Choreographer Hans van Manen: The Mondrian of Dance

VA few weeks ago he was still standing with his partner and videographer Henk van Dijk in the foyer of the Vienna State Opera, tall, bald, looking attentively through his glasses, laughing, curious as ever. He had come to accompany the recent premiere of his very good friend Martin Schläpfer. And hardly anyone noticed that this best-ager is the most important living choreographer (who then also rehearsed his “Four Schumann Pieces” here). Today Hans van Manen is 90 years old after being celebrated for three weeks in Amsterdam with his own works at the Duch National Ballet and with guest performances by other companies.

You really can’t tell by looking at him. And what the deceased ballet critic Jochen Schmidt chose as the title for a book homage 35 years ago applies to him even more: The contemporary as a classic. Whereby Hans van Manen, who first became a dancer, then a choreographer and finally a photographer, knew how to withdraw slowly and nevertheless remain constantly present. His output is zero after 150 pieces, and he last updated a work three years ago. But that doesn’t matter because his pieces are so contemporary and still a favorite of ballet companies around the world. He has long since brought in the harvest.

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His huge oeuvre has hardly aged, and what old fashioned was, he made that disappear quickly and consistently. But a piece like “Live” from 1979, the first video ballet with a dancer, a cameraman and a large projection, is still fresh and exciting even today, when something like this has long been part of everyday dancer life. With Hans van Manen, dancers were naked for the first time, he was the first to consistently show men dancing in duos, and with him it was always the women who were actually the stronger. A gender fighter ahead of time who never intended such a thing.

The minimalist

Early on he left out more and more equipment, narrative ballet had hardly interested him anyway, the human body was the most important game material for him. He rediscovered it again and again, elicited an infinite number of movement possibilities from it, thought up combinations such as constellations with others. Sometimes on top, sometimes in slippers, sometimes barefoot. Hans van Manen found the interaction between men and women – actually: between people – exciting and inspiring.

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The singer René Pape at an award ceremony in the Dresden Semperoper

He put the men in skirts, experimented with large, democratically structured pieces, had them dance in high heels, to tangos, polkas, fugues – and even without music at all. Hans van Manen used to be more openly political. But then he poured his artistic statements into mostly miniaturized forms that may look similar on the outside, but which always result in an enchanting puzzle of constantly new possibilities of movement and pairing constellations.

Important for Hans van Manen were always elegant, but not distracting costumes, often by Keso Dekker, good lighting and very good music. Such combinations ennobled his works and made them shine. Til today.

Revolutionary and preserver

Hans van Manen has choreographed just as beautifully and expressively for stars as for children (“Unisono”). Because his art was always that of reduction to the essential. His lines are clear and distinct, his conquest of space is balanced, his poetic penetration of the music is clever and lucid. And all of this is usually quite casual. You hardly notice how good Hans van Manen really is. And that’s almost always the case.

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Nevertheless, it was a long way to get there, and Hans van Manen walked it consistently. He was born on July 11, 1932 in Nieuwer Amstel as the son of a Dutch father and a German mother. Trained as a theater hairdresser and make-up artist, he only started dancing at the age of 19. He has performed with Sonja Gaskell’s Ballet Recital and with Roland Petit (one film even shows him alongside the latter’s star, Zizi Jeanmaire). In 1959 he was part of the founding team of the Nederlands Dans Theatre. The Dutch National Ballet became the second important troupe for him. Abroad he built up a strong bond with the Stuttgart Ballet and later also with Martin Schläpfer’s Ballet on the Rhine.

The Dutch National Ballet at a performance of “Hans Van Manen – Master of Dance” in London

Quelle: picture alliance / imageBROKER/Bettina Strenske

Hans van Manen, who likes to be called the Mondrian of dance without breathing its rigor, is, in all modesty, still a star today and probably the best-paid living choreographer. He enjoys it, likes to eat well, loves fashion and has also created a significant second mainstay for himself as an openly gay photographer for some time. Van Manen pieces such as “Great Fugue”, “Adagio Hammerklavier”, “Oktett” or “Five Tangos”, “Twilight” or “Sarcasmen”, “Visions fugitives”, “Kleines Requiem” or “The Old Man and Me” have long been part of the world heritage of classical dance. Ruled by a highly lively spirit that has always believed in the innovation of the genre.

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It's about the genre

Hans van Manen is modern, timeless, familiar, always new. He is a revolutionary and a keeper. Dance is looking for other shores today. But who develops the classic further? Or is it over? These are questions that even an attentive ninety-year-old might ask himself.


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