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Hans van Manen quips: “I’m not interested in pretty, it’s quality that counts”

12 April 2022

In 2016, Hans van Manen was awarded the Grand Prix à la Carrière (the Lifetime Achievement Award) for his impressive and varied artistic oeuvre, as well as for his role in shaping modern European ballet.

In this interview, I talk to him about acclaim and accolades, the joy he feels when collaborating with dancers and the passion he has for dance as an art form. He also discusses dramatic tension on stage, musicality and Ode to the Master, which was created specially in his honour on his 85th birthday, and has since been added to Dutch National Ballet’s repertoire.


Van Manen received the distinction of Commandeur des Arts et Lettres on 11 July, making it the perfect early birthday gift for his 85th birthday.  It is slightly ironic that it was the former director of the Paris Opéra Ballet who presented this honour to Van Manen, as for years she had not considered his work to be suited to the tastes of French ballet audiences. “I must admit it felt like a bit of a victory” confesses the maestro in his new apartment in Amsterdam.

Not only has Van Manen won over France – ballet country par excellence – he has also captured the hearts of Russian audiences, true connoisseurs when it comes to this elegant art form. Yet, there too, as in France, his work was only acknowledged fairly late, as it wasn’t until 2016 that the Bolshoi Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet took his work into their repertoire. “I guess you have to turn 85 for those kinds of things to happen” he jokes.


Van Manen has chosen not to pin the French medallion to his smart, tailor-made suit, rather he keeps it in a cardboard box along with all his other awards, prizes and accolades. This collection includes the esteemed Erasmus prize as well as several Prix Benois de la Danse awards – which are often referred to as the ‘Oscars’ of the classical ballet world. What’s more, in 2016 Hans van Manen was awarded the Grand Prix à la Carrière for his impressive and varied artistic oeuvre and for his pivotal role in shaping modern European ballet. In the Netherlands, he was one of a very select group of artists, alongside Corneille en Karel Appel, to have been granted the title of Commander of the Order of the Netherlands Lion.

“It is wonderful to have people appreciate your work” Van Manen concedes, “I love being recognised in public. Some time ago, a woman came up to me in the supermarket, gave me the thumbs up and said, ‘Hey Mr Van Manen, you are amazing’, which is lovely. I mean, like a lot of us, I want to be loved... I’m not going to deny that.” He then says, rather impishly: "Another additional perk is when I go to  Saint Petersburg, I know a limousine will be waiting for me to take me to the Astoria hotel, where I will stay in a beautiful suite. What more could a person ask for?”




At age 85, Van Manen is often asked why he hasn’t retired yet. He explains: “My answer is always the same: because I love working with dancers. Many people think that, for me, it’s all about creating new ballets and that that’s the reason I don’t retire. But the truth is I don’t actually want to create any new works” he says with an infectious laugh. He then goes on to assure us: “Yes, yes I know Dutch Doubles is set to premiere on 18 March at Dutch National Ballet. I work best under pressure. In fact, left to my own devices, I would probably spend most of my time cooking for friends and watching snooker on TV. I mean that would be great – don’t get me wrong – but I’d just miss the dancers too much if I did that.”

The year 2016 marked his 60th anniversary as a choreographer. In that time, he built up an impressive repertoire, with his pieces being performed all over the world by more than 90 ballet companies. He tells us: “I travel all over the world for rehearsals and one thing that strikes me in particular is how much ballet techniques have advanced in the last 60 years. Dancers nowadays are really exceptionally good. Back in the day, it was unusual if a dancer could perform eight consecutive pirouettes, now they think nothing of doing 16.  I have to admit dancers’ bodies these days have improved my earlier works, making them more ‘aesthetically pleasing’. However, virtuosity is not the be-all and end-all for me, my choreographies are about more than just technique. A dancer performing in one of my ballets has to understand the essence of that piece.”



Are your pieces always about the intimacy of human relationships?

“Balanchine, my great mentor, used to always say: ‘One person on stage is a variation (pas seul), two people create a story’. I’m not interested if there’s no story, and I don’t mean that in a narrative sense – quite the opposite in fact – but I do want clarity. I despise frills and frou frou, things should only be on stage if they serve a purpose.  The minute two people are on stage together and look at one another, something happens. This is why I insist dancers listen to my instructions about where to set their gaze. I have a strong aversion to dancers facing the audience, as this feels very contrived to me. Dancers need to be perfectly attuned to one another all the time to create dramatic tension on stage, especially in a pas de deux. It is the only way for true chemistry to occur on stage. I never walk into the studio with a particular idea or emotion in mind that needs to be reflected in my choreography. I think it’s important not to force things and ‘just let them happen’, a choreographer shouldn’t strive to make it ‘pretty’. I’m not interested in pretty, it’s quality that counts. And if it is good, it’ll be pretty.”

