Hungarian folk dances related to courtship, military recruitment, hunting, funerals, and marriage have been passed down for centuries in distinctive regional styles. Yet I was impressed, watching choreographer Gábor Mihályi’s Hungarian State Folk Ensemble perform these medieval heirlooms, at the elements of them that were recognizably contemporary: in the karikazo, a line of women in sequined red skirts kick in unison like Rockettes; long whipping braids and twirling embroidered dresses conjure Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring in the couples’ csarda; and in the verbunk, a fleet step dance resembling a military parade, men shake out impeccable renditions of Michael Jackson’s signature leg twist, swiveling their calves dazzlingly at the knee.
Folk traditions from other cultures seem to sneak into view, too, like Irish step, clogging, and flamenco—which has Romany roots of its own. But the main draw is the ensemble’s hyperdeveloped sense of rhythm. Dancers zigzag between slow, deliberate maneuvers and hummingbird footwork. The solos are hypnotic. A man wearing spurs, accompanied by a droning jaw harp—perhaps the world’s oldest instrument—accelerates into a frenzy of crisscrossing jumps. While some atonal Bartok drifts out of the gypsy string band, a group of old and young men celebrates warfare by banging sticks against the ground; later one of them does a rousing routine of elliptical kicks, as if kindling and then tamping out a campfire.