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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
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
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
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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