Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen has been called the Mondrian of ballet, the Versace of ballet, the Pinter of ballet and the Antonioni of ballet – but really, he is just the Hans van Manen of ballet, with a distinctive personal style that mixes formal austerity and glassy elegance with erotic charge.
Hans van Manen was born in 1932 in Nieuwer Amstel in the Netherlands. After his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1939, the family moved to central Amsterdam, close to the city theatre. As a boy, Van Manen was smitten with dance: he would give solitary performances to radio broadcasts when no one was home, and peek into the windows of the theatre studios. At 13, he began to work for a theatre makeup artist, and at 18 he joined Sonia Gaskell’s company Ballet Recital. A year later he moved to the Netherlands Opera Ballet, where he stayed for seven years; there he was promoted to soloist, and created his first choreographic works.
Escaping the “ballet war” in the Netherlands (several rival companies had emerged in the late 1950s), Van Manen left to join Roland Petit’s company in Paris. But in 1960 he returned to join a breakaway group of dancers from Gaskell’s troupe who formed a groundbreaking new company in The Hague: Nederlands Dans Theater. Van Manen was resident choreographer and joint artistic director from 1961 to 1971.
Internal disputes led Van Manen to quit NDT in 1971, working as a freelancer for a couple of years before joining Dutch National Ballet as choreographer in 1973. He stayed there for 15 years until internal disputes again drove him away – and back to Nederlands Dans Theater, in 1988. Another 15 years passed before more disputes led to his leaving again – and returning to Dutch National Ballet in 2003, where he has remained to date.
Alongside NDT and Dutch National Ballet, Van Manen has created works for Dutch company Introdans. Outside Holland, his works have been staged by companies across the world, including Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Outside dance, Van Manen is well known as a photographer. His work – glossy, often homoerotic (Robert Mapplethorpe was an important influence) – has been exhibited internationally.
Watching Hans van Manen
The technical foundation of Van Manen’s style is classical ballet, but he hybridises it with elements from American modern dance (Martha Graham was an early influence) and with other idioms – gymnastics, martial arts, everyday gesture.
George Balanchine was another early influence; like him, Van Manen favours plotless works. But Van Manen is less interested in “pure movement” than Balanchine, and elements of drama and characterisation are often quite explicit in his pieces – especially in duets (which he clearly enjoys choreographing). His Four Schumann Pieces (1976) was once described as “a dramatic ballet without a story” – a formulation that could serve for his work in general.
On the one hand, Van Manen choreographs formally, concerned with clarity of shape, motif and development; but on the other, he choreographs dramatically, and is specifically interested in the field of gender and sexuality (the visceral matters of roleplay, conflict, dressing/undressing, fetishism and arousal rather than in the transcendent ideals of heterosexual romance). While the look of his ballets is sparse and austere, the feel is charged with drama and eroticism.
Van Manen is always interested in the “look” of his works. He choreographs how and where the dancers look as much as how they move. He’s also interested (as befits a photographer) in how the audience looks, and one of his most famous pieces, Live (1979), explicitly addressed audience voyeurism. (With its live camera relay of the stage action, it’s also pioneering in its use of film technology within choreography.)
Van Manen often choreographs to piano music, partly because it combines intimacy with clarity, and partly because it’s cheap – a combination of artistic conviction and practicality that also marks his choreography. For an in-depth look at Van Manen’s choreography, Michael Kroes’s lengthy article in Ballettanz 2007 is well worth a read.
Keso Dekker has been a regular set and costume designer for Van Manen, Joop Caboort a frequent lighting designer.
When Nederlands Dans Theater presented Glen Tetley and Van Manen’s “nude ballet” Mutations at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1970, someone sprinkled itching powder and ground glass on the stage, which added “a fresh set of contortions to the choreography” and left the Dutch with a “rather grim view of the English attitude to art“. “For the rest of the run,” remembers a technician, “we had to have plain clothes coppers at the back of the stage and one in the auditorium.”
In his own words
“I’m very bad at telling stories, and that’s the reason why I never make full-length ballets. I prefer to make it very short and be as precise as possible.”
“That which occurs between two people is always erotic. Without eroticism there is no life.” – Interview with Michael Kroes, Ballettanz 2007
“The creation of independent duets runs like a thread throughout my work.” – Interview with Edmund Lee, TimeOut Hong Kong 2010
In other words
“Oddly, he has often been considered either too cerebral or too erotic and sometimes both at once.” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times 1996
“He sets up a classical framework, introduces a deviant element, and then fetishises the deviation until it becomes the erotically charged focus of the movement.” – Clifford Bishop, Independent on Sunday 1998
“Van Manen is in many ways a strongly classical dance creator … But just as it takes grit to make a pearl, so Van Manen loves to throw an irritant into the mix.” – Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday 2001
“Hans van Manen does basic instincts in ballet better than anyone alive. The Dutch choreographer … is a near-contemporary of Kenneth MacMillan, another specialist in sexual relations, but where MacMillan is fascinatingly drenched in guilt, Van Manen takes a bold, guilt-free stand.” – Ismene Brown, theartsdesk.com 2010
“Shall we go Dutch?”
“That reminds me of his last piece.”
Van Manen has created more than 120 works, over the course of which he’s developed a distinctive personal style – and if that ain’t broke, why fix it?
Like Van Manen, Glen Tetley, John Butler and Jiří Kylián all made works that fused classical ballet technique with modern-dance ideas and idioms – a hybrid style that became a cornerstone of modern ballet in Europe.
Now watch this
Situation (Nederlands Dans Theater, 1970)
The Royal Ballet in Four Schumann Pieces (1975)
Dutch National Ballet in Sarcasms (1981)
a title=”Dj vu (Nederlands Dans Theater, 1995) ” href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXwkkKRXVkY”>Déjà vu (Nederlands Dans Theater, 1995)
Solo (1997), with Nederlands Dans Theater
Sticky Piece (Introdans, 2003)
There are also 25 very short clips of Van Manen’s work on the video page of his website.