Earlier this month Dutch National Ballet’s Artistic Director Ted Bransen wrote a guest blog for “All About Art” expressing his concerns over the Dutch Council of Culture’s proposed funding cuts to his company. If the proposal goes ahead, says Bransen, DNB will not only have to scale down staging full-length classics, it might also have to stop touring. A worse fate could be in store for Nederlands Dans Theater, one of the world’s leading contemporary dance companies, as it now faces cuts of 50% and a downgrade from international to regional status. Both organisations have been actively campaigning and canvassing audience support (NDT has also set up an online petition).
In light of the above, the decision by DNB to bring to London a full evening of works by Hans Van Manen, its resident choreographer, seems bolder and braver than ever. In lieu of an “easy” mixed bill designed to attract the broadest possible audience, we have the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in the choreography of one of Europe’s most productive “masters of dance” (inside the programme Graham Watts notes Van Manen has created over 100 works, 40 of which remain in the company’s repertory). We are invited to look at an important part of Dutch National Ballet’s identity.
Van Manen’s works are rarely shown in the UK these days, although last year London saw the sublime Ulyana Lopatkina dance Trois Gnossiennes with Ivan Kozlov at the Nureyev gala and Birmingham Royal Ballet has Grosse Fuge, Twilight and Five Tangos in its repertory. I imagine the five pieces on display at Sadler’s Wells (Adagio Hammerklavier, Solo, Trois Gnossiennes, Concertante and Grosse Fuge), with their almost pedantic emphasis on symmetry, line and focus on the male dancer, might not be to every ballet lover’s taste. They looked more solemn than fun. Formal chamber works with casts of between 6 and 8 dancers, male and female, who fully inhabit Van Manen’s universe of power play between the sexes.
Amongst these pieces, I will admit my favorites were the shortest, Trois Gnossienes (to Erik Satie) and Solo which, despite being set to Bach (whose music I normally dislike) was the evening’s only vaguely humorous piece. An all male trio (here Juanjo Arques, Sefton Clarke and Félipe Diaz) and a constant flow of energy and musicality – reputed as Van Manen’s fastest choreography – mixing precision footwork, innovative upper body movements and unusual arms which were graceful and eye-catching. The no less musical Trois Gnossienes, a lyrical pas de deux in three movements is full of challenging lifts and sharp angles, purity of line being one of the main points of the piece, which was beautifully performed by the Vaganova-trained Larissa Lezhnina and ex-PNB Casey Herd.
Less easy on the eye was one of Van Manen’s most famous pieces, Grosse Fuge (set to Beethoven), which serves as the curtain closer. It starts promisingly with a fusion of classical ballet with courtly dances via martial arts (the men in Hakamas doing warrior stances) but evolves into an awkward commentary on sexual power play. The work was originally made in 1971 for NDT (where Van Manen also spent a significant part of his career) and it looks very OTT. Van Manen’s take-no-prisoners raunchiness, as Ismene Brown rightly notes, might be completely alien to British sensibilities. But for a piece that examines liberation, the commentary feels oddly passé. Also hinting at relationships and varying degrees of sexual tension between the dancers yet much more harmonious, were Adagio Hammerklavier and Concertante.
Both works had a similar structure consisting of different sets of pas de deux. Even though they are showcases for male virtuosity, with Jozef Varga especially powerful and elegant in Concertante, the ladies have a chance to shine and be partnered. I was captivated by the fluid dancing and authority of principals Anna Tsygankova (Adagio Hammerklavier) and Igone de Jongh (who danced the second pas de deux in Concertante). And the way the ensemble moves towards the light from the wings, one by one, at the end of the second work, seemed to summarise well what Van Manen aims for: his approach is “balance in all things”; to be measured yet evocative. I am thankful for having the opportunity to see this young company on tour, performing heritage works with such high level of artistry. It would be a shame if politics and the general misunderstanding about the value and importance of the arts should meddle with the future of one of the best European ballet troupes.
Dutch National Ballet – Hans Van Manen, Master of Dance – last performance tonight at Sadler’s Wells. For more information & booking visit the Sadler’s Wells website.