Interview – Composer of steps

Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen has been one of the greatest contemporary dance artists for decades. He is known as a dance purist, creating narrative ballets in which, in his unique style, he combines formal rigor and elegance with eroticism. On July 11, van Manen celebrates his 90th birthday. Earlier, on Saturday, June 4, his piece “Four Pieces by Schumann” will have its premiere at the “Kontrapunkte” ballet evening. In an interview with the “Wiener Zeitung”, he tells why he started choreographing, about the requirements for dancers and why his ballets are still relevant.

“Vienna Newspaper”: You have choreographed over 150 works, as a contemporary you have become a classic in the world of dance, and your pieces are performed by the most renowned ensembles. How does it make you feel like an artist?

Hans van Manen: Excellent! I stopped making choreographies. I found 150 really more than enough. But I’m still working on rehearsing my ballets. I travel a lot, now in Vienna for the premiere of “Four Pieces by Schuman”. Recognition is important and I appreciate your interest. But I do the art of dance. Many companies will come on my birthday and dance my songs. Petersburg also wanted to come, but unfortunately it is no longer possible. It’s a pity, because what do the artists have to do with it? . .

You wanted to become a dancer very early on, it is said that you had that goal in mind at the age of five. But then you only danced as a professional for a few years before devoting yourself to choreography. What was the incentive for this decision?

when I was seven (laughter) I finished school when I was 13, it was only the end of the war, and for five years I worked as a make-up artist in the theater. At 18, I thought, “It’s now or never!” Then you were happy if the man wanted to dance at all, there was no problem at the age of 18. This is no longer possible today.

The Vienna State Ballet
The Viennese State Ballet in “Four Pieces by Schumann”. – © Wiener Staatsballett / Ashley Taylor

So why did you stop dancing?

In 1960, I was a dancer, choreographer and also took over the management of the Nederlands Dans Theater. It was too much. I was attracted to choreography, even as a dancer.

What fascinated you so much about choreography?

You can play the piano, but you can also become a composer because you carry it inside you. As a choreographer, you are a composer of steps. When I first did the choreography, I thought it was fantastic. And then it was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. I did not want to be the director of the company, I wanted to devote myself to dancing.

You mentioned earlier that you can’t start dancing at 18 anymore.

Yes, today you start training at the age of ten. In the last 20 years, the skill level has increased enormously. It’s like the Olympics, athletes are getting better. The same goes for ballet with its technique and virtuosity. We were happy when the dancer did a double en l’air tour (double spin in the air, note) and he could do three pirouettes. Today they are doing eight pirouettes. I am incredibly excited about today’s dancers’ performances.

The upcoming premiere of State Ballet will show “Four Schuman Pieces” that you choreographed in 1975. Why are your works not becoming outdated?

There are ballets that are between 50 and 55 years old and are still staged around the world. I enjoy it. (laughter) I think it’s because I like to tell stories that are quite abstract. And they are always about interpersonal relationships. It remains relevant. At the same time, people say that my works are very different, but still have a common signature, which is my style.

In your ballets, men and women are treated equally, German dance critics once said that you emancipated women in dance. Was it intentional or just happened?

For me, there is no natural difference between men and women. I have no kneeling women. However, in “Four Pieces by Schuman” the man plays the main role. In other plays, it’s women again. Apart from music, dancers are my main inspiration.

You celebrate your 90th birthday on July 11. How will you celebrate it?

It will be a great dance festival (Hans van Manen Festival, June 8-29, note) with the Dutch National Ballet, where my works will be danced by national and international dance groups. It will be amazing!

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