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Hans van Manen has been choreographing for decades, becoming a leading figure in the international dance scene. His unmistakable style, grounded in clarity and refined simplicity, has helped to define modern ballet. Next season, Dutch National Ballet will celebrate Hans van Manen’s 85th birthday. ICONS spoke with Hans van Manen about his creative process, artistic endurance, timeless wisdom, and advice to young choreographers.
ICONS: You have been creating work for over 60 years, yet your ballets are not easily defined by time or generation. How do you produce work with timeless appeal?
HVM: Well, that is difficult to answer. You could ask this question to anyone who is good at what they do. For me, I never knew any better. I’ve always just done what I’ve done…in the way that I’ve done it. A good story begins with A and ends with Z. You don’t just fill in the middle. In that sense, the best-case scenario would be an empty work filled with insulation material.
I find that many choreographers today are focused on presenting their work in the way that one might display a product in a store window. A store window needs to look attractive in order to sell the product. Often this is how choreographies look -- a way to sell the dancers. But that really has nothing to do with making choreography. That is just decoration and I don’t like decoration. It doesn’t say anything.
ICONS: Although you use very little narrative in your work, you are able to express interesting dynamics and relationships between characters. How do you do this?
HVM: I am not a fan of storytelling through pantomime in dance. My work is always drawn from human relationships and based on human emotion. That is just how I work.
ICONS: How do you develop your material?
HVM: I know ahead of time more or less what I want, but I never make steps at home or ahead of time, if that is what you are asking. All of the steps are created in the studio through improvisation in the moment.
ICONS: How instrumental are the dancers to your creative process?
HVM: Dancers are always a source of inspiration of course. When you work with a company for a long time, you get to know the dancers well. Through the years you see certain dancers develop and you want to use and explore that development. You have people to work with who understand what you want incredibly well and can immediately interpret what you show them. It’s very important that dancers take risks and are not afraid to make mistakes -- that is when something starts to happen.
ICONS: What are some of the challenges facing choreographers today?
HVM: One thing that I find is not helpful is the way that art and dance are written about. I find nothing in it and feel it’s become mostly just psychological drivel. The writers just cannot seem to communicate about ballet; they cannot describe how a ballet works. They can only describe a ballet in terms of “then there was a pas de deux and then a piece for four dancers.” And then what? What have those four dancers done or expressed? They cannot describe that.
Believe me, dance as an art form, especially today, is being discriminated against. Here in the Netherlands very little is written about dance. A very short article might be published once every 40 days. However, in the New York Times, for example, you get three pages written about the art of dance weekly. That is a big difference and it makes a difference for the art.
ICONS: The current program at the Dutch National Ballet features work by veteran choreographers, such as yourself, together with work from emerging choreographers. Do you feel it’s necessary for young choreographers to have experienced mentors?
HVM: Yes, that is how Balanchine began. That is how Robbins began, and also how I began. It’s how everyone begins. It is the most common thing in the world.
You should always have examples. You should not be afraid to imitate. Good dancers are good at imitating. Once you can imitate something well, then you recognize and understand the mechanisms of it. Once you know the mechanism, you can personalize it and make it your own. You can take it further. And that is not specific to the art world. That applies to everything, whether you work in a theatre or an office.
ICONS: What advice would you give to young choreographers just starting out?
HVM: I think that young choreographers should always look at the work made by others. If you don’t do that, then you are not being smart. If you are a painter you should know who Caravaggio is. There is no future without tradition. You must pay attention to the work that is made, how it is made, and why it was created, and when possible, you should try to see the work for yourself. That is how you learn.
You can’t learn a language with the attitude “I’ll teach it to myself.” You will only waste your time. However, if you just look around, you will learn it twice as fast.
More about Hans van Manen
Hans van Manen has been called “The Mondrian of Dance,” often in reference to the clean lines that punctuate his work. However, the comparison to the revolutionary Dutch painter also implies the much broader and ideological imprint of Van Manen’s work on the dance world. As the NRC Handelsblad recently wrote, “Mondrian’s work redefined painting, just as Van Manen has made all dance that came before him something of a bygone era.” – J. Roodnat, Het NRC
Through an inherent understanding and utilization of both classical ballet technique and modern dance movement, his signature aesthetic is recognized worldwide as an important link between the two genres of dance.
More than fifty companies worldwide have performed his ballets, including stars such as Anthony Dowell, Marcia Haydée, Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev. To date, Van Manen has created more than 120 ballets. Besides being a choreographer, Hans van Manen has also been active as a photographer for ten years. His work has been included in international books and exhibitions.
Born in 1932 in Nieuwer Amstel, the Netherlands, Hans van Manen had his first ballet lessons in the late forties from Sonia Gaskell, who engaged him in her group Ballet Recital in 1951. Van Manen went on to dance with the Netherlands Opera Ballet and Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris. In 1957, he made his debut as a choreographer with the ballet Feestgericht, which received the State Award for Choreography. From 1961 onwards, Van Manen has worked alternately with the two main dance companies of the Netherlands. After co-directing Nederlands Dans Theater, he became a resident choreographer, first with the Dutch National Ballet, then with Nederlands Dans Theater. Since 2005, he has held the post of resident choreographer with the Dutch National Ballet.
In 2007, the Dutch National Ballet organized the Hans van Manen Festival, as a tribute to the choreographer on his 75th birthday. During the festival, Van Manen was made a Commander in the Order of the Netherlands Lion. In June 2013, he was appointed a patron of the National Ballet Academy (part of the Amsterdam School of the Arts). Van Manen received the Erasmus Award (2000) and the Golden Age Award (2013). Since January 2015, he has been a member of the Dutch Académie for Arts.
Interviewer Jessica Teague is a former professional ballet dancer, freelance dance journalist and regular contributor to Dance Europe Magazine and Dance ICONS, Inc., the international association and global network for choreographers.
Resources: Roodnat, J., (2017) Mondrian, hoe danste die? Nou, zo.’ Het NRC Handlesblad [ONLINE] Available at: