The Earthly Likeness of Boticelli's Graces

Henriett Vásáry-Tunyogi

Dance, the art of movement. Beauty, the ambassador of love. A delicate ballerina, a radiant being. She lives in a happy marriage with her husband, Tamás Vásáry, pianist and conductor, and 41 years her senior. Words do not suffice to express her personality in its entirety: her subtle gestures, gentle tone, her hearty laugh. But let's give it a try nonetheless!

We sat down to chat in your apartment on Gellért Hill, where indeed you have your own ballet room!

- That's where I feel at home, where my heart is. Dance, or rather my work, is as fundamental a part of my life as my home. For me work involves more than the mere literal meaning of the word. Through it I discover who I myself am. In one part of the apartment you find the kitchen, then the living room, and my workplace, the ballet room, opens off of this. This is my sanctuary! Here I create, practice, do choreography, design my costumes, and do yoga. It was my husband's idea. He is simply a marvel. I adore him!

You have three apartments that you call home.

- Yes, first and foremost in Budapest, then in London, where I often work and where Tamás in point of fact has lived since 1969. In Locarno we have a tiny little place where we relax, up in the mountains, because Tamás is a Swiss citizen. Wherever I travel I am often asked where my home is. I tend to answer wherever I feel content. I have never been homesick, neither for an apartment nor for a country. My only real longing is for nature, because for me nature provides harmony and balance. Fresh air, the blue sky, the sea, the forest, I am homesick sometimes for these.

Do you travel a lot? I heard you once traveled from Budapest to London to Mallorca to Beijing to Qingdao and back to London in one week.

- Yes. Most recently I was filming my 20 part series The ABC's of Ballet with Henriett in Budapest when I had to fly first to London, where I began to learn the choreography for a performance at the Palace of Arts at the end of March with a Brazilian choreographer, and from there to Taiwan, where my husband was giving a major concert, but in addition I had a meeting with a Hollywood producer. Then I flew back to London for ten days, where I continued the rehearsals for our performance in March. Now I am again here in Budapest for five days for the retakes of my television series, but in a few days I perform in Eliat in Israel as part of the Spring Festival there, then I return home for the performance in the Palace of Arts. Then I will go back to London, where I will work on a project for the future, and I will only come back to Hungary in April for a performance in Debrecen. I seem to be on a different plane each week these days.

How can you not simply endure this but even manage it?

- With a very strict daily routine. Each minute of my day is carefully organized as to what I do and when, and then it works. I can sleep anywhere. I try not to get wound up about anything, especially not flight delays. First and foremost I must eat healthily. Often I am so busy that I only realize at the end of the day that I have not had a thing to eat. Now that I am doing the ABC's of Ballet series for television and spending thirteen hours in front of a camera I have to pay careful attention. I an endure a lot, even starved and parched, but I realize this is true only up to a point. Getting enough sleep is important, as are yoga and adequate nutrition, because these provide energy.

What is the life of a wandering jetsetter like?

- Boundless. New people, new countries, new cultures. Traveling greatly enriches me, and this continuously inspires me. I am indeed quite fortunate in this. I can invite choreographers and dancers to work with me and for me. I live in a state of permanent creativity. It's true, however, that this life is as restrictive as it is free. The restrictiveness stems from the tight schedule: plane, performance, rehearsal, and the principle difficulty: how Tamás and I organize our lives in order to see and help each other.

What does dance mean to you?

- I know myself through dance. By expressing something with my body and soul I discover the extent to which I can feel and the heights and depths I can experience. Music and dance open hidden dimensions before me, which offers far more than where I simply to live my everyday life. For me dance is a sort of expansion, a state of wonder. Alongside all this there is of course always the physical plane, which is sometimes painful, such as when my shoes pinch my feet until they bleed, I pull a muscle, or I simply grow weary.

This light, ethereal movement is at the same time serious physical work that places demands on the body.

