Text: Jochen Schmidt
Hans van Manen, a living legend
Half a century has gone by and Hans van Manen’s choreographies have lost none of their timeless appeal – grounded as they are in innovation and clarity. A young Van Manen in the sixties once commented “I don’t experiment, I choreograph ballets” – that was back in the day, when ‘experiment’ was not yet considered a dirty word. To a certain degree, Van Manen was absolutely right, as his creations – unique and ingenious as they are and were – never once appear to be flawed or unfinished in any way.
His choreographies hit the mark each time, irrespective of whether he selected a piece of music solely for its isochronic beat and then timed his dancers with a stopwatch to ensure they were in perfect sync with the music’s temporal regularity (Variomatic, 1968); took inspiration from the visual arts and projected Marcel Duchamp's idea of aesthetics onto ballet by creating a choreography in a single day, which was subsequently never altered or performed again (Ready Made, 1967); created a laboratory-like setting in which dancers moved to the sound of noise, and the observer took on the role of a behavioural researcher (Situation, 1970); had his dancers’ movements projected above them in a mirror-like image (Twice, 1970); or created a choreography that opened children’s eyes to the sounds, effects and stories that could emerge from a simple scrap of paper (Snippets, 1970).
Experiments often have the best intentions but sometimes they fail. Van Manen’s work has never been an experiment in this sense of the word. This is true of all his pieces whether he had his dancers perform nude – he was the first choreographer to do so for a serious ballet – and filmed the movements of their naked bodies in slow motion (Mutations, 1970); had a ballerina dance a pas de deux with a video camera (Live, 1979); had his dancers perform amazing feats in cabinets the size of telephone boxes (In and Out, 1983), had a male and female dancer perform a duel that was as erotically charged as it was professional (Sarcasm, 1981), or had dancers tell mysterious stories through choreographies lasting just seconds (Visions Fugitives, 1990).
Van Manen’s objective was never just to shock or provoke. Rather, in retrospect, it is obvious that his call for clarity and timeless beauty, which became apparent to everyone after he choreographed an impressive series of classical ballets from the mid-1970s onwards, was already firmly rooted in his choreographies from the ‘60s and early ‘70s, however audacious they seemed at the time.
THE ARCHITECT OF DANCE
It is this aspect in particular that gives Van Manen’s choreographies their endless allure, enabling them to stand the test of time. Even his early work from the 1960s, such as The Moon in the Trapeze (1959) or Metaphors (1965) – not to mention the brilliant Squares (1969) – has survived the ravages of time virtually unscathed, punctuated as they are by his idiosyncratic style and signature aesthetic.
The choreographer is a firm believer in the ‘less is more’ approach and feels young choreographers are far too partial to frills and frou frou. He is very emphatic on the subject: “Everything needs to be stripped bare. No decorations – the frills need to go. It has to be simple.” During his career, Van Manen frequently worked with set designers such as Jean-Paul Vroom and Keso Dekker, who were instrumental in bringing his notion of bold simplicity to life.
Van Manen often sees himself as an ‘architect of dance’, in which space is determined by movement, in a manner that is in line with Bauhaus principles. His choreographies embody Piet Mondriaan's style, characterised as they are by clean lines and geometric shapes, while simultaneously meeting Michaelangelo’s criteria that the ‘perfect’ sculpture should be able to roll downhill and remain intact. The choreographer does not use any narrative in his work or rely on anecdotes – he wants the dance to be appreciated for what it is. In achieving this objective, Van Manen ensures none of the grace and beauty of ballet is lost. In fact, the opposite is true: he showcases the exquisite poetry of dance as no other – quite how he does this is one of the great mysteries inherent to any true work of art.
It goes without saying that Van Manen doesn’t just pull choreographies out of thin air. All choreographers build on the great masters that came before them. Van Manen once said “Everyone steals, the only thing that matters is who you steal from!” His undisputed mentor is George Balanchine, who he has succeeded in the last 10 years as the world’s leading choreographer. Balanchine’s influence on Van Manen is unmistakeable: they both demonstrate the same striking musicality in their work, and Van Manen’s piece, Sarcasm, can be seen as a tribute to Balanchine, with its light blue background and the grand piano on stage.
