I must say that I found it intriguing that the Hans Van Manen celebration the Dutch National Ballet is currently touring was titled, ‘Master of Dance’. While I see the appeal in his choreographic style, and did enjoy the evening as a whole, I hardly left feeling that ‘Master of Dance’ was the most suitable turn of phrase to sum up Van Manen’s minimal, rather severe, highly precise, and very grounded style. Van Manen’s choreography is very often all lines and accents, cutting elegant balletic shapes with an abundance of attitudes and extensions, and breaking these lines with the shape or placement of the hand, head, or foot. In many ways the works often felt like highly sophisticated performance art, inviting audiences to observe and study the dancers’ movement, rather than pieces that give outwardly, in an attempt to communicate or convey, as we are so used to with dance.
I found it revealing that in Trois Gnossiennes, a pas de deux set to the music of Satie, Van Manen actually took the decision to include the live pianist on stage so that it became physically part of the performance. As the pianist was shuffled around the stage on her rolling platform by four bare-chested male dancers, her instrument and the music waded into the lead couple’s space, pursuing them or even encroaching on their private pas de deux to become a third partner in the dance with them.
What this selection of works seemed to reveal is Van Manen’s obsession with the music he choreographs to. His movements are often slave to musical line, each accent picked out, each change in tempi carefully observed. It is sometimes as if he is most interested in using the language and postures of dance to dissect musical structures rather than exploring movement (dance) itself.
Van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier
The one exception to this was the witty and thrilling Solo for three male dancers to Bach’s Double Partitia No1 in B Minor. With a piece of music so fast, Van Manen had to finally give in and choreograph a dance interpretation of the music, rather than a dance translation of it. It was insightful and glorious.
It’s this difference that distinguishes the most successful musically analytical choreographies for me. Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet, Siohban Davies Art of Touch, MacMillan’s Danses Concertantes, among many others. They still put the dancing first, and use the music as a source of inspiration, guidance, and structure. Unfortunately the opposite was true for much of Van Manen’s choreography in my view. A Master of Minimalism, Shape, Line, Beauty and Analysis, yes, but I would save the Master of Dance title for another choreographer’s crown.
I’d be interested to hear other’s thoughts on Van Manen’s work, as well as suggestions of other favourites pieces which explore the musical accompaniment in a similar way. Please do leave your comments below.