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An energy crunch forces a Hungarian ballet company to move to a car factory

A ballet dancer warms up before an open rehearsal at the Audi automobile factory in Gyor, Hungary, on Thursday. The Ballet Company of Gyor is rehearsing at the factory after being forced to shutter its rehearsal hall in response to soaring energy prices.
Denes Erdos
/
AP
A ballet dancer warms up before an open rehearsal at the Audi automobile factory in Gyor, Hungary, on Thursday. The Ballet Company of Gyor is rehearsing at the factory after being forced to shutter its rehearsal hall in response to soaring energy prices.

GYOR, Hungary — Reka Zalai clocked out for lunch on Thursday in the quality assurance department of an Audi automobile factory in Hungary.

But instead of heading to her ordinary spot in the factory's lunch room, she walked to a nearby conference hall near the production line to watch a performance of a professional contemporary ballet troupe.

The Ballet Company of Gyor, a city in northwest Hungary that is home to the sprawling car and motor plant, began rehearsing at the factory in January after being forced to shutter their rehearsal hall in response to soaring energy prices.

With nowhere to rehearse and scheduled performances approaching, the troupe approached the Audi factory, a longtime sponsor, which offered to host the dancers in a heated room at the plant for a few weeks during the coldest winter months.

In a converted conference room on Thursday, the dancers honed their pliés and pirouettes, while row upon row of new cars could be seen in a distant lot through the ceiling-high windows, and workers passed by outside dressed in bright red coveralls.

Laszlo Velekei, the ballet company's director, said that being able to maintain the continuity of rehearsals after the dancers left their theater was essential to keeping them in top form.

"The most important thing in a dancer's life is that they can't stop," Velekei said. "There is a saying that we often repeat to one another: if you miss one day (of rehearsal), it's no problem. If you miss two days, then the dancer begins to feel it. If you miss three days, then the audience notices, too."

The Gyor Ballet's rehearsal hall is one of dozens of Hungarian cultural institutions that have temporarily shut down for the winter season in response to exponentially rising energy prices. Heating bills for some have risen tenfold since last winter, while high inflation and a weakening currency have compounded a dire economic outlook.

Audi workers applaud ballet dancers during an open rehearsal at the factory on Thursday.
Denes Erdos / AP
/
AP
Audi workers applaud ballet dancers during an open rehearsal at the factory on Thursday.

Hungary's government in July declared an "energy emergency" in response to rising prices and supply disruptions linked to Russia's war in Ukraine. It also made cuts to a popular utility subsidy program that since 2014 had kept the bills of Hungarians among the lowest in the 27-member European Union.

Reka Jakab, a press spokesperson for Audi, said the ballet company wanted to give something back for the plant's 12,000 workers in return for the rehearsal space.

"They offered to give one open performance for them each week, and they were also open to giving access to the rehearsals whenever the workers have free time," she said.

She said many workers had never seen a ballet before, but the responses have been very positive.

"Several people said that they would definitely attend the next performance in the theater."

Zoltan Jekli, a dancer with the Gyor ballet, said that the troupe had overcome some of the limitations of the new space by outfitting the floor with a layer of soft PVC foam and bringing their own equipment to make it feel like home.

"Whenever I come here, it fills me with good feelings and memories and I think everyone (in the troupe) feels the same," he said. "We don't have the sense that we're coming into a car factory. We like to be here."

Zalai, 28, said she's "always been amazed by ballet," but that seeing it up close and getting a chance to break from her daily routine had been a particularly special experience.

"I was really recharged by this half-hour. Time stopped for me," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press