Hans van Manen must be one of the busiest dance-makers in the world, having created over 120 works. His influence is so strong in his home country that, according to Dutch National Ballet’s artistic director Ted Brandsen, short, abstract pieces are now considered the ‘norm’ in ballet in the Netherlands, as opposed to the full-evening story ballets which dominate the landscape in other countries, including the UK.
His time at both the Dutch National Ballet and the Nederlands Dans Theater has produced two almost distinct bodies of work. The plotless simplicity and clean lines for the former company are a little reminiscent of Balanchine, one of his key influences, while the more grounded, non-pointe work at the NDT is perhaps more suggestive of his other great source of inspiration, Martha Graham; but the attention to pas de deux dynamics and the expressive use of the dancers’ arms are evident in all his works.
In many ways, the NDT works are more immediate. The high camp and silliness of Solo attracted one of the evening’s biggest cheers. Van Manen didn’t think one dancer could dance to the turbo speed of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor to his satisfaction; so, pragmatically, he opted for three dancers in a kind of relay race.
Solo combines pure ballet with jazz, disco hip shakes and finger-pointing, comedy shrugs and head nods, all in the space of a few minutes. But what’s really striking is the dancers’ technique and the speed at which they perform.
Concertante differs from the rest of the programme in its more aggressive tone and hightened sense of drama. The piece is also the most literal manifestation of its music. In candy-striped, androgynous unitards, four couples engage in a power struggle. Michele Jimenez escapes from Jozef Varga’s embrace and seems much more at ease when they are side by side as equals. Meanwhile, Igone de Jongh pushes defiantly away from Alexander Zhembrovskyy, but finds that he still has a (sometimes literal) hold on her.
The exploration of gender comes through in van Manen’s more balletic works too. In Trois Gnossiennes, based on Erik Satie’s composition of the same name, the music’s aching melancholy almost does the work for you. Van Manen addresses the sombre mood with an uncomfortable duet, where a slide into splits is not a sweeping movement and développés are obstructed. The pianist, who is wheeled around the stage as the couple moves, frames the action; she’s the hand-held camera to their arthouse film.
The mixed bill closes with Grosse Fuge, a piece performed on a white minimalist set with female dancers in simple, nude-coloured leotards. But it is the men who get the central role here: amongst all this paleness, they stand topless in their wide black trousers. This gender reversal is particularly well illustrated in one mischievous sequence in which the four men take off their trousers, while the audience unwittingly join the female dancers, who stand with their backs to us, as voyeurs. Not every section is as witty as this one and despite the crisp aesthetic of Grosse Fuge, the choreography did not trigger the same sense of emotional connection as the other works on this otherwise exciting bill.
In the elegant Adagio Hammerklavier, an emotional intensity underpins all three couples. All is not well: they stare blankly ahead, the women arch and twist their backs to look at their partners. Different relationships are conveyed: the first couple display resignation; he desperately clings onto her as she runs, head in hands. The second are fiery and passionate, conveying a sense of two people at breaking point. The third couple – wonderfully danced by Casey Herd and Larissa Lezhnina – display a greater sense of resolution: they are slow, tender and full of control.
There is a lovely section in which Beethoven’s beautiful music builds up to a crescendo, and the couples respond with a series of grand battements, suddenly free. Balanchine once said that you can’t dance to Beethoven; in Adagio Hammerklavier, van Manen proves even a genius can get it wrong.