I hear your thoughts

I held a telephone interview with ballerina Henriett Tunyogi in which I asked her what it was in her life of which she was the most proud. Her voice grew tender, and though she has achieved extraordinary successes professionally, she nonetheless replied that she took greatest pride in her husband, pianist and conductor Tamás Vásáry. Our second interview was face to face, and Tamás himself joined us as the two of them acquainted me with the fatefulness of their meeting and their enduring love.

At that time I saw them in their everyday garb, and the love and respect with which Henriett spoke of her husband was vivid. They spoke with devotion and fondness both of and to each other. The harmony between them was perfect. And while we worked I gleaned insights into their dialogues-without-words, for they have performed together in a joint production as part of the Budapest Spring Festival. Tamás played the piano while Henriett danced - they spoke not a word and nonetheless sensed and understood each other perfectly. Henriett inspired her fellow performer with her graceful movements and Tamás moved her with his masterful playing. There was no question that the harmony they share is perfect in their professional lives as well as their personal lives.

Do you inspire one another this intensely with your aspirations and ambitions in everyday life as well?

Henriett: Ambition and aspiration have thrived in me ever since my childhood. It is no doubt thanks to this that dance became part of my life when I was a very small girl. I began ballet when I was ten years old, and I remember that even then I was filled with the healthy yearning and striving to draw as much as I could out of myself and when possible to surpass my earlier achievements. However, I think that ambition comprises a great deal more than professional advancement. It is present in every field of life, or rather it should be present in every field of life.
For me, ambition includes, in addition to professional achievements, getting to know and understand myself better so that I can continuously grow and become a better person. But my yearning to be able to spend more time together with my husband Tamás and my friends is also an ambition, and I could enumerate examples of how ambition is a kind of quality in our lives. I consider it essential for everyone to examine the roots of our strivings. Are our exertions really selfless? Or does ego sometime guide them? Perhaps an inner uncertainty or insecurity nurtures our ambitions, which serve as a kind of affirmation or test.
Our strivings, in other words, are manifold and divaricating. I consider myself truly fortunate that ambition churns within me: many things attract my interest in life, and I endeavor to allow myself to become absorbed in these things. It is a gift of destiny that Tamás supports and shares my aspirations to the utmost. This is truly selflessness on his part, first and foremost because I often sense that he aspires towards my goals almost more fervently than I do. But this motivates me, it's as if he were holding a mirror up showing me that I should focus much more keenly on certain things than I have done so far.

Tamás: This is all equally true for me. It often happens that Henriett both reminds and encourages me to take certain steps that I had perhaps thought less important or simply pushed a bit into the background.

Henriett: This shows clearly how important ambition is in relationships between couples as well. If we are attentive to our partner we know when he or she needs a little push or a bit of encouragement in order to continue on the path he or she has chosen.

While you were speaking about this I was reminded of a poem by Éva Szabó: "It is love when one lets the other take wing, but if he should plunge, gives wing herself." This really does require us to tune ourselves to each other and to recognize when the time has come to put your own goals and aspirations to one side.

Henriett: In order for us to put ambition to good and healthy use we must know its limits as well. It is worthwhile to set aside time to think through the things we do and the reasons why we do them, and to ask whether or not we bring harm to others with our achievements. Many people forget this, though it is obviously not unimportant to ask what price we pay for our personal successes. It is not by any means certain that it is worth inflicting wounds on others that will either never heal or heal only slowly simply in order to realize one of our own goals.

Then you agree that pushing forward is by no means the same thing as being pushy?

Henriett: I agree completely. A healthy dose of ambition can be an extraordinary motivating force in our lives, but no matter how high it might lift us it is nonetheless important that we not only look up, but also pay attention to those around us.

In your case it is decidedly fortunate that you make space for each other's aspirations and you both support each other in your careers as artists. In your opinion does this contribute to the harmony that imbues your relationship?

Henriett: In our case it means a great deal that we both sense and understand each other's art, this however is not by any means to say that only two artists can reach this profound attunement. It is far more important that selflessness, good will, and the ability to give and receive be a vibrant and palpable part of every moment in the relationship.

Tamás: It is as true of me as it is of Henriett that even as a child I was extremely ambitious, and fortunately this has not since wavered. In the meantime, however, I have realized that there is no such thing as ambition without ego, yet there is no such thing as ego without ambition either, but the strength of the desire and will to act varies from person to person. The very pharaohs of Egypt had the aspiration of leaving a mark after their deaths, as do artists, who endeavor to become immortal through their creative works. Ambition is therefore an extraordinarily strong motivating power, an energy that is one of the primary driving forces of life and progress. Male and female gametes have the instinctive drive to combine and become embryos consisting of innumerable cells, developing at a bewildering pace. In children the drive to attain adulthood is continuously at work, which is to say that fundamentally ambition nurtures the chain of life in the form of a cosmic striving the goal of which is the expression of the individual.
The form of ambition and aspiration that serves the fulfillment of the ego is always kept within bounds, like the embryo in the egg or the fetus in its mother's womb. When this "ego-husk" breaks, the bird - which was not chosen as the symbol for the soul by accident or coincidence - flies out of the egg, already achieving a higher level of consciousness.

