Hans van Manen

Classic Arts Features   Hans van Manen
"Tradition is not something of the past. Tradition is what we do with the past today," says the great Dutch choreographer, whose Grosse Fuge is being performed by Houston Ballet Sept. 7-17.

While Hans van Manen has created ballets in many styles, the four bare-chested men in long black skirts at the start of Grosse Fuge instantly bring the Dutch choreographer's name to mind. Set to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 and Cavatina, Op. 130, the ballet is one of Hans van Manen's most famous calling cards. Premiered by Nederlands Dans Theater in Scheveningen in 1971, it deals, like much of his work, with interpersonal relationships. And while characteristically plotless in terms of a cast iron narrative, van Manen's choreography is inevitably underscored by a story. That story might be wafer thin, but their is always something going on between the dancers in Hans van Manen's ballets. "I am interested in human beings," he has frequently said, and these human beings might be men dancing with women, or same sex liaisons. Either sex may call the shots and in Grosse Fuge the power seesaws back and forth from one to another in games of attraction and rejection.

With Jean-Paul Vroom's stark fluorescent tube serving as the sole decor, the ballet opens with the male quartet commandeering the stage, observed by the four women posed in a huddle at the back. At the end of their dance the men stamp in unison and the situation is reversed; the women take over the stage while the men remain still. Then, with the dancers paired off into couples, the maneuvers become flirtatious and confrontational. But as the ensemble gives way to a series of duets, the whole thing gets more personal. One guy, reduced to scrambling backwards on all fours, is chased into the wings by his woman's aggressively high kicks. However, before any bones are broken, the strings mellow and tensions succumb to eroticism and tenderness.

Born in Amstelveen on July 11, 1932, Hans van Manen studied dance with Sonia Gaskell, Fran‹oise Adret and Nora Kiss. He performed with three different troupes — Gaskell's Ballet Recital, Nederlandse Opera Ballet and Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris — before joining Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT) as one of the original members in 1960. Although he had created his first ballet, Ol_, Ol_, la Margarita, a duet premiered at the Revue Ramses Shaffy in Amsterdam in 1955, Swing for Scapino Ballet in 1956, and Feestgericht for Nederlandse Opera Ballet in 1957, his choreographic career only took hold with NDT. During the '60s he established himself as one of Holland's foremost dancemakers.

On leaving NDT in 1971, he freelanced for two years before joining the Dutch National Ballet as the company's resident choreographer, but he returned to NDT — which has premiered over 60 of his ballets — in 1988. We only have to scan Hans van Manen's catalogue of some 120 works to appreciate the diversity of his output. Take Twilight (1972), set to John Cage's music, in which a female dancer wears high-heeled shoes before discarding them midway through the piece. A decade later, a dozen women were similarly shod for Pose (1982), choreographed to Debussy, which featured one lone male. The original man was not a dancer, but a friend of Hans van Manen's who was well versed in kick boxing. The women, stalking the stage in a line, are said to represent models posing for the camera, and photography is actually another of Hans van Manen's gifts. He is an accomplished photographer and his pictures have been exhibited worldwide.

His interest in film is also apparent in Live, in which a cameraman follows the dancer and the imagery is simultaneously projected on the screen at the back of the stage. The dancer may even wander off the stage with the cameraman in hot pursuit, leaving the audience to follow the action on screen. While the use of live video on stage is now commonplace, Hans van Manen was seen as an innovator when he created Live, to Liszt, in 1979.

Van Manen's Five Tangos (1977), driven along by Astor Piazzolla, shows the choreographer in another vein, as does his humorous Black Cake (1989) in which the revelers at a high society party end up in an inebriated state. Then there's the lyrical Adagio Hammerklavier (1973), which entered Houston Ballet's repertoire in 1978. Set to the Adagio from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in B-flat, Adagio Hammerklavier is just one of the numerous ballets Hans van Manen has set to piano music. In 1984, the Dutch National Ballet brought two mixed bills of Hans van Manen's ballets to London for a week-long season — all accompanied by piano music. In an interview at the time, the choreographer remarked that he frequently turned to piano scores because he liked their intimacy, melody and rhythm. And, of course, as he also shrewdly noted, in times of financial restraints, piano music is economical!

Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, though, is for a string quartet, and is one of the few 19th-century scores which have attracted Hans van Manen. There again, Stravinsky did once remark that it was "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever", and in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'global warming' novel Fifty Degrees Below, published last year, one of the characters frantically vacuums his house while simultaneously playing Grosse Fuge and the Hammerklavier Sonata at full blast.

Emma Manning is the editor of Dance Europe.

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