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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 2, 1999.

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Randy James’s New Way: An Evolving Old Way

Hungarian music and dance has a way of grabbing you

by the throat. From the joyful environs of bucolic village celebrations

to the rarefied atmosphere of the classical ballet stage, the Hungarian

folk dances and csardas — as heartful and colorful as their

embroidered traditional costumes — have become favorites of dance

and music lovers across cultures and generations.

Now Randy James, the New Brunswick-based choreographer and artistic

director of Randy James Dance Works, is reaching down to revisit and

revivify his Hungarian roots. His new dance trilogy, "and the

open jar" (The Hungarian Project), will be performed at George

Street Playhouse June 4 through 6.

A lifelong New Jerseyan, James was born in New Brunswick, grew up

in East Brunswick, and now lives in Highland Park. His paternal grandparents

were Hungarian immigrants to Newark, where his father was born. "My

first dance experience was with my mother at a wedding. We danced

and she kind of picked me up and threw me around. That was my first

falling in love with moving," says James.

On Saturday, June 5, Randy James Dance Works will be part of New Brunswick’s

24th annual Hungarian Festival celebration. Sponsored by the Hungarian

Civic Organization, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., the fair features foods,

music, folk dancing, games, and demonstrations. James’s dance company

performs excerpts from "and the open jar" at 2 and 2:30 p.m.

at sites along Somerset Street.

The company’s Saturday evening George Street Playhouse performance

includes a benefit and reception honoring August Molnar, president

of the American Hungarian Foundation. Proceeds will go towards a 2000

summer tour by the company to Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Western

Europe. The company’s Sunday matinee performance features a family

folk and modern dance workshop with the dancers.

Now in his sixth year leading his own company, this is James’ first

exploration into the potent Hungarian music and dance tradition. The

work was created with the support of a $20,000 grant from the Dodge

Foundation, the organization that funded his 1997, immensely successful

family dance work, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

Performances feature dancers Rain Abdu-Noor, Allen Lam, Joan Mullen,

Jimmy Rodriguez, Greta Parsons, Terry Pexton, Ricky Santiago, Missy

Pfohl Smith, Elizabeth Spat, Michou Szabo, and Sandra Tillett. The

show’s elaborate costumes, based on traditional Hungarian garments,

are by Kim Lennox and Nancy Swolensky, and lighting is by Rachel Naber.

James’ grandparents on his father’s side were born in Hungary. In

Newark, where James’ father was born his grandfather worked as a skilled

machinist, and his grandmother ran a boarding house. "We spoke

English at home, but we went to Hungarian festival and clubs throughout

my life," says James, who is now 41. "My Hungarian relatives

all live here in New Jersey, whereas my mother’s family [with roots

in Britain] lived in California, so my upbringing was with my Hungarian

relatives. I’ve been dancing the csardas since I was five years

old."

The csardas (pronounced shar-dash), so beloved of folkdance

and ballet lovers, is composed of a slow, melancholy men’s circle

dance, followed by a fast, leaping couples’ dance of sharp rhythms

and a proud, martial air. It brings the essence of the folk dance

impulse to such 19th-century ballets as "Coppelia" and "Swan

Lake."

James says he chose the title of his new work, "and the open jar"

to suggest the way history and culture may be safely preserved in

a sealed, glass jar. He, however, chooses to open the jar to allow

the culture to grow and evolve. "I’m very supportive of honoring

tradition and culture," he says, "but a culture has to evolve

and change if it is to continue. So I wanted — not to just look

at it in a jar with the lid on it — but to open it up.

"People perceive modern dance as far out and inaccessible, but

it should not be that way. Eugene Ionesco wrote that `To be avant

garde is not to be far out, but to return to our sources, to respect

traditionalism is order to find again a living tradition.’ And to

me that is what it is all about."

James has made five visits to Hungary, including visits

to each of his paternal grandparents’ native villages. His grandmother

was born in Dunamoca, once part of Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, and

now part of the Slovak Republic. James’ Hungarian cousin, currently

employed by a Budapest television station, has invited the company

to tape "and the open jar" next year in its Budapest studios

for Hungarian broadcast.

