Power play at the Dutch National Ballet

For the opening night of the Dutch National Ballet’s brief London season at Sadlers Wells, the artistic director, Ted Brandsen and resident choreographer, Hans van Manen fielded the most senior dancers.

The Dutch National is a company of about 80 dancers but last night, we saw only about a quarter of them – all but one either a principal or soloist.

Their control, fluidity of movement and dynamic quality were obvious and admirable, but it was hard to pinpoint a particular style of dancing as this is a company made up of many nationalities and schooling, from the Russian dancer, Larissa Lezhnina, to Casey Herd, from the United States, and Sefton Clarke, who trained at the Royal Ballet School in London.

The unifying element in this program was van Manen’s choreography which emphasised poses (and a fair bit of posturing), plies – dozens of them – and sexual tension between the men and women.

One of the most succinct quotations about his work came from the former dance critic of The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff, who saw that van Manen “sets up a classical framework, introduces a deviant element, and then fetishises the deviation until it becomes the erotically charged focus of the movement.”

Of the five works in the London program, created over a 26-year period, the most appealing was Solo (1997) for three men dancing solo parts to Bach’s first partita for solo violin.

From the moment the first dancer leapt onto the stage, in purple-blue T-shirt layered over an orange top and white tights, it was sit up and smile time.

Fun, speed, tricks, exhilaration! It came as sweet relief as Solo followed Adagio Hammerklavier (Beethoven) in which three couples engaged, disengaged, plie-d, fell and posed meaningfully (in sky blue for the women, and white tights and diamante necklaces for the men).

As the program notes said, it was all about a build up of tension and then a retreat before anything happened.

Solo was danced by three of the company’s soloists, Juanjo Arques, Sefton Clarke and Felipe Diaz, all virtuosic and all engaged in what looked like a relay race, one flipping the stage to another as they raced offstage or upstage.

I wonder if van Manen’s Solo was influenced in some way by Jerome Robbins’ equally virtuosic and exhilarating solo, A Suite of Dances, made for Baryshnikov?

Both are set to music by Bach, with A Suite of Dances choreographed in 1994, only three years before the premiere of van Manen’s Solo.

In last night’ program, Solo was followed by the equally upbeat Trois Gnossiennes (Erik Satie) in which Lezhnina and Herd danced a pas de deux ranging from quirky to eloquently romantic, while three male dancers slowly and solemnly pushed around the stage a grand piano played by Olga Khoziainova. A nice play on Balanchine’s habit of pairing musician with dancer on stage.

The finale was Grosse Fuge, (Beethoven), the company’s calling card and the earliest of the van Manen pieces in the program.

Here, the power play to come between men and women is evident from the start, with four bare-chested men in long black skirts and heavy belts dominating the stage (a fluorescent tube is the only element of decor).

The men are all muscle and pomposity, while the women, in flesh colours, hover like shivering sprites upstage.

The balance changes when a lighting change floods the stage with an apricot hue and the men’s skirts fall to reveal black Lycra trunks. The belts remain, acting as handy handles for the women to manipulate the men.

Van Manen was in the audience last night, looking a little tense, naturally, but also extremely young for his age (79).

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Dutch National Ballet Grosse Fuge

Dutch National Ballet Grosse Fuge

Dutch National Ballet: Adagio Hammerklavier

Dutch National Ballet: Adagio Hammerklavier

Dutch National Ballet: Grosse Fuge

Dutch National Ballet: Grosse Fuge