Articles from Ballet2000

Hans van Manen, Eighty Years Modern

by Roger Salas

The greatest living Dutch choreographer turned eighty last July. Het Nationale Ballet, the troupe with which he is most closely associated, fêted him at a gala performance in Amsterdam and is opening its new season in September with a programme of his works. This gives us the excuse to recount the long career of the doyen of modern Dutch ballet who has also exercised a deep influence on European choreography during the last decades; a grand master of geometrics, as well as an attentive, witty and uninhibited observer of social rituals...

Hans van Manen (born at Amstelveen, Holland, in 1932) occupies a key position on the European choreography scene in the 20th century. His long career, spanning over sixty years (his first choreography dates back to 1957), is rich in terms of experience and artistic results.

His young vagabond days reflected the spirit of the era when young restless artists would travel to seek out the master that was right for them. Thus, Van Manen studied with Sonia Gaskell (who had been with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before settling in Amsterdam in 1939) and who later became his director in the early Dutch ballet troupes. Gaskell, as Van Manen himself tells us, imparted to her students the distilled essence of the Russian School and insisted obsessively on a pure delivery; at the same time, however, she upheld the idea of so-called “abstract ballet” (with special reference to Balanchine). This principle of abstraction was somewhat stifled during Van Manen’s “Parisian period” (he joined Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris in 1959).


The founding of Nederlands Dans Theater was a complicated and animated affair which left Van Manen, together Benjamin Harkarvy, at the helm of the new company; and it was here that, being able to count on a team of highly energetic dancers (some of whom he had known since the times of Gaskell’s troupe), the young choreographer was able to put his creative ideas into practice.
From a musical angle, Van Manen covers a wide range of eras and styles: he began by using music by Manuel María Ponce and Martin Honegger, but with time even Haydn’s symphonies. During his restless youth on numerous occasions he also worked in cabaret, music-hall and on TV.
The globe-trotting period of his life took him to companies such as Scapino Ballet, the Düsseldorf Opera Ballet, the Tanz-Forum of Cologne and the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, situating him in a central European context and in a distant, albeit friendly, contrast to the John Cranko phenomenon in Stuttgart (the South African choreographer being only five years his senior).
Van Manen began to free-lance as a choreographer in 1970 and it was at this point that his work began to assume a clearly individual style. From then onwards, his passion for Stravinsky, Debussy or Ravel has given us extremely beautiful and original works. Van Manen is a refined architect of combinations to music. One might argue that this is the basis of his style; and if we can today refer to a Dutch School, when discussing choreography, this is largely thanks to Van Manen’s production. The works of Jirí Kylián, who was moulded as a choreographer in The Netherlands (and in Van Manen’s shadow), are a reminder of this as are, to a lesser degree, those of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato and even those of Van Manen’s contemporary and fellow-countryman, Rudi van Dantzig. The two were companions at the barre in Gaskell’s classes, as well as colleagues in her Ballet Recital troupe, and to be quite frank one ought to speak of mutual influence between them. But whereas Van Dantzig was more highbrow and obscure, Van Manen is more open-minded and expansive and displays a certain sarcastic wit, as when he has his female dancers wear stiletto heels or in his explicit references to ballroom dancing (e.g. his famous Five Tangos or Twilight, to music by John Cage, or Black Cake).
One of his most famous works to be taken into the international repertoire is Adagio Hammerklavier (1973, music by Beethoven). Here the couples interrelate in a strong condition of physical dependence and corporal tension; the work is the ultimate in “Van Manen Style” and can be considered his aesthetic A to Z; it was also the first ballet in Europe in which men performed Oriental-style, in long black skirts and bare torsos.
From a personal point of view, Van Manen is, in many ways, a typical Dutchman – and we may find his character surprises us. There is something blunt and disconcerting in his manner, but this softens in his stage vocabulary – which he uses always in the pursuit of his ideal of harmony, not only in developing symmetries, but above all (as mentioned above) in his emphasis on musical structure. His fervent admiration for George Balanchine plays a major role in all this; during the same period, other American choreographers were busy exploring similar territory, notably Jerome Robbins, Glen Tetley and John Butler. Van Manen has taken elements from each of them and has distilled them with acumen. We are not talking here of direct assimilation or imitation, but of the elaboration of choreographic material thanks to which the movement’s bases are adapted to the needs of the new creator, Van Manen, who was seeking to distinguish himself from the others. Europe in the Sixties and Seventies was once and for all forgetting the War and the horror of Nazism thanks to an immediate, informal, agile and uncomplicated language that the public was taking in and understanding directly. Van Manen seeks simple issues in everyday movements and attitudes and once these have been stylised, they become his idiom and glossary.
The years in question were also those of the so-called Sexual Revolution in which The Netherlands, thanks to its natural sexual tolerance, was a frontline country. Van Manen was attentive to these profound social changes which were rocking the religious – and specifically Calvinist – boat. Sex is always present in his choreography: in his male duets, in the full-nudity of his male/female dancers, in the eroticism embedded in his works – devoid of terror, as well as of hypocritical bourgeois morals. Probably Holland was the ideal place for this to happen, even as far as ballet is concerned.
Another field in which we can consider Van Manen a true European forerunner is in the use he makes of videos and films as choreographic elements. In 1970, together with Glen Tetley, he created Mutations (to music by Stockhausen) which can be considered the most important formal experiment of the decade. Then, in 1979, came Live (“open-to-the-public” and performed at the Carré Theatre in Amsterdam), in which a female dancer was literally chased by a cameraman shooting a film of her dancing a solo, with the video projected live on a screen. These experiments were enhanced by Van Manen’s collaboration with painters, mostly abstract, as this corresponded perfectly with his own aesthetic ideas. Painter Jean-Paul Vroom, a famous graphic illustrator and occasional film director, designed the scenery and costumes for various Van Manen ballets; Vroom had a lot in common with Van Manen and their long collaboration and tangible complicity is an important component of what we can rightfully call the modern “Dutch School”. Van Manen’s choreography is framed by Vroom’s sets and the two become one, taking on a strong and incisive artistic physiognomy.
Hans van Manen is also an excellent professional photographer whose photos have been exhibited in important galleries and museums all around the world. Van Manen’s is a privileged lens which often uses his own dancers as models. Those very dancers, whom he uses as clay with which to model a modern and refined choreographic style (albeit substantially based on the stylised forms of classical ballet), he then uses in statuesque – at times nude or even provocative – poses, bringing out the proudest (and even contrasting) side of his strong artistic personality.
Van Manen’s nude photographs fail to leave anybody indifferent (paradoxically, today Hans Van Manen is better-known to the general public as a photographer rather than a choreographer): they are powerful and explicit, their language is one of superbly sublime plasticity, perhaps the same plasticity which he painstakingly seeks in his choreography. In other words, the photograph immortalises that ideal, certainly a hedonistic and sensual one, full of profound ancestral eroticism that one finds in his choreography, but through a distilled artistic process of purification that only a great creator of forms in movement is capable of accomplishing.
Roger Salas
BALLET2000 n° 231, July 2012