If the number of bare male chests exposed on the stage at Sadler’s Wells this week is meant to suggest a symbolic baring of the male psyche then the Dutch National Ballet (DNB) underwent a good deal of soul searching in their celebration of Hans Van Manen’s work. Their resident choreographer has created 120 ballets in his sixty year career and in this programme DNB performs five.

© Angela Sterling
© Angela Sterling

An exploration of the psychological and physical power relationships between and within the sexes is a common theme in Van Manen’s work and characterises four of the five pieces. The evening opens with the Adagio Hammerklavier set to Beethoven’s piano sonata. Three couples take to the stage and perform understated, restrained classical movements which build slowly and then halt in freeze frame style before reaching fulfilment. The bare-chested male dancers clad in diamond collars dominate the stage and the dance, controlling and manipulating their female partners whose passivity suggests melancholy, defeat and repeated disappointment.

The mood and the energy level is lifted in Solo, where three male dancers perform ‘relay style’ in order to keep to the daring pace of Bach’s exuberant partita for violin. The speed and pace showcases the physical prowess of the three young men who seem to compete to be the fastest and most energetic. Trois Gnossienes, a short pas de deux performed to Satie’s score is designed to contrast the skills of the female and male dancers and features some impressive lifts, but the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Concertante set to the music of Frank Martin. Eight dancers perform a witty theatrical mix of jazz and classical dance. Dressed in striking striped one piece leotards their performance is as colourful as the costume. At last a little balance is restored in the battle of the sexes with a powerful performance from Michelle Jimenez who issues a daring challenge to her partner Jozef Varga.

The evening ends with more Beethoven and more bare chested machismo in Grosse Fuge, performed to the composition of the same name. The male dancers perform in ‘marshal arts’ style floor length skirts, while the women simply wait to be summoned to join them in a series of pas de deux. Eventually the men rip off their own skirts in a ‘Bucks Fizz-style reveal’, displaying close fitting shorts before standing astride the prone female dancers who clasp the belts of their partners to rise and fall, before being dragged across the stage. This attempt at eroticism felt as dated as the Eurovision winners and distinctly out of synch with contemporary attitudes and mores. This mixed programme from DNB with live music from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia provides a varied evening in many respects. The insights into contemporary relationships provided by the choreography are limited but the company’s performance does provide an illuminating insight into the work of their prolific choreographer.