An Evening with Dutch National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Dutch National Ballet – Hans van Manen: Master of Dance: An evening with the Dutch National Ballet performing choreographies by Hans van Manen, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. 14.5.2011 (MMB)

Hans van Manen (b. 1932) is undoubtedly one of the greatest choreographers and dance innovators of the 20th Century. He has created over one hundred ballets, which, as stated in the programme notes, are performed by more than fifty companies around the world, although none remain in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire – a fact that I find difficult to understand, as to my mind, any distinguished ballet company should go out of their way to have van Manen’s ballets in their regular set of works. So, it is wonderful to see that the Dutch National Ballet treasure their professional relationship with such an artist by keeping forty of his ballets firmly in their repertoire. Equally wonderful I must say is the fact that Sadler’s Wells brought them to London.

Hans van Manen, now nearly eighty years old, has had a long, successful, productive career, which is not exclusively related to dance. He is also a professional photographer and I think that it is this photographic quality that he brought to dance as an art form that gives his work a unique and recognisable style. Van Manen is able to put together an elegant, attractive ballet by creating a “perfect” picture, which gives the audience a refined but brief image that becomes the source from where the dance movements flow naturally. He has had a distinguished career with the Dutch National Ballet and is currently their resident choreographer, following an invitation from their artistic director, Ted Brandsen, who openly welcomed van Manen when he left the Nederlands Dans Theater for the second time back in 2004, as he felt that his work was being neglected.

With the Master of Dance Tour, the Dutch National Ballet is fittingly celebrating Hans van Manen as well as the Company’s 50th anniversary season – it was founded in 1961 by Sonia Gaskell. The programme presented at The Sadler’s Wells Theatre last night show-cased five of the most important works by van Manen, representing perhaps his most significant creations over a period of approximately twenty-five years. Each piece was lovingly brought to life by a variety of dancers from the Company and although some were principals, others second soloists or not even that, the full hearted dedication to the works was genuine and a common in each performer. I was truly mesmerised by the technical brilliance of all dancers, without exception, and I must say that it is many years since I have been as thrilled by a ballet company as I was by The Dutch National Ballet’s performance last night at Sadler’s Wells.

The first piece, Adagio Hammerklavier, was choreographed for the Company by van Manen in 1973. He chose “non-dance” music, one of his trade marks, in this instance, Beethoven’s beautiful and famous Sonate für das Hammerklavier (Opus 106). This ballet is a very lyrical work, representative of van Manen’s extraordinary ability to make use of stylised classical elements, such as attitudes, fouettés and pirouettes to express the emotions in relationships between men and women. It is performed by six dancers (three couples) whose movements are fluid, advancing and retreating like waves on a shoreline, clearly expressing the tension and the harmony (or lack of it) within each couple. The steps and figures are deliberate and elegant, merging perfectly with the music, flowing unrushed, giving viewers the impression that they are watching a film in slow motion. Beethoven’s music was lovingly performed by the Company’s principal pianist, Russian Olga Khoziainova, who was well attuned to the choreography and the needs of the dancers.

Adagio Hammerklavier , was followed by a real contrast, Solo, which van Manen created in 1997 for the Nederlands Dans Theater. Solo is an amazing, quite short ballet (lasting approximately ten minutes) with three male dancers alternating on stage with “lightning” speed, each performing a solo of incredible fluid virtuosity, which looks deceptively simple. The piece is dazzling and as stylish as it is fast. The title, Solo, is appropriate because the dancers are never on stage together, except for a split second as one leaves and another enters and then in the finale when all three come together in a fabulous display of jumps and turns, wonderfully synchronised as if they were one. Again van Manen chose a piece that was not composed for the ballet, i.e. J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 for Violin in B minor. It was the only piece of the evening where the music was not performed live; instead we were presented with an excellent recording by Sigiswald Kuijken for Edito Classica from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

After the first interval, the Company returned with two further van Manen pieces: Trois Gnossiennes, choreographed to the music of Erik Satie for The Dutch National Ballet in 1982, and Concertante, a ballet that van Manen created for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1994 to Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante. The first is an intimate piece, a brief but sophisticated pas de deux, which once again depicts the tensions in the relationship between a man and a woman, van Manen’s favourite topic. The music is performed live by pianist Olga Khoziainova who sits at the piano on a sliding platform, which is gently pushed around by a trio of young male dancers. It gives the piece the atmosphere of a “piano bar” conversation, positioning us (the audience) as a small group of people talking about the ups and downs of the relationship between a couple whom we probably know and like. Concertante, on the other hand, is an ensemble piece, with four couples, originally created for eight dancers of the junior company of the Nederlands Dans Theater. It is, like all the pieces presented at Sadler’s Wells, technically demanding, sophisticated and elegant. The choreography follows logical, natural patterns of movement, evocative of passion, aggression and humour in the relationships depicted by the four couples. It is a fabulous piece for a group of aspiring virtuoso dancers allowing them to display their dazzling technique and musicality. The score is again from a piece that was not written for the ballet. Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante is a beautifully fresh and invigorating work, which was vividly brought to life by the dancers and effectively performed by the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia, one of Britain’s busiest ballet orchestras.

After the second and final interval, The Dutch National Ballet returned with the last piece of this programme, which is possibly Hans van Manen’s most famous creation and to me his masterpiece: Grosse Fuge. Choreographed in 1971 for the Nederlands Dans Theater it feels as fresh, original and innovative today as it did when it was first performed exactly forty years ago. It is a ballet that combines everything which is important for van Manen, as well as displaying all elements that characterise his style: musicality and intelligent originality. Grosse Fuge is set to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Opus 133) and the Cavatina from his String Quartet No. 13 (Opus 130). As usual with van Manen, it is not a narrative; however, there is a subtle plot, which shows the interaction between men and women dancing with each other. It is performed by a group of eight dancers (four male and four female) and where the men are wearing the rather famous black “trouser-skirts” (designed by van Manen himself), which enhance the movement in a uniquely stylish manner. The piece is rather passionate, filled with sexual tension and extremely sexy (particularly the choreography for the male dancers) but each movement, each gesture is full of elegance and grace though at the same time powerful, energetic and vibrant. It clearly demonstrates van Manen’s musicality and his talent to create the ultimate ballet! By this I mean is that he is able to merge the music and the dance perfectly so that the music underlines and enhances the movements of the dancers while they in turn complement the qualities of the score. It is a piece that generally brings a loud roar of appreciation and a standing ovation from the audience, and this time was no exception.

All the pieces were, as is usually the case with van Manen, minimalist in terms of set, lighting and costume design. They serve the sophisticated simplicity of the choreographer’s work thus enhancing the movements executed by the dancers on stage.

The Dutch National Ballet dancers who performed on Saturday, 14th May at Sadler’s Wells were, as I mentioned before, real virtuosos. Without exception, they all displayed a technical brilliance that is as mesmerising as it is rare and there was not a single one who could not be described as an outstanding dancer. Although, they were not all listed in the programme as principals, I am sure that many a distinguished ballet company would like to have stars showing such excellence as that exhibited by second or third soloists of the current Dutch National Ballet. Their celebration of Hans van Manen’s works demonstrated not only their respect for a great artist but also the joy that they feel in performing his work, which proved contagious. I sincerely hope that they return to Sadler’s Wells very soon!

Margarida Mota-Bull