Hans Van Manen is often forgotten in the line of 20th-century masters who have shaped neoclassical ballet, from Balanchine to MacMillan. Yet the Dutch choreographer, now 81, may be the one the Mariinsky Ballet can embrace with most ease. As the company tackled its first all-Van Manen programme over the weekend, his ascetic style and musicality found a ready echo among the Russian dancers.
Set to a pensive Beethoven sonata, Adagio Hammerklavier is a masterclass in tension and structure. Less is more as its three couples start walking side by side, eyes downcast; their dances are austerely introspective, fit for the lyrical reserve of the St Petersburg style.
The first cast, led by Maria Shirinkina and Yuri Smekalov, revelled in the ballet’s stark lines and undercurrent of drama. Van Manen knows exactly when to hold back to let steps and music resonate. A flexed foot, a glance at another couple become choreographic events; as Nadezhda Batoeva broke her composure to rush into Xander Parish’s arms, her élan was all the more piercing, a sudden moment of self-expression.
The two shorter works that followed after an interval would benefit from more polishing in the studio. Solo, set to Bach’s Partita No. 1, is a sparkling confection for three soloist men; it is more arduous than their carefree winks and shrugs let on, however, and its Mariinsky cast glossed over the musical details. Variations for Two Couples, one of the choreographer’s more recent hits, seemed to be a work in progress, with curiously sly glances from Alina Somova and partnering issues between Timur Askerov and Ulyana Lopatkina – the latter otherwise wonderfully attuned to the geometry of the choreography.
Five Tangos tipped the scales back in the company’s favour. Van Manen is the sole classical choreographer, in my experience, who can stake a legitimate claim to tango. Instead of the tedious posturing the dance seems to inspire elsewhere, he uses its shapes as a springboard for neoclassical invention, starting with a simple walk and moving swiftly between the rhythmic and melodious lines in the musical structure.
His women are no passive objects here, either, and the steely Viktoria Tereshkina demonstrated as much on Sunday. In her tango with six men, she proudly walked her own path, each pose simmering with tension. She and Vladimir Shklyarov, who contributed a scintillating solo, stole the evening with rare stylistic authority. This new relationship with Van Manen is a fruitful development for the Mariinsky, which has lacked artistic focus lately; the company would do well to devote more resources to it.