Hans van Manen
Erwin Olaf

The international significance of Hans van Manen

27 September 2021

Sjeng Scheijen, biographer of Hans van Manen

There’s a famous anecdote about Hans van Manen and Benno Premsela, with a leading role for a vase. Hans was young at the time – he was a dancer already, but not yet a celebrity choreographer. Premsela had not yet gained fame as a designer, but was already known for his decoration of the Bijenkorf department store and maybe also as a champion of gay rights. Hans was at Benno’s home, in Amsterdam, when Benno received a parcel from Milan. It was a beautiful vase by Venini, for the then impressive sum of a hundred and fifty guilders. You couldn’t buy anything like it in the Netherlands. Benno had gone to Milan especially to choose the vase and order it. When he unpacked it, he shouted ‘catch’ and threw it across the kitchen to Hans. Without thinking twice, he threw it back. “Then I walked away. I thought ‘now he’s going to keep on doing it’”. That was how art was viewed in the small world in which Hans reached adulthood. Beauty was important. You had to be prepared to pay a high price for it and to go on a long journey to get it. You needed understanding and a good eye to choose it – and in short there was hardly anything that was more important than art, but there was no room for submissive veneration of it.

Dancers think it’s wonderful to dance his pieces

Personal creativity, friendship, humour and real life were always more important. And Hans has held this viewpoint throughout his artistic life. He absorbed nearly all the major movements in dance of the twentieth century. Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, the modern dance revolution of the sixties and the great Hollywood dancers – they all found a place in his dance idiom. But he never let them dominate his own vision. He caught the vase and threw it on. Admiring, but irreverent. The amazing thing is that all his ballets, whatever tradition they are rooted in, bear his distinct signature. There’s a very good reason why Van Manen ballets are programmed all over the world; namely that dancers think it’s wonderful to dance his pieces. His dance idiom is based on physical possibilities and the joy of dance, but it also builds on what’s already familiar to dancers; on the knowledge concealed within their bodies. The international significance of his ballets is this: he uses the greatness of the dance tradition to develop his own dance idiom – dignified and swinging at the same time – and thus shows the international ballet world the path to the future.


Sjeng Scheijen

Slavist, Russia expert and writer Sjeng Scheijen received worldwide praise for his biography of Sergei Diaghilev. He is currently working on a new biography of Hans van Manen.