You have always been praised for your musicality

“To me, music is the determining factor, it dictates what I do. It’s all about the rhythm and emotion a piece of music evokes. You don’t have to have studied music to appreciate it. If music has a logical structure, it can ‘be visualised’. In this way, I am able to use ballet to help people ‘see’ a piece of music. The best compliment a composer can give me is to say: ‘I have heard this piece so many times, but your choreography gave me new insights.’ If a composer says something along these lines, I feel I’ve laid bare the intangible. I can’t read music, let alone a score. Some composers have very kindly offered to teach me, but I’ve always declined as I am far too lazy for that (another infectious laugh). I feel being able to read music would somehow compromise my artistic freedom. If I was able to read notes, I could easily project this onto my choreography and I’ve never wanted to do that. Complete freedom is imperative to me, I’ve never settled for anything less. It, is in my opinion, essential when creating a great work of art.”

Complete freedom is imperative to me, I’ve never settled for anything less.”

Van Manen has always preferred working as a choreographer-in-residence at a company. He has been the resident choreographer for Dutch National Ballet since 2005. He confesses: “I worked as a freelance choreographer for a while and I hated it. Resident choreographers have a clear idea of their company’s artistic vision: they know the dancers and the repertoire, and therefore have no trouble creating a work that ties in with the rest of the programme.” This is why I occasionally decided to choreograph a comic ballet: I felt the repertoire was overly serious and wanted people to have a laugh in between.”

You are about to be thrust into the limelight again with Ode to the Master. But On the Move is a new addition to the repertoire isn’t it?

Van Manen answers: “I choreographed On the Move in 1992 for Nederlands Dans Theater. It is an ensemble piece, which I felt compelled to create as, at the time, everyone was choreographing small-scale works. So, I decided to create something big. My work environment has always been a source of inspiration to me – I generally choreograph pieces that I feel are needed at that time. One of my great passions is abstract art – it is featured in nearly every nook and cranny of my home. Abstract forms tell a story that I find endlessly fascinating. I think this is reflected in On the Move, particularly the idea that everything needs to be stripped bare. I am a constructivist after all. I chose to alternate ensembles with pas de deux and solos in this ballet, as I wanted to unleash the communicative powers of dance and express what words cannot.”

Another one of your works, 5 Tangos, is set to music by Astor Piazzolla.  How does that compare to Prokoviev's violin concerto in On the Move?

“Both Prokofiev and Piazzolla's compositions are all about rhythm. Rhythm provides the foundation for all dance forms. Peoples of all cultures, in all parts of the world, started dancing because they heard or detected a rhythm in something. For 5 Tangos, I didn't want to emulate the tango, nor did I want to create a Spanish dance reminiscent of a romantic classical ballet. So you see, I hadn’t set myself an easy task. But it is one of my most frequently performed ballets."

An Ode to Hans van Manen

BTS Ode to the Master - zonder tekst

One of your most popular choreographies Sarcasmen – again set to music by Prokofiev – will also be revived. It is an exciting, slightly vicious duet.

A pas de deux shouldn't be a piece created purely for the stage, it needs to emerge from something. There is always something going on, something that needs to be solved... that is what makes the pas de deux so gripping. But a classic ‘happily-ever-after ending’ – no, that’s not my style, although I do always include a positive side. I'm an optimist and rely on my intuition for most things. At the time, I was crazy about Clint Farha and Rachel Beaujean: these two dancers allowed me to be provocative and daring. I created this ballet for them and with them.  Sarcasm is usually employed when people like each other and use humour, often quite harshly, to tell each other the truth. You try to get a rise out of the other person, try not to react, but of course you can’t help yourself and end up losing!  Prokoviev's music also has a sarcastic element to it – at least that's what I hear.”

Symphonieën der Nederlanden is a monumental ballet, isn’t it?

"Nowadays I tend to create smaller ballets, so I can focus on precision and each minuscule movement – that’s what I enjoy doing. But in 1987 I 'simply' wanted to create a grand finale to conclude the Amsterdam Culturele Hoofdstad festivities. But I wasn’t sure about which music to set it to until musicologist Elmer Schönberger gave me a tape with a couple of suggestions on it, including Louis Andriessen’s Symphonieën der Nederlanden for the wind ensemble. I instantly knew this piece was it: it had a certain light touch to it, cheerful and swinging, which would provide the perfect ending to this rather serious cultural event. At the time I was completely intrigued by brass fanfare competitions in the United States. They are mind-blowing: ten men carry a tuba and pull off crazy and complicated marching band formations and then all do a backwards somersault simultaneously, hahaha! It’s fabulous! This is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind for this ballet with no less than 24 dancers." (laughing). “Except for the salto mortale then."

Dutch National Ballet’s programme showcases various ballets created during different stages in your career, but they all have that distinctive Hans van Manen signature style.  What are your thoughts on this?

“It is a fundamental truth that a new ballet will emerge from one that already exists. I do not categorise my work according to themes or phases. People will occasionally say ‘that is so Van Manen’. But what does that actually mean? People used to say that about Picasso all the time as well, right up to his death, usually with a slightly mocking air: ‘A typical Picasso painting’. Nowadays, his style is instantly recognisable to anyone who sees one of his paintings. Style is a logical extension of artistry. I mean we can never completely escape ourselves, can we? That’s impossible."


This article was published previously in Odeon 107.