If any composer can survive a pandemic crashing a major anniversary, it’s probably Ludwig van Beethoven. Frankly, he doesn’t need the promotion. His works will always be played, orchestras will still tackle his Everest of a symphony cycle, opera houses will stage Fidelio. But what of ballet? “The art of dance would be better off not venturing into Beethoven's world,” cautioned George Balanchine, “because it is impossible to choreograph his music.” Yet Hans van Manen proved Mister B wrong. Adagio Hammerklavier (1973) is his masterpiece and Grosse Fuge, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, still feels remarkably contemporary.

Timothy van Poucke in Prometheus
© Hans Gerritsen

The Seventh Symphony, dubbed “the apotheosis of the dance” by Richard Wagner, was choreographed by Twyla Tharp and, very recently, Sasha Waltz. And Beethoven himself composed music for ballet. The Creatures of Prometheus was commissioned by the Imperial Court in Vienna in 1801 as a ballet with mime, choreographed by Salvatore Viganò. The original choreography didn’t survive and the score is usually remembered for its brief, fiery overture, although the dance numbers receive the occasional concert outing. For the composer’s 250th anniversary in 2020 though, Dutch National Ballet scheduled a new Prometheus created by Wubkje Kuindersma, Ernst Meisner and Remi Wörtmeyer. Lockdown meant an inevitable postponement, but their new work finally emerged, fully formed, in this engrossing double bill with van Manen’s Grosse Fuge.

Sho Yamada and Young Gyu Choi and ensemble
© Hans Gerritsen

Each of the three choreographers has taken on the part of the Prometheus story that most appealed to them, but their visions unite around the remarkable central portrayal of Prometheus by Timothy van Poucke. Dressed in a red suit, carrying “fire” stolen from the gods in the form of a lamp during Kuindersma’s overture, he drives the ballet. Kuindersma focuses on Prometheus’ inner world, including repeated settings of the “tempest” music as solos for van Poucke. Tatyana van Walsum’s set features video projections which initially show clay figures writhing in primordial slime, but morph into cross-sections of rock or molten lava or running water.

Meisner is more inspired by the theme of creation itself and his sections show Prometheus plucking two children – some amusing lifts here – who quickly morph into adults Daniel Silva and Sho Yamada who dance as if exploring their bodies and learning how to move. In the Allegro con brio (the three choreographers pluck the dance numbers mostly at random from Beethoven’s score), they are joined by the corps as their clay figures come to life. 

Kuindersma also contributes a central duet for van Poucke and Floor Eimers – she now wearing his red jacket – which is a highlight of this new creation. Eimers dances with great attack, mirroring van Poucke exactly, but Kuindersma also throws in some dramatic high lifts.

Timothy van Poucke and Floor Eimers in Prometheus
© Hans Gerritsen

As his inspiration, Wörtmeyer takes the moment Prometheus gives the humans fire and how they respond, so there is less of van Poucke here, featuring instead four couples dressed in red, sometimes dancing in canon, at others in duet for an extended sequence of numbers, including the lovely harp and flute Adagio

Kuindersma choreographs the finale, music familiar through its use in the Eroica Symphony. Danced by the corps, it is explosive, energetic and upbeat – played with lively punch by the Dutch Ballet Orchestra under Marzio Conti – until they all disappear behind the screen, leaving Prometheus alone. Considering it could have looked disjointed – with three creative inputs – this attractive new work has remarkable cohesion and vitality.

Edo Wijnen and Young Gyu Choi in Grosse Fuge
© Hans Gerritsen

From a trio of choreographers and their fiery creation to the white set and shifting neon lighting strip of the Dutch “old master”. Hans van Manen’s Grosse Fuge has an austerity which perfectly fits Beethoven’s granitic string writing. The four men in black skirts – arms stretched, fists clenched – make their muscular movements with force, the response of the four women is softer. In their duets, the DNB soloists spurred each other on, challenging, almost taunting each other, high-kicking, out-leaping, evading each other’s grasp. The second half, set to the Cavatina from Op.130, is more lyrical, more tender, beautifully rendered by the dancers here. And how touching also to see van Manen (now 88) taking a curtain call, clearly still revered by dancers and audience alike.

This performance was reviewed from the Dutch National Ballet video stream