to a dance troupe of unquestioned quality in Hungary, with a roster of about 130 people.
That includes a core dance team of 28, plus two others of about 12 each. But ExperiDance is also building an international reputation, and is rapidly getting to the stage where it will probably need a second core unit. A month-long French tour is being planned for November, during which time there will also be around 25 performances in Hungary.
“It will require more hard work to solve this, but no other dance group works like us in Hungary,” Vona insists. “We believe we can do this and our success can grow and grow. It is most important to have good health, and the rest follows. But I don’t like to be bored!”
For our interview with Sándor Román, see “Giving an Old Tale New Relevance” in the October 20 issue of the Budapest Business Journal.