The Dance of Ebony and Ivory Keys

Henriett Tunyogi and Tamás Vásáry have created a new artistic form

The husband and wife couple, both artists, have already brought dreams of love to the stage. With their performances they have told of Anna Pavlova and the two faces of God, and their unusual collaborative production met with great success even in China. Yet they never actually planned to perform together. Their performances, in which Henriett Tunyogi dances while Tamás Vásáry accompanies her on the piano, are indebted to a third branch of the arts, the visual arts. It was a friend of theirs, a painter, who first asked them to take the stage together at the opening of one of his exhibitions. And they have been preparing new collaborative works ever since, year in, year out. Tamás Vásáry came to love classical ballet through Henriett Tunyogi and for Henriett the endless treasure trove of music for the piano was opened by Vásáry.


- We performed together for the first time five years ago in Rome - Tamás Vásáry recounts - at the invitation of the painter Sándor Hartung, for many of whose paintings Henriett herself was the inspiration. He asked her to dance and me to perform on the piano at the opening of his exhibition. It was given that I perform pieces to accompany dance, and thus the collaborative production was born. We did not in fact plan to continue, but as it was received with great enthusiasm the invitations to perform came one after the other. And it was a nice feeling for us to step out on stage together. We embarked on the next production with delight.

Henriett Tunyogi: Tamás sought out the piano pieces for the first twenty minute section as if he were putting together the program for a piano recital, and I chose from among those works those that most stirred my imagination as a choreographer. We have prepared our productions in this manner ever since, and The Two Faces of God, performed for the first time at this year's Spring Festival, is our forth performance together.

At the beginning of the 1950s you were able to earn a living by accompanying, so you often had to work with ballet dancers as well...

Tamás Vásáry: But I must say, I did not much like accompanying ballet because I cannot play anything the same way twice. This is precisely what the dancers expected from me, howeve...

And does it not cause problems in your collaborative performances that the given piece always sounds a bit different?

H.T.: This is precisely what I love, because I feel the tempo that Tamás will take and how he will continue the next moment. This is why we don't even need many rehearsals. The magic of the performance lies precisely in the fact that the work comes to life in the moment.

T.V.: I wouldn't even say that Henriett understands the music, rather she feels it, and this requires a affinity for music of the highest standard. Like when a conductor can accompany a pianist well. Annie Fischer played so freely that she was held to be the terror of all conductors, but this freeness was logical and organic. I was always glad to conduct her concerts because I always knew on the basis of how she began a phrase how she would finish it. And I agree completely with Dohnányi, who said that the true rhythm of music is never mechanical. With Henriett I also feel that she knows when I have reached the end of a phrase. This is a very rare gift.

Do you also come up with the themes for your performances together?

H.T.: Yes, this is how we came up with Dreams of Love, the performance we did two years ago when I danced with Tamás Solymosi to the music of Mozart, Bartók, Kodály and Debussy. But the performance centered around Anna Pavlova and her age originated on the basis of an idea I had, while it was Tamás who wanted to bring The Two Faces of God to the stage. We have performed these pieces in many of the countries of the world and maintain them as a continuous part of our repertoire.

On stage are you not anxious for each other?

T.V.: When I step to the stage I worry only for myself. Though it calms me somewhat that Henriett is there too, this diverts a bit of the attention away from me.

Though you gave concerts as early as the age of eight, and there was a time when you gave more than one-hundred concerts a year...

T.V.: My stage fright has not diminished a bit over the course of the decades. That I go on stage to perform at the piano is for me the greatest act of heroism. It is a frightening feeling to have so many people waiting in muted silence to hear me play. Sometimes I marvel that I can even strike a single note. Of course then this state slowly eases up. Actually I returned to piano performance because of Henriett, as over the past twenty years I have conducted more and more and I almost never gave a solo concert. Following our wedding however I was asked to give a solo concert after which Henriett expressed her wish that I always hold a piano recital on her birthday.

H.T.: It is thanks to our performances together that we see each other, since we have countless engagements that prevent us from being together. I regularly perform in London in various dance productions. It is wonderful if one can inspire creative artists. And I must speak as many languages as there are choreographers with whom I work. At such times I can even step beyond my own limits and rehearse for as much as ten hours. Tamás also concertizes a great deal, traveling the world not only as pianist but as a conductor. He also performs with the Zoltán Kodály Youth World Orchestra, which he founded himself. In March for instance we performed Love Dreams in Israel and The Two Faces of God at the Spring Festival, then on April 12th we did the Anna Pavlova evening in Debrecen.

You performed Love Dreams last year as part of the Hungarian Cultural Season in Beijing, China, and in the words of one critic: "The virtuoso performance of the pianist and the elegance of ballet gave life to a new artist genre."

H.T.: China was a very interesting experience for both of us. And though I earlier had won Miss Herbal Princess of UK in the Shaw Theater in London, which came with a luxury trip to Shanghai, Shanghai is a completely different world from Beijing.

T.V.: They do not yet know classical music well, but they are unbelievably open to it. We were welcomed with great fondness everywhere. In addition to our concert together we also appeared as part of the opening ceremonies, performing pieces by Bartók, Kodály, and Liszt with choreography by Henriett.
H.T.: As part of our solo performance I performed the Death of the Swan twice, it was so successful that I had to repeat it. Actually the exact same thing happened in Japan two months ago as well.

The reviews in China also mentioned that "pianist Tamás Vásáry and Henriett Tunyogi are a perfect couple not only in life, but also on stage." If I recall correctly you first saw each other in the Opera house in Budapest...

T.V.: During a break in an orchestral rehearsal Henriett passed by us at the entrance for artists and we each took notice of each other.

H.T.: Months later we were introduced to each other at the Music Academy. And Tamás asked for my hand in marriage after our first time out together. We have lived together now for eight years. The difference in age is of no significance, we are soul mates, and as Tamás says, love does not begin, it continues. We only met again now.

Do you attend each other's performances?

T.V.: Yes, of course, and afterwards we analyze them closely. I am very glad not to have fallen in love with a musician because that would have been dreadfully boring. It is so refreshing that Henriett has a different profession and calling.

H.T.: I love it when Tamás begins learning a new piece for piano. He searches out the notes and slowly the work begins to come together, and I can be the ear-witness to this entire process. Sometime he has even "danced for my sake," in our bedroom in London for instance he showed me how he would dance to Bartók's Allegro Barbaró, and this became one of my best pieces of choreography.

An excerpt from this will figure in the series for television that begins on April 7th on M2 with the title The ABC's of Ballet with Henriett?

H.T.: No, in this series, which consists of twenty parts of ten minutes each, I relate the most significant and most interesting moments in this history of ballet and tell of the path that leads from the first steps that a child learns to his or her becoming a ballet star...

Zsuzsa Réfi
Translated by: Thomas Cooper