Sándor Zita - Self-constructing of a community and dance

It is far from easy to define the notion of identity. There are different types of identities, like national identity, political identity, cultural identity, personal identity etc. Those constructions of notions are creating a complex network – I am not willing to clear this network, it would require a long and complicated analysis from an experienced and versatile researcher.

            Thus I focus on the definition of psychology and sociology (“identity is a person's conception and expression of their own and others' individuality or group affiliations”[1]), which also incorporates cultural identity. Cultural identity is determined by numerous factors (gender, ethnicity, “race”, etc.) – as an Eastern European, I would say that one of the most, moreover, the most important factor is history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the transition into market economies and political pluralism greatly influenced the identity of those who were living on the Eastern side of Europe; not only their life was determined by these but also the way of thinking of the next generations. As A. Herrberg and E. Moxon-Browne say in one of their conference paper, “The 'politics of seclusion' which once emphasized the boundaries of the European Community in its wider environment, have been replaced by the 'politics of inclusion' which transform boundaries into bridgeheads”[2]. Those bridgeheads connect cultures, which are still different from each other. The available and accessible products and services are more or less the same (thanks to the economic union), so Western and Eastern Europeans now have for example the same brand of clothes, cars or chocolate, but they consume them in a different way. There is a difference between how the inhabitants of these two sides of Europe think about eating healthy, how they spend their free time, how they create and perceive the media. A demonstration or a manifestation in Eastern and Western Europe has merely different meaning and dynamics.

            Simon Clarke says (referring to Foucault) that “there is a strong argument that cultural identity is linked to dominant discourses and power”[3], and Eastern Europe is an excellent example to prove this argument; cultural identity is shaped by the politics (its programs and communication) of the European Union, and by the countries’ relation with it. In 1995 A. Herrberg and E. Moxon-Browne were talking about the Eurobarometer, which showed that “in Eastern Europe show a much stronger attachment to an European identity in some countries (e.g. Romania) than exists within the EU itself; the implication here is that aspirations to join (or re-join) the West”, and meanwhile they were indicating a tendency in Western Europe: the move of “the public consciousness towards a more positive in vision of the community as guaranteeing a higher quality of life and not merely a higher standard of living: no longer would economic benefits be sufficient, but there would now be added important legal, cultural and educational dimensions.[4]” In order to promote this way of thinking and to build the public consciousness, the sense of European solidarity in the newly affiliating countries, EU institutions started a series of promotion work with cross-frontier youth exchanges and town twinning programs.

            It would be interesting and surely useful to thoroughly examine the effects and impacts of this work (many of these programs are still on-going), but this is not the purpose of this article. However, it is shown that the cultural identity of the Eastern Europeans did not change as much as it was hoped, the development of the multilayered governance and administration (ranging from national to transnational) did not make the multiple identities complementary, these identities stayed (or rather became) conflicting. At this point I think I should stop talking about Eastern Europe in general and concentrate on the country I know, Hungary. The political and cultural identities in other eastern countries are different because of the various economical possibilities, governmental practices and history making (processing) attitudes and methods. Thus the “European identity” (a notion which is quite ambiguous, vague and has merely changeable borders) has a strongly cognitive dimension, which means that the conscience of the European citizenship depends on how much the individual knows about the system, about the EU institutions and its processes. Surveys show that “those who are best informed about the EU tend to be the most supportive: the cognitive and affective dimensions of political identity run hand in hand.” [5] However, scientists say that this is not a watertight correlation, it is important to note that the “European identity” – to which the cultural identity is strongly connected in this continent – greatly depends on the communication and education in the matter of EU activities and functions. The youth in action programs, cross-frontiers exchanges couldn’t inform the whole population of a country; the culture of media consummation does not assure either that relevant and adequate pieces of information reach the inhabitants of Hungary. Therefore, the importance and the role of the “legal, cultural and educational dimensions” within the desired higher quality of life stay hidden in one’s conscience.

            Euro-skeptics and Euro-supporters exist in various percentages all around Europe; I would like to draw the attention only to the fact that the EU-related political identity affects the cultural identity. Researches demonstrated that metaphors are influencing one’s thinking; as much in natural sciences as in social sciences. Metaphors, whether explicit or implicit, are essential to the ordering of cognitive elements[6], such as identity. Beyond the rhetoric functions, the choice of the metaphor may be crucial within the communication and during the construction of self-construction and self-esteem. In Hungary, the current dominant metaphor (its roots go back to the 17th century, therefore it has a solid, historical base) is being the gate of Europe, being the border between West and East (East meaning Asia). As we have seen, in the communication of the EU, the integrating and the affiliating programs use the notion of bridge and bridgehead. These metaphors haven’t changed in the past decades; we still speak about being on borders and building bridges. Thus, it is not surprising that people don’t feel they can have a clear and well-defined (political or cultural) identity, being between something (and making choices between the two sides) is an endlessly repeated scheme.

