The first joint appearance of two locally based folk ensembles--Karpatok and Avaz--promised to be a stimulating juxtaposition of divergent approaches to ethnic performance.
Karpatok follows a traditional path: preserving Hungarian songs, dances and identity for those Americans sharing that ancestry. Its strength comes from specialization in a living cultural legacy.
In contrast, Avaz reflects the distinctly American vision of safeguarding multiple heritages that artistic director Anthony Shay pioneered when he co-founded Aman in 1964. Its strengths come from scholarship and diversity.
Unfortunately, the performance Saturday at the Japan America Theatre suggested that despite Karpatok's understandable appeal in the Hungarian-American community, the company currently has little to attract serious dance audiences. It also suggested that Avaz badly needs more time in the rehearsal studio to match its distinguished past achievements.
In choreographies by artistic director Tibor Toghia, Sandor Timar (artistic director of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble) and others, Karpatok delivered slovenly unions, uneven and frequently effortful solo dancing, a forced bravado but no genuine conviction or company style. Far too often, you'd see the men glancing nervously at each other, the musicians or the audience in the midst of a sequence. If the women appeared more comfortable onstage, nobody seemed to be after anything deeper than a bland technical proficiency.
In dances from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Avaz offered vestiges of its acclaimed folklore-in-depth, especially in leisurely suites from Croatia and Yugoslavia. But Ixchel Dimetral-Maerker's familiar Larzon solo looked hard-bitten (almost vulgar) and many dancers simply weren't persuasive in their exotic assignments. In Shay's graceful Thracian suite, for example, Anne von Bibra's delicate, rippling arm/hand motions in an early solo exposed the other women's lack of fluidity in the same type of movement later on.
The companies joined forces in a bold suite of Bulgarian dances (lots of artful group geometry) and a bolder boot-slapping, heel-clicking Hungarian blowout that managed to cram 43 dancers, 10 singers and 6 musicians on or near the stage.
Both ensembles were sabotaged Sunday by cyclorama lighting that cheapened and sometimes nearly obliterated their bright-colored costumes with garish, unnatural color washes.