- In dance there is this particular duality that one the one hand it is very physical, as I am expressing something with my body, while on the other my soul meanwhile soars. Dance is very demanding, the concentration, this has made me an extremely disciplined person. Sometimes I practice for ten hours. When I was a member of the Leipzig Opera I sometimes practiced for ten hours without a break on Christmas Eve. We were preparing scheduled performances, and my dance partner told me to take a cigarette break at least. I know of myself that if I have undertaken something I don't stop until I have perfected it. Everything else disappears and I work from dawn until dusk. Fatigue only hits me afterwards, never while I am working.

Dance is your life.

- Yes. I began when I was ten years old, when I was accepted at the State Ballet Institute (today the Dance Academy). I was a perpetuum mobile as a child, I did gymnastics, I swam, I was athletic, but when my mother took me to the auditions I sensed that this would be my life. As I stepped into the room, into the world of music and mirrors, I was calm because I knew that they would accept me. This wasn't conceit on my part, but rather a sort of feeling of certainty that came from within.

You mentioned that your mother took you to the audition. Describe your family.

- I rarely speak of my family. I have three siblings, but we all live in different corners of the world, in India, the United States, and Italy. I was three years old when my father left home, and I met with him only twice before he passed away. He lived in Germany. I love and respect them, but we are distant from one another. I became independent at an early age. At the age of ten I was already coming to Budapest from Tatabánya on my own, by train. I am something of an odd egg in my family.

You have a twin, do you not?

- Yes, a brother. We love each other a great deal, but I have not seen him either for months or even years. He lives in Italy. This may all stem from the fact that I love the people with whom I cross paths. I am open to people. I accept them as they are. If I could ask anything of the good Lord I would ask that he give people compassion and understanding. Life would be easier and less riddled with conflict if we were only sensible to the souls of others.

I agree: if you become close to someone and you understand the motives that guide his personality you will begin to feel love for him.

- Yes, that's right. The best feeling is when you can love anyone, without judgment. In 2006 when I won the Miss Herbal Princess of UK competition held by a Chinese acupuncture firm in London, over the course of which they considered outer beauty and inner harmony, I too said that spiritual wellbeing leads to physical wellbeing. Everyone has the capacity for harmony in them, we simply must attempt to call it into being. As I train my body and my muscles so that I can be strong I must also train my soul that it may be at peace. I strive towards this.

You are a person of faith, do you believe in God?

- I believe that there is something of a higher order, but I do not follow any particular faith. I believe that love is the language of the soul. Love is life itself. It has great power, because it gives assurance. I consciously pay heed that there be a sense of love in me when I don't agree with something. This however does not mean that I am naive or that I can be taken advantage of. True strength is when someone can live love.

How can one live through the everyday so harmoniously?

- Yoga helps a great deal in this. According to the philosophy of yoga the body, soul, and spirit are one. This purpose of this earthly life is to create harmony, and experience is life itself. I am happy when I see that I help people through dance and art. Art can produce energy through which we become more content, and it can help us forget the tribulations of everyday life.

Art above all?

- I respect all human endeavor, a society has need of everyone, for if there is no audience neither are there dancers. After a performance I always share my bouquet with those who helped bring about the event. The applause and the recognition are not mine only. There is no performance without someone to sew my attire, I myself can only design it. You are not simply a dancer, you also do choreography and design costumes? - Costume design came as part of doing choreography. When I do choreography the costumes are the first thing that I see. I see what color they are and what material they are made of, because it is important how I will move in them. Dress design is an extra bonus in my work.

How did you come to do choreography?

- Visual artist Sándor Hartung had an exhibition in Rome. He was searching for the right face for Eve in the Tragedy of Man series and he found me. The paintings of me were on exhibit in Rome, so he asked me to open the exhibition and to dance. He asked Tamás to perform on the piano. At the time I had been married to Tamás for four years. I had been pursuing my career, I was dancing and Tamás was conducting and performing at the piano, but we had never thought of performing together on the same stage. The idea had never occurred to us until Sándor Hartung suggested it. True, we only planned for this one occasion, but it was such a success that we began to appear together in international festivals.

