Dutch National Ballet: Hans van Manen Variations

Live stream from Het Musiktheater, Amsterdam
February 27 & 28, 2021

Maggie Foyer

With schedules disbanded, the Dutch National Ballet has taken the opportunity to celebrate Holland’s most famous choreographer, Hans van Manen. From necessity (bubbles and social distancing) the programme is predominantly duets. Associate Artistic Director Rachel Beaujean, who has Van Manen’s oeuvre in her bloodstream, reminds us that a duet by Hans is a ballet for two people. It is always more than the sum of its parts.

However, the opening work, Adagio Hammerklavier, played with intense sensitivity by Olga Khoziainova, is choreographed for three couples. Written in 1973, and startling in its originality, it updates ballet in a manner not unlike Balanchine but with enlightened gender equality, a new venture on the ballet stage. Van Manen’s dancers are free agents, on equal footing and enjoying shared expression. The choreography is stripped back classicism with moments of breath-taking audacity. The suddenness of a flexed foot catches an emotion too sensitive to voice, then luxuriates in a slow stretch to the extreme. His arabesques are direct and honest, dancers’ arms take ballet’s second position to a place wider, higher and bolder, lifts upend the formal vocabulary and there is not a step that is superfluous or a glance that is wasted.

Elisabeth Tonev and Vito Mazzeo in Adagio HammerklavierPhoto Hans Gerritsen
Elisabeth Tonev and Vito Mazzeo in Adagio Hammerklavier
Photo Hans Gerritsen

Het brought two superb casts to the weekend livestream. It is fascinating to notice the subtle differences that each dancer brings to the choreography. The casts for Adagio Hammerklavier, predominantly principal artists, presented a master class in the style, totally integrated in the music and mindful of every detail. Particularly notable was élève, Elisabeth Tonev, who made a thrilling debut partnered by Vito Mazzeo. Her quiet authority and intensity was matched by Mazzeo’s caring support and there was shared chemistry in their rapt focus and finetuned technique.

Van Manen uses all the bristles and barbs in Sergei Prokofiev’s Sarcasmen in his feisty eponymous duet and, thanks to digital technology, we have ringside seats for the prize fight. It’s a battle where opponents provoke and cold-shoulder, parade, tempt and rebuff in equal measure. Floor Eimers proved enticingly angular and very hard to please, driving Jozef Varga hopping mad. In the other cast, Timothy van Poucke, looking like a bolshie teenager, was forced into a truce by a nonchalant Salome Leverashvili in an electric encounter. The body language is potent, like the moment of first contact, she on pointe with a flex foot entwined round the other or her insolent hand on his crutch. Every move tests just how far they dare jeopardise their undeniable affection for each other. Michael Mouratch, who is equally provocative on the piano, gets the final word as he thumps the piano and walks off leaving a bewildered couple.

Timothy van Poucke and Salome Leverashvili in SarcasmenPhoto Hans Gerritsen
Timothy van Poucke and Salome Leverashvili in Sarcasmen
Photo Hans Gerritsen

Déjà Vu is another fractious duet; one that comes from a darker place where there is no real affection to seal the cracks. A truce only comes with exhaustion, as the strong but incompatible pair finally finish on separate sides of the stage.

Two Pieces for Het (1997) is yet another prickly relationship but again different. The competitive edge offers an excellent platform for the principal artists, Maia Makhateli with Remi Wörtmeyer and Anna Tsygankova with Constantine Allen. In the first piece to Erkki-Sven Tüür’s jazz rhythm, virtuoso pirouettes abound but the heart is the second piece to Arvo Pärt’s Psalom. The engagement is deeper, more complex and real, but the tension never fully abates. The final moment says it all. The dancers have separated walking backwards to the edge of the stage before coming together as she rests her head on his shoulder and hands clasp.

Jessica Xuan and Martin ten Kortenaar in Variations for two couplesPhoto Hans Gerritsen
Jessica Xuan and Martin ten Kortenaar in Variations for two couples
the closing work of Dutch National Ballet’s
Hans van Manen Variations programme
Photo Hans Gerritsen

Van Manen’s Trois Gnossiennes, unadorned but distinctive, captures the mystery of Satie’s famous music. Two outstanding casts, Anna Ol with James Stout and Qian Liu with Jakob Feyferlik make light work of the very slow controlled lifts and supported adage, embedding themselves in fibre of the music.

The final work, the award-winning, Variations for two couples, (2012) gives a platform for eight soloists. It’s a mature work to music by Benjamin Britten, Astor Piazzola among others and offers changing styles and moods. It encapsulates the essence of Van Manen’s duets, sophisticated and chic, able to incorporate a quirky aside and always giving space for the dancers to find themselves in the steps.

An added a treat – and a break to get the Ballet Orchestra in place – was Henk van Dijk’s film, Hans van Manen, dancer. Black and white and oozing nostalgia it shows van Manen as jazz dancer par excellence with rhythm in every sinew, plus a few gems like him trying to work out how women dance on heels!

Rachel Beaujean gave a brief and valuable commentary between each pieces and Ted Brandsen, Artistic Director, was on stage to welcome the virtual audience with his irresistible enthusiasm. The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely looking warmer and brighter after viewing Dutch National in such good form.

Dutch National Ballet’s Hans van Manen streamings will be repeated on March 4 (February 27 cast) & 5 (February 28 cast), 2021 at 7.15pm (UK). Visit www.operaballet.nl for access details.