New creations are the exception in the life of most ballet companies, not the norm, and Dutch National Ballet deserves an avalanche of bouquets for going against the grain, especially in the current context. For its 50th anniversary season, the Amsterdam-based company has chosen to present a festival of no fewer than nine premieres, and this almost unparalleled undertaking has paid off handsomely, with two varied and accomplished programmes.
Present/s was conceived as an examination of the current state of ballet, and on the basis of the first programme, the trend for hyperextensions and existential angst isn’t going anywhere. Two works deployed both with wild energy: Krzysztof Pastor’s Chapters, otherwise let down by a rather obscure love entanglement, and Juanjo Arqués’s Consequence. Arqués, a company member, brought Wayne McGregor to mind with his writhing, highly articulate style and minimalist design choices, but his work feels more human and, for such a young choreographer – he is 34 – is quite promising.
Present/s 1 also ran the gamut of gender representation, from traditional roles to cheeky subversion – the latter a welcome alternative for the art form. Company director Ted Brandsen epitomised it in Raï, with bright-coloured short dresses for men and women alike and upbeat ensemble scenes in which their differences seemed to blur as they danced side by side. Christopher Wheeldon’s Duet, on the other hand, is the modern pas de deux at its most sentimental: swooning girl meets strong man, he manipulates her into new positions, and both lovely images and awkward partnering moments ensue.
Hans Van Manen is one of the founding fathers of Dutch dance, and his new work dominated the first evening. In Variations for two couples, the women don’t swoon: the low lifts highlight their steely strength, and when one man introduces his partner with a sweeping gesture, she does the same for him, before repeating one of his sequences of turns on pointe. Even in the last section, set to Astor Piazzolla, Igone de Jongh and Anna Tsygankova are never passively sensual, a feat few choreographers manage where tango is involved.
With a few white lines for the set and dark unitards for the dancers, Variations is a sober, pared-down ballet, and yet its witty musicality needs nothing more: a flexed foot, a head shake, a walk on pointe are drama enough. Van Manen will be 80 this year, but his younger counterparts still have much to learn from his brand of neoclassicism.
Present/s 2 featured four very distinctive choreographic voices, and the programme was met with a deserved standing ovation. Dutch dancemaker Ton Simons’ The Nature of Difference unfolds like an architectural game of chess, with four couples at a time echoing phrases in neat patterns and occasionally falling to the ground like captured pieces. They remain studied as the Thomas Adès score grows strident and a large yellow panel advances as if to crush them until the women, all straight lines and pelvic tilts in their tutus, win the day in a final twist.
Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, the resident choreographers of the Nederlands Dans Theater, also contributed a new work, Short Time Together. Its two sections have little in common, but the first showcases their typically high-energy, neurotic style with three men and a woman channelling a cartoonish Cleopatra-like figure. David Dawson’s Day4 proved more coherent: this creation for seven soloists is set in a perpetual dusk, with warm light only occasionally piercing through the grey. The dancers’ encounters seem to happen on a fleeting threshold, their spiralling shapes and Apollonian lines blurring in the fog.
No survey of ballet today would be complete without Alexei Ratmansky, probably the most prolific classical choreographer alive. With Souvenir d’un lieu cher he has given Dutch National Ballet a miniature jewel for two couples, so ripe with emotion it seems to compress several novels into 14 minutes. Ratmansky knows that folk-flavoured steps or a low arabesque can be made to express more than most extensions, and the rich, lush texture and sinuous expressivity of the choreography matched Tchaikovsky’s concerto every step of the way. As often, his women are quintessential Russian heroines, conflicted yet powerful, drenched with feeling, and Tsygankova in particular soared through the ballet.
The experiment as a whole seemed entirely positive for the company: with nine premieres, dancers of all ranks had the opportunity to shine in choreography designed for them, which matters more than the ballet world seems to think.