Is this why it is that the more egotistical one is, the more one thinks of oneself, and the more audacious the goals one sets for oneself?

Tamás: When it comes to ego-driven ambition we each need a deliberate form of control, and we must weigh the question - as Henriett says - of whether we are causing anyone harm through our strivings. This is important because it is not significant to the ego that it grow universally. Rather it is satisfied merely to be greater than anyone else. The ego desires no more than to consider everyone with whom it comes into contact to be worse than it. This script is clearly delineated for instance in cases of racism or the emotional side of politics. The oppression of women, for example, is simply a matter of finding a counterbalance to male insecurity: in order to feel equal or stronger than women men unfortunately feel the need to oppress the weaker sex.
This striving, however, creates a strange situation, both on the social and the individual level, for it is almost inconceivable that there would not be someone at our side who in some field of endeavor is more prominent than we are. Yet it can be a source of eternal discontent if our egos forever chase the vain hope that we will rise to excel above all others in all things. In my view we can consider as healthy the legitimate, universal ambition the goal of which is growth and the furtherance of our lives, while the other form of ambition, lead too much by the ego, brings only unhappiness. It is by no means a problem if this latter form of ambition stirs within us, but we must pay attention to grab it by the ears if need be and keep it within bounds.
Many people enjoy baselessly speaking ill of others because by doing so they reassure themselves that the person in question is not as notable as people think after all - whether we are speaking of their professional or private lives.

Henriett: I agree that ambition, when governed by the ego, often leads to unhappiness. One often comes across artists and people of creative genius, for instance, who have achieved formidable accomplishments and attained unsurpassable successes in their professional lives, yet their lives cannot be said to be harmonious because they have neither friends nor a sincere, loving partner by their sides. As outsiders we think they have every reason to be content, because they have attained something most people merely dream of, but the reality is otherwise. This inevitably raises the question as to why we always want something more, something better if neither money nor fame is the flag of genuine contentment.
I too brooded a great deal over this question, and I came to the conclusion that for me the most important goal was profound self-knowledge and spiritual freedom. I strive to shed my fears and free myself of negative sentiments. Tamás supports me in this, and not only in my professional goals: it often seems odd to those around us because the way in which we live does not necessarily correspond to rigid social expectations. For me it is much more important to make decisions that help me discover myself and get to know my inner sense of truth than to choose the path thought of by others as proper for me. Given our professions we are often on the road and cannot spend as much time together as most married couples - so many people have difficulty believing that our relationship works perfectly nonetheless, and its depth is not necessarily determined by the time we spend in each other's physical presence.
We often hear about how two people share a home and indeed their lives, yet hardly know each other. In our case fortunately things developed differently, and I can say with utmost certainly that my husband is the person who knows and understands me the best and who best supports my growing understanding of myself.

Tamás: I play two important roles as a partner in Henriett's life: first it is important that I understand, accept, and support the ideas with which she comes forward, and second I must encourage her to accomplish goals that are important for her yet for some reason she does not devote enough time or energy to them.
In order to do this, however, we must know each other's subtlest tremors in order to know when and how we can be of help. There is no recipe for wise decisions, however, we must weigh our decisions from one minute to the next and choose the best direction possible.

And does this continuous "labor" to know and love each other bear fruit?
Henriett: Countless things were born of our marriage and our shared aspirations of which I never would have thought myself capable. The film series entitled Ballet ABC with Henriett, for which I wrote the script and in which I myself have a part, is an example of this, but for me choreography and costume design are also part of this. I have Tamás to thank entirely and exclusively for the fact that I tried my hand in these creative endeavors. His influence on me brought the strengths and the dedication hidden inside me to the surface.

Have you never found yourselves unable to realize precisely the thing that you wanted more than anything else, something for which you would have given anything?

Tamás: When my first wife passed away I was in a dreadful state. I was surrounded by many loving and caring people, but after awhile I nevertheless longed for a soul mate. For some time it seemed that I was not destined ever to have such good fortune, and then, right when I had finally "given myself a good talking to" and reconciled myself to the idea that I simply had to accept this and learn to live alone, I met Henriett.
The unclouded contentment that flooded me and that remains part of my life to this day became "unacceptable" for many people. Earlier I had been easy to love, because although I had been successful in my career and was blessed with good health, my private life was nonetheless so miserable that I was able to converse about it splendidly When it turned out that things had fallen into place in this part of my life, however, and that not only had I married, but my wife was an exquisitely beautiful and young ballerina, many people suddenly turned away from me. There were even people who said that ever since Henriett and I had joined our lives together I no longer conducted as well as I used to - it took about a year for this chain reaction to simmer down.
This is all merely a typical example of what I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation: the ego cannot bear it when someone nearby achieves something more remarkable or outstanding, and as a sort of form of self-assurance it immediately begins to resent and lash back. This is the kind of ambition that it would be prudent to curb deliberately so that we cause less grief both to ourselves and others.

Viki Bagaméri
Elixír Magazin (Ambíció) - February 2009
Translated by Thomas Cooper