James’ "and the open jar" is composed in three sections, only

the first of which is based on traditional folk steps. "My idea

of what Hungarian folk dancing was about," he says, "comes

from watching my grandmother onstage at the American Hungarian club

in Newark." Even the folk-inspired movements of the opening section

are not intended to be strictly authentic. "I’m a modern dancer

using whatever I want to," says the choreographer.

The work’s second section, titled "The Empire Falls," is a

waltz section accompanied by the Amabile String Quartet. "This

section has to do with falling away from tradition," says James,

alluding to the period of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The third and final section of "and the open jar" is fully

modern, reflecting James’ wide-ranging interests and experience in

expressive movement and movement that tells a story.

James’ collaborator on "and the open jar" is New York composer

and musician Raul Rothblatt. His music groups include the Eletfa Folkloric

Music Ensemble, a Hungarian violin, bass, and cello trio, and deBand

deBlatt, an African-Hungarian jazz quartet. While the music of Eletfa

accompanies the work’s opening section, deBand deBlatt is the music

of choice for its modern finale. A discussion with composer Rothblatt

follows the Friday evening performance.

James and Rothblatt met through August Molnar, a leader in the Hungarian

community and a longtime James family friend. "Raul [Rothblatt]

has been a dream to collaborate with," says James. Rothblatt is

in his mid-30s, and his involvement in Hungarian traditions begins

with his Hungarian mother, and has led to his compositional interest

in the fusion of classical, African, and jazz music. He plays Hungarian

folk bass, and his works range from traditional Hungarian folk music

to chamber music, multi-media compositions, and contemporary fusion.

Since the turn of the century, New Brunswick has been

home to a sizable and significant Hungarian community. Primarily but

not exclusively Catholic, and with a culturally distinctive language

that combines elements of Turkish and Finnish, the Hungarians in the

United States established enclaves in locales that include Ohio, Texas,

Florida, and California. The New Brunswick community remains its most

active center. Forty percent of all Hungarians living in the United

States today live within a 100-mile radius of New Brunswick, and immigration

continues. The city’s old Hungarian neighborhood, comprised of about

15 blocks off Somerset Street, includes a Hungarian church, the American

Hungarian Athletic Club, the American Hungarian Foundation headquarters,

and restaurants specializing in such rib-sticking foods as chicken

paprika and goulash.

The American Hungarian Foundation was founded in New Brunswick in

1954. Its extensive Hungarian Heritage Center, opened in 1988 in a

19th-century needle factory, houses a visitor’s center, conference

facilities, a library of over 40,000 volumes, and extensive archives.

With art holdings that include an outstanding collection of the works

of expatriate photographer Andre Kertesz, the group has also established

programs in Hungarian studies at Rutgers.

James’ father was an educator, an industrial arts teacher and a high

school vice principal in East Brunswick. The youngest of four children,

his mother works as a freelance editor.

His early interest in athletics (football, baseball, gymnastic) was

followed by disillusionment with sports and an ambition to become

a show dancer. "I grew tired that there was always a winner and

a loser, so dance seemed like a natural fit. I loved to sing, loved

to move, and loved to be onstage."

James made his stage debut at a young age with Plays in the Park,

Edison’s outdoor community theater, where one of the dancers recommended

he study ballet. After beginning formal dance training at 19, he spent

two years at Rutgers College with a focus on dance and theater, also

taking classes at Princeton Ballet School.

"At 19 I was a very large rat in the Princeton Ballet’s `Nutcracker,’"

says James, who graduated quickly out of his beginner classes. After

three years’ study, he joined the Princeton Ballet (now American Repertory

Ballet) professional company, but stayed for just one year.

At 22, James headed to Atlantic City and found work as a show dancer.

He spent five years dancing shows, including an extended engagement

in Puerto Rico. But at 27, he says, he tired of it, returned to New

York, and began taking modern dance classes at the Paul Taylor studio.

Here he met Dan Wagoner, whose company he later worked with for eight

years before forming his own company in 1992. He is also an assistant

professor in Rutgers’ dance department.

"As a modern dance choreographer, I’m interested in finding new

ways of moving," says James. And by returning to the old ways,

he has accomplished just that.

— Nicole Plett

And the open jar, Randy James Dance Works, George Street

Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $15 adults;

$10 children, students, & seniors. Friday and Saturday, June 4

and 5, 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 6, at 3 p.m.


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