Hans Van Manen Gala, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

New York may have had Balanchine, London Ashton and MacMillan, but since the 1950s, Amsterdam has cultivated its own, more discreet neoclassical master: Hans Van Manen. The Dutch choreographer, who turns 80 on July 11, has moved back and forth between the country’s most prominent companies, the Nederlands Dans Theater and Dutch National Ballet, shaping the local dance scene in the process. Dutch National Ballet didn’t forget his birthday: to conclude its season, the company delved into his repertoire, bringing nine works or excerpts from longer ballets on tour to Baden-Baden.

The resulting programme was a genuinely unaffected sampling of the range he has developed over decades. There is a touch of Balanchine about Van Manen, particularly in his formal experimentation with ballet technique and structure in plotless works. The musicality is his own, however: more often than not he holds back, letting the music speak as the choreography’s own stream of consciousness ebbs and flows around it. When the two converge, the visual effect is all the more powerful, like an exclamation mark in the middle of a whispered dialogue.

Trois Gnossiennes, a sparse pas de deux set to Satie, is a masterpiece in that regard, serene on the surface yet ripe with slow-burning tension. A flexed foot in pointe shoes turns into a statement in itself for the ballerina, on opening night the strikingly lyrical Larissa Lezhnina. A rare ensemble work, Symphonieën der Nederlanden, set to a score by Louis Andriessen, also shows the interplay of structure and music to a crescendo not unlike Bolero’s, with the ending a triumph of collective spirit for the company.

Beyond the formal, what sets Van Manen apart is the undercurrent of drama in his abstract world, and the gender politics always at play. Grosse Fuge milks the erotic tension between its four couples, yet rather than the overtly sexual and static last scene, the most intriguing part is the austere, ritualistic encounter between them. There is a hint of martial arts to the men’s bare-chested performances, but the women push back, often performing the same steps as them, fists clenched. The same electricity runs through Two Pieces for Het, a pas de deux turned confrontation in which Igone de Jongh and Alexander Zhembrovskyy seemed to compete for power.

A short film, Hans Van Manen the Performer, showed yet another side of him: a goofy charm and sense of showmanship that brought a little Fred Astaire to the evening. Nowhere does Van Manen channel these qualities better than in the 1997 Solo, a suite of variations for three men set to Bach. An effervescent gala piece, it is all sparkling footwork and novel little details: an unexpected head shake here, a choreographic wink there. The evening ended with the drunken scene from Black Cake: choreographically lighter than air but an appropriate toast to the occasion, with tipsy dancers raising their glasses to us – and to Van Manen.

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