Dutch National Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London

Ballet set to Beethoven? It takes Dutch courage
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The Independent Culture

Some music is hard to dance to. Some is simply out of bounds.

Have you ever noticed how Beethoven almost never features in ballet? Most choreographers think it undanceable, late Beethoven especially. For musicians it's sacrosanct.

In Holland, they're not so squeamish. The choreographer Hans van Manen – 120 ballets under his belt and counting – has squared up to Beethoven many times, most boldly in his treatment of the hushed, spare pilgrimage that is the slow movement of the piano sonata Opus 106.

Adagio Hammerklavier, still polarising audiences after nearly 40 years, has been heading up Dutch National Ballet's five-ballet celebration of its venerable resident choreographer at Sadler's Wells for the past three nights (it's over, so don't rush for tickets, just clamour for another visit soon). His Grosse Fuge, grasping another Beethoven hot potato, was the programme closer.

In a world hardly awash with classy new choreography, Van Manen is unaccountably unfeted in the UK. Sleekly erotic, classically based, his work is flecked with a laconic humour that relieves its northern severity. His women are combative, sly, strong. Their men tread warily.

Nothing is predictable with Van Manen. Solo, set to Bach on solitary violin, is matched by three chaps in relay, dashing on and off in identical T-shirts so you think they're one and the same. In Trois Gnossiennes, set to Satie, a serenely convoluted couple have to cope with the gliding intrusions of a piano and pianist on castors who keep rudely barging in.

But it's in the big works from the Seventies that Van Manen speaks loudest. Concertante is a revelation, as much for the fabulous playing of Frank Martin's string-orchestra score (take a bow, Royal Ballet Sinfonia) as for the steely interactions of its dancers, whose vertically striped unitards make them longer, leaner and more glossily superhuman than they already are.

You think Grosse Fuge is going to be abstract, with its bare-chested warriors swishing about in black sarongs and its pale spidery females. But it turns out to be a mesh of human stories, of tensions, regrets, concessions. Adagio Hammerklavier, meanwhile, is another country: remote, sombre, stripped to the bone. As the piano harmony oscillates between tonic and dominant, like an explorer on a climb to the top of the world, the dance unfolds calmly in parallel, reaching a purer, clearer air of its own.

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert takes cover for Wayne MacGregor's Live Fire Exercise

Dance Choice

If bloodshed and orgies trip your switch, then hurry along to Cleopatra the latest from Northern Ballet's David Nixon, which makes straight for the sex, the frocks and the tunes. With a score by Claude-Michel (Les Mis) Schönberg, and starring award-winner Martha Leebolt, it promises high entertainment. At London's Sadler's Wells, Tue to Sat.