Hans van Manen - Master of Dance

Dutch National Ballet
Sadler's Wells

Hans van Manen - Master of Dance production photo

Hans van Manen started dancing professionally in 1951. In 1957 he began his choreographic career. From 1961-1970 he was co-artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater and from 1988-2004 its resident choreographer, a role he fulfilled for the Dutch National Ballet from 1973-1987 and from 2005 to the present day.

Having created more than a hundred ballets, aged seventy-nine, he can rest on his laurels whilst the Dutch National Ballet present five ballets in celebration of a career spanning sixty years. These three twenty-minute pieces, two under ten minutes, are rejuvenated by an excellent company of young dancers for the new century.

Neo-classical dance fused with contemporary ballet, clean sculptural lines, obedient to the precision of the music, its mood, colour and tempo, that's the van Manen style. He has been called the Piet Mondrian of dance - to me he seems more the Paul Klee, taking that idiosyncratic line for a walk, or Ben Nicholson with his white reliefs on white canvases. Muted, understated, but strong.

To a solo piano (Olga Khozianova) his 1973 Adagio Hammerklavier from Beethoven's sonata opens, and does not exactly warm the blood. Cerebral, brittle, three couples, women in pastel blue, men in white tights, bare torsos and glittering necklaces, dance against a pale blue cloth rippled by a breeze.

If there is emotion, it is held back, like the slow arabesques, attitudes, turns and falls, the shards of ice women controlled by the Apollonesque men. Stately and serene, with occasional frantic display, do we detect resistant undercurrents in the quirky flexes of the women's feet?

Intellectual, reverent, it does not quicken the blood. But the next few bursting minutes of Manen's 1997 Solo, danced by three men in fast solo sequences following swiftly on each other to Bach's Corrente-Double from Partita No. 1 in B minor, snaps us out of reverie. In double-quick hyperactive tempo bourrée they run, jump, hop and spin, streaks of dark purple with flashes of colour peaking out from underneath. This is more like it. Dynamic, joyful, short and sweet.

Back to form in Trois Gnossiennes, a short pas de deux from 1982: similar to the first of the evening, a variation on a theme, the woman in pale blue still a stiff doll, the man the manipulator. Manen has choreographed into the dance the pianist at the grand piano, three bare-chested male carytids / telamons their dancing partners. Greek gods and female muse cryptically scripting in repeated calligraphic motifs, arms in triumphant pose, like da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a regular Manen mannerism.

With Concertante (Frank Martin's 1945 Petite Symphonie Concertante), a narrative struggles to emerge, dynamics more equal, both men and women in dark striped unitards and soft shoes, this 1994 creation is vibrant and vivid.

The dancing is terrific: the lead couple Michele Jimenez and Jozef Varga high kick, slink, challenge in shifting tension. Igone de Jongh and Alexander Zhembrovsky, the second couple, match them. Two more couples join in until a tribe is formed, safe in their collective. We're getting hotter, but strict form is still maintained.

The best is saved for last - it usually is. His signature dance, created in 1971, full of a young man's sexual vigour and creed, Grosse Fuge (Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, opus 133 and his Cavatina from String Quartet No. 13, opus 130) is a battle of the sexes.

Erotic tension, four demure women (geishas?) in pale leotards, four men in long belted black skirt trousers (samurai?), which they shed to reveal tiny black shorts. A formal division of the sexes - sculpted hot sweaty bodies, warrior men drag the cool compliant women across the floor by their belt straps. In mating displays the men and women attract, repel, and couple, the power shifting back and forth.

Strict obeisance to the music, formalism, abstraction, Van Manen is not given to overt emotion, but inevitably the dancers, not merely automata, bring a human account to the choreography. With Manen one has to be patient. The fireworks do come in good time.

Larissa Lezhnina, Anna Tsygankova, Natalia Hoffmann, Casey Herd, Matthew Golding (a Brad Pitt lookalike), Juanjo Arqués, Sefton Clarke, Félipe Diaz, Alexander Zhembrovsky, Tamás Nagy dance wonderfully.

As do Rachel Oomens, Anatole Babenko, Nadia Yanowsky, Rink Sliphorst, Marisa Lopez, Cédric Ygnace, and Anu Viheriäranta.

The eighty-strong company, a United Nations of dance, has many up-and-coming dancers with names familiar to ballet aficionados, Yanowsky, Mukhamedov, Makhateli - the next generation is secure.

Till 14th May 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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