Edinburgh Festival `98: New moves from an old master

Dutch choreographer Hans Van Manen is the grand old revolutionary of ballet who brought nudity and high heels to its classical form. So expect the unexpected in his new tango.
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The Independent Culture
Hans van Manen has one of those commanding, lived-in faces that look out from the paintings of Dutch Old Masters. You might expect him to be dour and reserved, but instead he is friendly, enthusiastic, funny and always alert to new ideas.

He is a man who has made a success of everything he has tried. As World War Two ended, he took his first job in the theatre, at the age of 13, as a make-up artist, and won a prize for it. He always wanted to be a dancer and made his stage debut three months after he began studying. Soon he had solo roles but by then he wanted to make ballets too, and at 25, with several creations to his name, he helped found what soon became a leading company, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, which he also co-directed through its first, immensely successful decade.

He has gone on to make well over a hundred ballets , danced by companies all round the world. And as if that was not enough to keep him busy, in 1973, he took up photography with such success that some of his pictures are in the Amsterdam City Museum and others are best-sellers in art postcard shops, while his exhibitions have included one at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

On Monday, the Edinburgh Festival opens a unique tribute to him: a week of performances assembling three Dutch dance companies to show a range of his work, from the 1965 Metaphors to a new tango ballet having its premiere next Friday.

It was almost 40 years ago that Holland burst on to the European dance scene as one of the most active and influential ballet centres. There were two major companies who toured widely and Sadler's Wells was one of their regular homes and they attracted guest stars of Nureyev's calibre, sent their choreographers and designers to create works for the Royal Ballet among others, and set such an example of creativity that Britain's old-established Ballet Rambert changed its style in imitation, taking the first steps towards becoming today's Rambert Dance Company.

America's greatest choreographers - Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins - were the inspiration for the new generation in Holland, but their own young talent led the way, Hans van Manen as one of the pioneers and now the doyen, although at 66 he is still so active that to call him the grand old man is insulting. He is also, since Robbins's death, almost certainly the best ballet choreographer working anywhere today.

Van Manen is like the Dutch Old Masters in that he does not tell stories but shows you people in a situation, using dancers and stage design instead of dancers and paint. The audience is free to read its own interpretation into what it sees, just as Van Manen once explained that he loved watching people - in a room or on the street - and imagining what they might be thinking or talking about. One of his ballets, Situation, took this to its extreme by putting a room on stage and showing one couple after another coming in, reacting lustfully, fearfully or aggressively to one another, then leaving, while a clock ticked away as a reminder of actuality.

Again and again he has been a pioneer. He was the first choreographer to use nudity in a serious ballet (Mutations), and the first to incorporate video sequences, both live and recorded, into a ballet (Live). He once accepted the challenge to create a ballet from scratch in a single day and have it performed in public that night (Ready Made). In Twilight, he had the ballerina raised on high heels instead of point shoes; the effect when she took them off and jumped at her partner was as startlingly erotic as if she had undressed entirely. In Tilt, he had the Stravinsky score played twice, setting the same dances for different numbers the second time round.

Generally, he prefers to use modern music, as varied as John Cage piano pieces and Astor Piazolla tangos, but sometimes he turns back to Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and even Bach. His costumes are always modern, but striking and imaginative, not ordinary clothes; the women may sometimes wear ballet shoes but have never been in tutus.

However, who knows? Edinburgh audiences should check in their preconceptions at the cloakroom and keep their wits about them.

The Dutch National Ballet is at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 24-26 Aug, and the Festival Theatre on 29th and 30th Aug. (0131-473 2003)

A Short History of Dutch Ballet

1642 - Ballet first given in Amsterdam; The Hague follows in the 1690s.

1761 onwards - Dutch ballet flourishes under several choreographers, including Andries van Hamme, who made no fewer than 115 three-act ballets in 40 years - possibly an all-time record.

1890 onwards - Local talent eclipsed as Anna Paviova, Isadora Duncan and other visitors thrive. Pavlova dies in The Hague, 1931.

1945 - Scapino Ballet started to entertain children; still going strong in Rotterdam for wider audiences.

1959 - Netherlands Dance Theatre started in The Hague by a breakaway group of dancers wanting more adventurous programmes Van Manen is artistic director.

1961 - The National Ballet started in Amsterdam by a merger of previously competing groups.

1963 - Dance Theatre's first British season.

1969 - The National's first British season.

1978 - Dance Theatre adds a second company, NDT2, for younger dancers and in 1991 adds a third, NDT3, for older dancers.

1986 - The National moves into a big new home, the Muziektht.

1988 - Dance Theatre opens its own purpose-built theatre.