I suspect that walking naked through the streets of Amsterdam might be no more daunting for Dutch National Ballet's dancers than performing Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier since they would likely feel no less exposed than in the painstaking slow precision of his choreography where miniscule moments of disharmony are starkly magnified. Created in 1973, it nonetheless appears freshly minted as an enchanting visual interpretation of Beethoven’s piano masterpiece (the third movement from “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata), played with splendid dignified expression by Olga Khoziainova. 

Adagio Hammerklavier
© Hans Gerritsen

The gentle ripples of a curtained backdrop set the tone for three couples to radiate an unhurried elegant minimalism adorned by just a hint of sparkle (just as each man’s simple costume – bare torso and white tights – is offset by a silver necklace). Each couple takes the limelight in their own extended pas de deux, expressed in closely synchronised movement based on neoclassical steps, punctuated by the occasional surprise – such as a male dancer suddenly performing crab-like movements with his hands on the stage – as well as reminding us of human qualities in choreographed glances between the performers. 

Timothy van Poucke and Salome Leverashvili in Sarcasmen
© Hans Gerritsen

The piano continued to dominate in Sarcasmen (1981), choreographed to Prokofiev’s Five Sarcasms, but now with the instrument moved centre stage and played by Michael Mouratch. This dance parody began with the man (Timothy van Poucke) showing off his virtuosity to the woman (Salome Leverashvili) who stood, arms crossed and unimpressed. Eventually the dancers came together in a duet that fully matched the piano’s swirling dramatic tension; partnering became a matter of conflict and mutual contempt, heightened by the surprise naughtiness of the woman placing a hand over her partner’s crotch. Eventually, the dancers’ embraced, appearing to transfer their animosity towards the pianist who ended the work by angrily slamming down the lid.

Floor Eimers and Edo Wijnen in Déjà vu
© Hans Gerritsen

Déjà vu (1995) is another in-joke, the title being van Manen’s riposte to criticism that his work had become repetitive. It is the only piece on this programme to have been created at the Nederlands Dans Theater. Van Manen rarely invests meaning into his movement but Déjà vu appears to have bucked that trend, more than inferring the narrative of a relationship that has become competitive to the point of mutual exhaustion and inevitable disintegration. Floor Eimers and Edo Wijnen were impressive, especially in the middle section where their entwined bodies moved sinuously as one for a prolonged period without losing contact. This poignant duet was followed by movement punctuated by questioning and angry gestures. The sense of finality – of never going back – was palpable as the two dancers separated and fell away from each other on the final piano note. Ryoko Kondo completed a trio of pianists for Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, joined by Joanna Wronko on violin. The programme continued with another ubiquitous piece of piano music used for dance with Eric Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes, played by Khoziainova, which was choreographed by van Manen in 1982. The three sections were danced with sombre rigour by Qian Liu and Jakob Feyferlik. 

Qian Liu and Jakob Feyferlik in Trois Gnossiennes
© Hans Gerritsen

The envelope of this digital presentation was thoughtfully constructed with rehearsal footage front-ending the programme and the backstage babble of an excited ensemble covering the closing credits. Each piece was introduced in an impromptu chat between assistant director Rachel Beaujean (a long-term associate of the choreographer) and Lin van Ellinckhuijsen, together with backstage filming in real time. The presentation also included a short film, Hans van Manen Performer, directed by his husband, Henk van Dijk to celebrate van Manen’s 75th birthday (back in 2007); being a collation of clips of the choreographer capturing his humour and movement style at various stages of a long career.

Anna Tsygankova and Constantine Allen in Two pieces for HET
© Hans Gerritsen


Two Pieces for Het (1997) also opened in combative style, repeating the motif from Sarcasmen of the woman (Anna Tsygankova) standing with arms folded watching the dancing man (Constantine Allen). However, their duet then develops joyfully and sensually in movement that winds and rewinds before they stop to stare meaningfully at each other. Purely classical movement was punctuated by hip-swinging, feet-flexing moments of casual modernism. It is a dramatic and solemn pas de deux (dedicated to Beaujean) marked by romantic interludes and concluding with familiar van Manen motifs of the dancers stepping away from one another before returning and resting heads on each other’s shoulders (we had seen this device before in Sarcasmen).

Jingjing Mao and Jared Wright in Variations for Two Couples
© Hans Gerritsen

The final piece was Variations for two Couples (2012) which won the Prix Benois de la Danse for its choreographer. Classical movement was again flavoured by human touches so that, for example, when lifted, Jingjing Mao rocked her head from side to side. Meaningful glances played out between the dancers as if they were sharing a secret. The six pieces on show in this programme spanned 40 years of van Manen’s choreography, exemplifying a repertoire that represents ballet in pure minimalist form but always with scope to illustrate the many facets of human interaction.      

This performance was reviewed from the Dutch National Ballet live video stream of the second cast, Sunday 28th February