Did this paring of ballet and piano lead to the birth of a new genre of art?

- Yes, until then this genre did not exist. Pianists had often accompanied dancers, of course, but that pianist and dancer perform together as soloists, this was new.

You perform together as an ensemble?

- Solo musicians usually perform together as an ensemble. We say that pianist and dancer perform as an ensemble because I am Tamás' partner not as an instrumentalist but as a dancer. There is great demand for this the world over because the music for piano, the music of such composers as Debussy, Chopin, and Beethoven, is wondrous, and if the spectacle of dance is joined to this it is a distinctive joy for the audience. The music of ballet is not comparable to that of the opera, the symphony, or the piano. The music composed for these is of the highest order. For me to move to the music of Chopin or Debussy is a dream.

You have been working freelance for some four years. Before that you were part of the Leipzig Opera, but you danced as part of the Hungarian State Opera for seven years as well.

- Yes, and I cannot say that I had any particular reason to leave. I did however have a tonsillectomy once in the middle of the season and as I was lying in bed at home I thought to myself now is the time to close the books on this. I sensed that I didn't want to dance in the same place for 25 years. I need to move, to see, and to learn. An artist knows no national borders.

Do you feel at home in the wide world?

- Yes, because it is pleasant to see with wonder how people on the other side of the globe think and how I can take Western music and dance to the Far East. In September of last year I performed as a representative of Hungarian dance at the opening gala of the Hungarian Cultural Year in China. It was moving to me to think that I was the first person they had seen perform the Dying Swan. The performance I did together with my husband Tamás Vásáry received enthusiastic reviews. It was in connection with this that I was asked to perform as part of the Olympics and also sought out by a Hollywood producer. The producer was looking for a ballerina for an upcoming film and needed me as dancer and actress. We are still negotiating. In August there will be en enormous gala in Beijing, where in the company of pop singers, actors, and Chinese stars I would represent classical dance. This is also still under negotiation.

At the end of March there is a piano, song and dance performance in the Palace of Arts.

- The event is entitled The Two Faces of God. Tamás chose the title. The program includes music by Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, and Beethoven. Tamás will be at the piano, opera singer Júlia Hajnóczy and tenor Szabolcs Brickner will sing, and I will be joined by a male Spanish dancer José Tirado.

Your husband, Tamás Vásáry, is a world renown pianist and conductor. The story of your meeting has something of the legendary to it.

- I saw him for the first time in 1997 on television as part of the program entitled Dessert hosted by András Kepes. I didn't know who he was, but I had the feeling that I had known him for a long time and that I was now seeing him again. I immediately wrote him a letter that however I never sent. At the time I was in a relationship with a fellow dancer and was content. We met in person three years later at the Music Academy at one of Tamás' concerts. We introduced ourselves to each other, he asked for my telephone number, and the next day he called me and we had lunch together. At the table he spoke and spoke and then suddenly fell silent, stretched out his arm towards me, put his hand in mine, and for several minutes we simply gazed at each other silently. Two days later he asked for my hand in marriage and I said yes. Tamás sometimes says our love did not begin, but rather continued.

You said yes then and there?

- I sensed that we belonged together. Family members and colleagues gave us a few months at best because of the age difference of 41 years, but we have been together happily for eight years now. Every time I come back to Hungary or we see each other after having been apart for a day or two Tamás still awaits me with an enormous bouquet of roses and a poem of his own composition. I'm not saying that we never have any problems, because the way in which our lives are organized requires considerable patience. It seems to radiate from your person that you live in a sincere and genuine relationship, but many people are a bit incredulous on hearing the age difference of 41 years between the two of you. You are 34, your husband 75. - I realize the large difference in age is unusual, but when we are together it vanishes. The bond between us is so strong that it is beyond question whether or not we belong together. Tamás means a great deal to me because he is truly a partner. He is always next to me, at every moment, even if we are not often together physically because we have to travel in all directions for our work. Not a day goes by that we don't talk to each other on the phone and share with each other our tiniest troubles and joys. So when we are together again we don't feel as if we had missed anything. I feel that if two people are capable of this then it's neither here nor there whether there are two years between them or forty-one. If I were able to change the difference in age between us I'm not at all certain I would, because it is proof that a spiritual relationship is truly ageless.