            According to Clarke, identity is a complex amalgam of a social construction and a psychodynamic process, and the notion of identity is shaped not just in relation to some other, but to the Other, to another culture[7]. If identity is constructed in relation to the other, and Hungarians see themselves is a transition position, it is easy to see that the cultural identity is a weak texture and structure, it is based more on the external feedback and reactions (from both side, West and East) than the internal ones. Clarke and Goffman say that self-construction and identity has a considerable part which is dramatic or/and performative. Self-image depends on how others see us, how we “appear” to be[8]. Even more, Goffman says that identity is a dramatic effect: the self is constructed during a performance, therefore the identity is presented and projected during a theatrical performance to the audience, to the others. It is known that traditions and identities can be expressed, shown and preserved (or, so to say, constructed and reconstructed) through the representation of traditional and folk dance[9]. Contemporary dance, the working dance groups and teams, the currently available dance productions are making an imprint of the present identity of their source and surroundings – of course, not on such a direct way as the folk dance does, but, maybe it is not too audacious to say, that the dance scene itself (in which the folk dance is also implied) is a fingerprint of the cultural identity of a community, let’s say, of a country.

            Therefore, looking into some Hungarian dance companies and organizations may tell us some interesting features about the cultural identity of Hungary. Here I cannot list all the members and components of the Hungarian dance scene, but I hope a short résumé – as a preview – can give an idea about this process of identity making.

            In Hungary there is only one institution entirely dedicated to dance; the National Dance Theatre. In the last few months it has lost its building, but hopefully (and according to the authorities) the situation will change. This institution was located in a prestigious spot in Budapest, in the Castle district; therefore it was the representation of Hungarian dance, foreigners (and those Hungarians, who have superficial knowledge about the Hungarian dance) were informed and reached only from there. Consequently, the National Dance Theatre doesn’t really have a specific image; it does not have its own dancers: it offers its stage to various dance groups. In the repertory we find big and small folk dance groups, ballet companies (from the countryside), some bigger contemporary dance teams, dance theatre (mainly for kids) and even genres such as tango or Indian dance – the institution aims to please all kinds of need which can emerge in the matter of dance. Besides, there are other host theatres in Budapest (I talk now only about the capital), they invite foreign productions, big names (like Trafó) and small theatres who have in their program smaller contemporary dance groups (for example MU Theatre or Bakelit Multi Art Center). Contemporary dance groups have serious problems with finding places for rehearsal; there are only few institutions which are hosting some companies or productions (for example Jurányi Art Incubator House, Bakelit MAC, Sín Cultural Center). Instead of giving an overview of the Hungarian contemporary dance scene, I would like to talk about the identity, the self-representation of some contemporary dance teams – which can show us how Hungarians think about themselves, how do they want to appear in front of others, how do they think about their own identity. I give some examples, the ones I think can be taken as representatives.

            Many of the companies permanently exist only virtually, so it is hard to locate them physically; they rehearse dance where they find a place and a host institution. Therefore it is impossible to analyze their identity through their infrastructure or building, because – to put it on a simple way – they don’t have these. Their websites are more informative.

  • The Duda Eva Dance Company seemingly would like to be accessible for those, who speak English: many of their productions have English titles (for example Stop’N’Go – 2010, Rumble-2011, After-2012, Love’N’Go-2013), a French one (Retour au noir-2011) and in 2014 they had only English titled works, they stopped working with Hungarian words. The company translated precisely everything into English on their website, except the reviews published in the Hungarian press. Among their tours on abroad we find Eastern European targets as well as Western European ones. The company works quite visibly for an English public, their outlook, works, and themes are familiar to the Western Europeans’.
  • Hodworks is also keen on the accessibility for English speakers. On their homepage, the leading news is that one of their productions has been selected for a Western European festival (Aerowaves). The company is building its identity strongly through the appreciation of their work by foreign, Western European institutions, Hungarian presence is less important.
  • The Symptoms (Tünet Együttes) have a merely different attitude: many of their pieces are rooted in the Hungarian culture, for example the Commonplace (2013) is presenting and representing some typical characters of the famous Moscow square (it can be familiar only with those who live there) or the Vote (2012) which is a piece about voting, taking social responsibility, questioning Hungarian attitudes and habits. In many of their creations they work with a considerable amount of Hungarian texts, sometimes with literature, which makes difficult to travel with these pieces. They also organize a dance school program for college students and they have pieces for small kids. Besides, from time to time they make “international” products as well, with less Hungarian texts and with more international themes.
  • Tellabor has again a different method of identity building; although the leader, Noémi Kulcsár is an acknowledged artist in Hungary, the company only has a facebook page with a Hungarian description. Although their themes and creations are not local-specified (Garden, Body Building or A Streetcar Named Desire form Tennessee Williams), they do not aim to reach a greater audience.
  • My last example is L1 Association. This association is not really a company, rather an alliance of independent Hungarian dancers. Although L1 Association makes its own creations, it is focusing on supporting association members and other freelance artists, not necessary only dancers (but e.g. musicians, visual artists as well), it is interested in creating creative and fertile circumstances and in connecting artists. Their biggest annual event is the L1danceFest, which is an European muster of contemporary dance and theatre projects – besides the foreign productions, the latest L1 creations are also presented here. The activity of the association includes a platform-building for contemporary dancers and artists; they have several resident artists each year. On their website there are no “performances” or “works”, we only find “projects”: dance performances, street actions, workshops, community gatherings and festivals. The versatility of the association is represented by the works of the artistic director, Márta Ladjánszki: in 2013 she created Széki Luca, a “tradition-exploratory and contemporary dance piece” which is strongly rooted in the Hungarian folk dance and fashion; in 2014 she created a solo performance for an American dancer (UNTITLED – a meditation in one act).

