Get Adobe Flash player

Trafo arts centre, Budapest’s high temple of innovation, turns 10

by Eszter Balazs*

Trafo, one of the most progressive contemporary arts centres in eastern Europe, celebrates its 10th birthday this year, a remarkable feat given its meagre state funding in a tradition-minded capital.
While Budapest has a rich cultural heritage, most public monies go towards running the established theatres, opera and operetta in this city whose leafy, old-world charm earned it the nickname "Paris of Central Europe".
But Trafo's daring refusal to pander to mass tastes has worked, and the 300-seat house is regularly packed.
From the very beginning the idea was to stage productions outside the mainstream, said Gyorgy Szabo, the 48-year-old founder and director.
"We wanted to transform Hungarians' rather traditional cultural habits," he said. "We wanted to astonish and amaze people, to flabbergast them."
The cover of the brochure for this anniversary season sets the tone — a naked man crouching with 10 human palms spread along his backbone, like the spikes on a dragon's back.
"It's meant for people who appreciate beauty in its visual form," said Szabo, without irony.
The programme for September and October is in the same vein, featuring the British cult band Tiger Lillies, an indefinable trio whose own website calls themselves a "criminal castrati and his accordion driven anarchic Brechtian street opera".
Other acts include a piece by minimalist Dutch director Sanne van Rijn, known to use elderly dancers in shows that bridge drama, dance and mime, and the British troupe Random Dance who mix dance with new media and technology.

We work like dogs to show hermit-like artists

The Trafo House of Contemporary Arts started in a red-brick industrial electrical transformer building — "trafo" is an abbreviation of transformer in Hungarian — built in the early 1900s that lay empty and dilapidated for decades.
"I still remember the first time I saw the building in 1991. It was occupied by French anarchist squatters from Marseilles who had staged an installation with a bus hanging from the hook on the ceiling and wrecked cars scattered around the plot," said Szabo.
He is not coy about his role in turning the filthy structure in a former worker's district into an acclaimed institution, even if it attracts less political support.
"Trafo is a heroic undertaking," Szabo said. "We are working like dogs to show the work of hermit-like artists, who most of the time are isolated and not understood."
But the recipe has paid off, despite some of the lowest public funding.
In 2008, the centre was allocated 230 million forints (1.3 million dollars), against 1.7 billion forints for the 619-seat Hungarian National Theatre — twice the size but about seven times the subsidy.
Even the otherwise conservative culture and education ministry gives kudos to Trafo's bid to "make the public the more open to unexpected, unusual and thought-provoking art," on its website.
Szabo, meanwhile, insists the centre is not aimed at a niche audience.
"It's a sort of aesthetic highway of dance, theatre, music, film and circus where audiences from every different social class and strata can select the vehicle they want to travel in," he said.