What's the secret?

- We must be our partner's friend as well. This is the secret of any relationship, parent-child, teacher-pupil, brother-sister. Friendship means respecting one another, being able to trust one another, and caring selflessly for one another. In friendship we respect borders as well. We each go our own way, and we help each other on his or her way.

Do I see correctly that you have two engagement rings?

- Yes. Because of an interesting twist we got married twice. Once in Switzerland in 2000 and then the second time in the Royal Palace in Gödöllő in 2004. Tamás also does yoga, and he happened to be standing on his head in a hotel room in Spain when he got a telephone call that so absorbed his attention that he forgot to put his engagement ring, which he had taken off, back on, so he lost it. The poor man barely dared tell me. I felt that we shouldn't just slip new rings on but rather get married again. For our first wedding I did not wear white, but rather pink, so for the second one I dressed like a true bride, including a veil, to surprise Tamás. We held the ceremony after our first performance in Hungary together, in the presence of the audience. The only person at our first wedding was the priest, who had been the priest at Tamás' first wedding as well. His first wife died of cancer after 28 years of marriage.

One might think that a ballerina is hardly accustomed to speaking extemporaneously, but your example seems to belie this. You chat with notable celebrities every month in the Budai Művészház as part of your series Múzsaóra (The Muse Hour).

- This has been a secret long-time dream of mine. People take interest, and I want to share my experiences with others. One of my guests, Ilona Tokody, the world famous opera singer retold deeply personal memories of which according to her own confession she had not spoken to anyone since her grandmother's death. She was very moved as she recalled these memories. These are among the sincere moments at which it is worthwhile to be together.

In 2007 at the request of Duna Television you made a program on dance for young people, and you managed even to infatuate little soccer-playing boys with ballet.

- Yes, because they were able to find similarities between soccer and ballet. I spoke of the life of a dancer and they realized that even without verbal explanation they were able to grasp the movement, simply through the music and the motion. Quite simply they fell in love with dance. To me it was a wonderful feeling of success to see that the little soccer-player boys didn't want to leave!

The aforementioned series, The ABC's of Ballet with Henriett, will begin on Hungarian Television on May 5th.

- This is a serie consisting of twenty ten-minute segments on Hungarian Television 2. It embraces the history of ballet literature. I explain the names of various ballet steps and how to do these steps. I dance while I explain, and I don't forget to give mention to emblematic ballet artists.

Do you plan someday to teach?

- Yes. Even now it sometimes happens that one or two students from the academy seek me out or ask for advice through email. There is a young girl who I consider extremely talented, an orphan who was adopted by the headmistress of the academy. When I learned of her circumstances I decided to pay for Pilates classes, which could enable her to be even better. She doesn't know this. We have a personal relationship, she writes me if she finds she needs my psychological support. I figure that as I myself enjoyed the attention and concern of an older colleague or ballet master then it is my duty to help the next generation and to pass on my experience.

Do you ever consider having your own school or would this be a bit too bold an idea?

- I would like to teach, and perhaps in time as part of my own school where the instruction would be centered around children. To live the life of an adult at ten years of age is dreadful work, so I would certainly teach them meditation and yoga. An artist on whom such demands are placed, both with respect to her time and her body, needs something with which to win back her energy. One must tend to the spirit as well as the body.

A child would be in good hands in the care of someone who senses the human spirit so deeply. Would you like to have children?

- I would, but I do not want to follow the example of many artists, who have a child and then a few months later go back to work. I would want to spend time with the child, because if I have taken parenthood upon myself then the child has the right to expect that I be with him or her. I feel that I am getting fully realized myself professionally, I am in the flower of my career, but I think that a few years later I will have a child, because with a child my life will complete.

Ibolya Nádai
Translated by: Thomas Cooper