Dutch National Ballet dance Beethoven

Livestream from Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam
June 8, 2021

Director Ted Brandsen was back on stage to welcome audiences for the first live performance of Dutch National Ballet in eight months. The delight was mutual and the warmth of the scattered audience tangible. The Ballet Orchestra were in good form under conductor Marzio Conti and the dancers raring to go. It’s still only the new normal but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

George Balanchine stated that Beethoven’s music was undanceable and he may be right. The only ballet music that Beethoven wrote was Creatures of Prometheus (1801), composed for a ballet d’action. It was a great success, suiting a time when dancers postured in elaborate costumes representing godlike figures, but for choreographers of today it presents huge challenges.

Beethoven’s take on the story of Prometheus offering life to humans and instructing them in the arts and science, has been interpreted as his ode to the Enlightenment. This is commendable but today’s dance has moved on apace and the very formal structure seems altogether too square and inflexible.

Young Gyu Choi and Riho Sakamoto, and Connie Vowles and Michele Esposito,
in Prometheus
Photo Hans Gerritsen

In an unusual commission Brandsen assigned three choreographers, Wubkje Kuindersma, Ernst Meisner and Remi Wörtmeyer to revision the ballet. They have trimmed the synopsis: Prometheus steals the fire of the gods to bring his clay figures to life. Now in human form, they develop into creative beings but overreaching the limits, they are eventually consumed by fire. The choreographers have wisely chosen to sidestep the narrative and engage their talents in more abstract forms. 

Tomothy van Poucke as Prometheus takes centre stage breathing life into the well-disciplined corps of clay figures who enjoy newfound freedom but it is only when fiery red streaks, like molten lava, pour down the rocks that the excitement builds. Prometheus finds an interesting partner in Promethea (Floor Eimers) and joins her in a duet spiced with a competitive edge. However, she soon leaves him, keeping his shirt as a trophy. The later pas de deux, diverse, delightful and beautifully performed, express love themes, humour and contrariness that tell us more about human relationships than fire from the gods.

The finale, engulfed in flickering red lights with Van Poucke leaping and spinning in anguish, is highjacked by the music that tells a very different story of harmony and order. Prometheus is an interesting collaborative experiment, giving a platform for fine choreography but ultimately not a success story.

Edo Wijnen and Young Gyu Choi in Grosse Fuge by Hans van Manen
Photo Hans Gerritsen

Hans van Manen’s Grosse Fuge proves convincingly that Beethoven’s music is perfectly suitable for dance. Choreographed in 1971, the work makes a bold statement for dance in a period when modern art was in-your-face and unapologetic and when gender battles were on the front line. Van Manen says it all with a freshness that still takes your breath away. It is stripped back but what remains is unequivocal.

Van Manen indulges in his favourite theme of people watching people. The block of females still as statues watch like hawks as the bare-chested men make their opening statement. They are bold and virile, hands clenched or splayed and ignoring the women although every gesture is for their benefit. In ones and twos, they venture forth bolder and stronger before retreating to their corner and as the brilliance of the white set mellows to a rosy warmth, the women move into action. Very aware of the gaze of the four men, but inwardly focused they pace out Van Manen’s idiosyncratic steps. Only in the solos, first Salome Leverashvili then Maia Makhateli, do eyes briefly meet. It is halfway through the ballet before there is any physical contact.

Catching the beat of Beethoven’s Fuge, the foursomes of black skirted males and pink underdressed females hop and skip in exquisitely structured geometric form: uniquely Van Manen. The mating game continues and the power balance is in flux, interpreted in potent body language. Edo Wijnen lying on the stage wraps his body around Floor Eimers legs. She gazes down then picking up her feet, like a fastidious flamingo, steps out of his embrace before returning to deliver a resounding slap. The men remove their skirts and in the darkening ambiance the women hang on the men’s belts like strange umbilical chords finally bouréeing into a close knit group to lie down together. It’s a work that tells us so much about ourselves.