Review – Hans von Manen program (Adagio Hammerklavier, Solo, Trois Gnossiennes, Concertante, Grosse Fuge)- Dutch National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

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Blogging dance is a challenge for me. I like to write about everything I do, but for dance I find it hard to put things into words. In part this is because I lack a specialized vocabulary to discuss it; dance for me is often experienced without the socialization that enables me to learn how to talk about it better (though I don’t want to start blogging it in a way that makes me harder to understand). And for abstract dance, I find the experience tends to be extraordinarily ephemeral, slipping away from me just hours after the show is over. And as I’ve been trying to be more “into” the experience of a show (meaning that I’m spending the time I’m watching it thinking about what is going on and not thinking about how to describe it in words and am therefore often not taking notes while it’s happening), it’s getting harder for me to hold on to those few words that capture what happened. On the other hand, I think I’m having a better time sitting there without a notebook, scribbling away instead of giving the stage all of my attention, so I’m doing something right, but I’m not really going to be improving too much as a writer. Anyway, apologies in advance for this somewhat abbreviated review.

The impressions I took away last night of the Hans von Manen program at Sadler’s Wells were mixed. The first piece, “Adagio Hammerklavier,” featured three couples moving about in a way that reminded me a lot of the abstract work of Balanchine, but with some crucial element missing. Arms were lifted, women danced on pointe and were, in their turn, lifted, each couple took a turn on their own. Sadly, I failed to engage (although I did seriously gawk at the shirtless men, their torso development was so strong that I felt like I was at Chippendales for the intelligentsia). I think what was missing was the emotional connection that Balanchine’s pieces always seem to have even when they lack any narrative whatsoever; it always seems like there’s something going on between the dancers despite the fact they never seem in need of having an enchantment lifted from them. This made me wonder if von Manen was a Balanchine disciple doing his own version of the master’s style, but I’m not sure and that may just be me imposing my own American view of 20th century ballet on a choreographer who may have had nothing to do with him at all.

This piece was followed immediately by “Solo,” which was actually a trio, but as solos, as a piece for three men to show off, as they bounced around, spun, but somehow failed to act like traditional ballet dancers. It felt entirely improved. I was kind of pained by the horrible colored t-shirts they each had on under their dark overshirts, but it was hard to say no to the energy and enthusiasm, and it was a great showpiece for the very strong men in this company.

After a long break, we went into my favorite piece of the night, “Trois Gnossiennes.” Amusingly, I had just been telling my companion that everytime I saw a performance in which an instrument was on stage, the whole thing was gimmicky, and yet here we were with a piano and pianist on stage with five dancers. I had a brief flashback to shows gone wrong, but then the beautiful music pulled me in, and I was hearing the swirling strange sounds of the symbolist era, and watching the bending and turning of the lead couple (the other three dancers just pushed the piano about on stage, rather like a float at a parade) and losing myself in the beautiful movement and the ponderous slide of the piano, and suddenly it was all over. Well, hell. My entire theory about gimmicky musical instruments was just blown to bits.

However, the final piece, Grosse Fuge, brought back another favorite trope, this time from the Brady Bunch. There’s an episode in which Marcia (the middle sister) decides to audition for a modern dance group, and she does this very abstract (and probably Martha Graham-like) dance with a scarf. At the end, the cruel female impresario says to the always brow-beaten Marcia, “Do it again … without the scarf!” And of course without the scarf there is no dance for her to do. In this case, Grosse Fuge was a dance about belts, great big wide things clutching the hips of the male dancers and nicely decorating the Japanese-style trouser-skirts they were wearing (again, shirtless!). The girls, meanwhile, stood poised in simple, elegant peachy/pinky dresses with comical hair combs; I was reminded of one of those Star Trek episodes in which Kirk goes to a planet where he once again falls in love with one (or many) of the space-age ladies.

Here, though, the women seemed to have very little to do with what was going on, which seemed to involve a lot of posturing and further display of the tasty pecs of the male dancers. Their interactions were almost entirely with each other, giving the whole thing a Tom of Finland-like hypermasculinity. When the women finally started dancing, they seemed such afterthoughts that it seemed impossible that the men cared at all for their presence; they were just feminine “beards” diluting the butch energy of the guys just enough for us to NOT think they only had eyes for each other.

And then … the guys ripped their trousers off to reveal the hot pants they had on underneath, which they were now wearing with these great huge belts. HOLY COW. The women now started working with the men by grabbing for their crotches and having the fellows swing them about on stage using momentum and the belts as focal points. I admit there was a fair bit of technical work going on here and most certainly an unusual skill being learned by all of the dancers, and I was reminded a bit of the Trisha Brown ’70s NYC dance experiments where they were working with dancing in different dimensions (in particular the dance involving clothes strung up horizontally on a web of rope, the dancers “dressing” themselves during the piece). I was impressed by the audacity of the piece overall, but I couldn’t help but think, “Now this time do it without the belts!” And yet at the same time I was laughing SO HARD because over and over again I was seeing ballerinas lunging at men’s crotches. Oh dear dear dear. It was all going so badly but then von Manen jumped the shark and had a terrible success, and I will always remember his “belt dance,” but I suspect not for the reasons he intended.

Overall I can’t say I was convinced that Hans von Manen is “Master of Dance” (as the program said) and its a bit of a sad sign that I forgot the fourth piece as quickly as I did, but the grace of “Trois Gnossiennes” and the wild extremes of Gross Fuge was enough to convince me it had been a good night.

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