We can see with the help of these very few examples, that one part of the Hungarian dancers take the direction of Western Europe; they make productions for the western market and use westernized schemas, meaning they intend to merge into a western system while abandoning a part of their identity. A small part of the dancers want to get ahead only in Hungary, and there are few associations and institutions which have a bigger horizon and try to be the “bridge” (the metaphor used by the EU office-holders and the European artist as well), connect people, lifestyles, attitudes; they have educational and civic identity-related programs. In order to generate (or, even more to create) a cultural identity in which the legal, cultural and educational dimensions have serious presence, these kinds of “side activities” (which are not necessarily related to stage productions) are necessary.

            Being a part of a bridge means being connected to each other – some institutions and associations are taking part in international programs. The Open Latitudes program connects French-speaking institutions with Polish, Greek, Italian, Portugal and Hungarian partners (Sín Cultural Center). The program Beyond Fronta assembles Austrians, English, Slovenians, Croatians and Hungarian (Pro Progressione) institutions – besides making new creations, Beyond Fronta organizes festivals, assures possibilities to present works, organizes research laboratories, street improvisations, helps traveling the audience from the countryside and intends to spread the news through internet and in the press.

            It was mentioned and observed that the communication is important in identity building – one should pay attention on how and through which channels they communicate towards others. L1 Association has an exceptional status in this matter; it goes further than the previously mentioned programs and institutions: from 2010 L1 Association is also focusing on the dance critics, on the channel of the feedback related to their work. The creators (and curators) intend to “educate”, to form, or simply to give good circumstances and opportunities to critics and journalists in order to discuss performances and write together. With this initiation they can reach press organs, build connections, and, through critics, hopefully they can reach and inform the audience about their work. As it was proven, being informed helps to shape a complex opinion an increase consciousness – the KÖM (Kritikai Önképző Műhely, “Critics’ Self-Educating Workshop”) by L1 Association can greatly contribute to this long-term project.

            This is why it is not a surprise that the L1 Association is an associated partner of IDENTITY.MOVE!. This program recognized that the lack of persistent local and regional contemporary dance tradition in the “Eastern Belt” can cause problems, for example during the cultural identity construction. It is preferable that such programs reach artists, scholars and critics, and hopefully their work can affect the educational system and the cultural consciousness. How this last step will or can happen is hard to say yet, but first, as many bridges should be built as possible – the more bridges are open, the more people can cross them.

Sándor Zita – Member of KÖM (Critics’ Self-Educating Workshop) of L1 Association


[2] Herrberg, A. and Moxon-Browne, E, “Eastern and Western Europe: forging a new European Identity ?”, University of Limerick, Conference paper, 1995, pp. 1.

[3] Clarke, Simon, “Culture and Identity”, in The SAGE Handbook ofCulturalAnalysis, eds. TONY BENETT and JOHN FROW. London: SAGE Publications, 2008, pp. 510.

[4] Herrberg, A. and Moxon-Browne, op. cit. pp. 3.

[5] Herrberg, A. and Moxon-Browne, E, op. cit. pp. 4.

[6] A Middle Eastern Identity - Experimental articulation through a dynamic system of metaphor, in Laetus in Praesens, 1991.

[7] Clarke, Simon, op. cit. pp. 511.

[8] Clarke, Simon, op. cit. pp. 510.

[9] Anthony, Shay, Choreographing Identities: Folk Dance, Ethnicity and Festival in the United States and Canada, 2006, pp. 47.