Nevertheless, Van Manen was quick to develop his own signature style at a young age, and carved his own path in the dance world. For instance, as early as 1965, Van Manen demonstrated in opus 13, Metaphors, that he had moved beyond the strict neoclassicism of his mentor, which was still prescribed at the time. And by the ‘70s, Van Manen injected a new kind of humanity into dance by having his dancers face one another – an aspect that had been slightly lost during the neoclassical movement.
His piece, Metaphors was an innovative work as it had two male dancers perform a pas de deux, something which later became a hallmark of Van Manen’s work. It is worth noting that there was nothing homoerotic about this first-ever male pas de deux, and that the same can be said of all male duets he choreographed. His sexual orientation, which he was quite open about publicly, never featured in his work as it did in pieces by Maurice Béjart, Rudi van Dantzig or John Neumeier. Hans van Manen's ballets are characterised by freedom of movement, and this includes the sexual realm. His choreographies are almost utopian in their embodiment of ideals such as respect, generosity and, last but not least, professionalism.
Hans van Manen’s work cannot be pigeonholed into a specific category. He has gone through many different phases in the half century that he has been a choreographer, and no single style defines him completely, which demonstrates the breadth of his mastery. His choreographies in the ‘70s such as Grosse Fuge (1971), Adagio Hammerklavier (1973) and Lieder ohne Worte (1977) were inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. They showcase his love of German and Austrian 19th century chamber music. Anyone who thought these pieces could not be surpassed would have had to eat their words in the ‘90s and the early years of the 21st century. Choreographies such as Sarcasm, Visions Fugitives, Polish Pieces and Chamber Ballet (1995), not to mention Solo (1997), in which three male dancers perform an astonishing choreography in relay, all match the Beethoven and Mendelssohn ballets in terms of talent and prowess.
But Van Manen’s most recent pieces, such as Frank Bridge Variations (2005) – a marvel of elegant and beautiful choreography – and Six Piano Pieces (2006) should not be overlooked either. They remain unparalleled in the dance world in demonstrating how movement can be used to lay bare music’s underlying structure.
Even Van Manen’s very early years should not be disregarded – and these are, generally speaking, the years in which a choreographer is still learning. In Van Manen’s case, by opus 10 – at the very latest – he had demonstrated his skill as an accomplished professional, presenting a compelling interpretation of Symphony in Three Movements by Igor Stravinsky, his favourite musician. What’s more, just two years later, he managed to choreograph his first masterpiece opus 13, Metaphors.
Yet, it is Van Manen’s later work which truly reflects how innovative he was throughout the different phases of his career, particularly in the realm of dance duets – his speciality. This can be observed in how deftly he incorporated tense and conflict-ridden relationships in Twilight (1972) and how brilliantly he showcased the almost sacred synergy between dancers themselves and the music in Adagio Hammerklavier, but also the novel and critical perspective he offered on relationships and human interaction, personified by such peculiar, despondent and wistful characters as those in Two (1990) and Chamber Ballet.
AN INFLUENTIAL CHOREOGRAPHER
Van Manen – who incidentally has also made a name for himself as a well-respected photographer, with exhibitions in several famous museums – more than deserves the numerous honours and important prizes bestowed on him during the course of his impressive career, including the German Dance Prize, the Duisburg Music Prize, the Prix Benois de la Danse and, last but not least, the highly prestigious Erasmus Prize.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all, at an advanced age, he is still creating choreographies that contain the energy, creativity and vision of a young man. At an age when most would have retired, Van Manen’s choreographies are not only more elegant and musical, but are also more powerful, perceptive and consistently outstanding than that of any other choreographer. Fortunately, Van Manen’s creativity shows no sign of waning, which his friends and admirers, as well as the author of this text, are grateful for and we hope it will remain so for a long time to come.
Jochen Schmidt (1936 - 2010) was one of the most esteemed dance critics in Germany. He was a dance critic for Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung from 1968 to 2003 and wrote ‘Tanzen gegen die Angst’. Pina Bausch (1998). This article appeared in the book ‘Meer dan een halve eeuw dans’, published by De Arbeiderspers in 2007. We would like to extend our thanks to Schmidt’s heirs for making this possible.