Dutch ballet legend Hans van Manen's long and fertile career – during which he's created more than 120 ballets, and held resident choreographer roles at Nederlands Dans Theater and Dutch National Ballet – has rendered him a staple to the European dance scene. Among his many fans is Martin Schläpfer, artistic director of Düsseldorf's Ballett am Rhein, who has long made it a priority to showcase the Dutchman's work in his repertoire. (In fact, a German newspaper recently declared the Deutsche Oper am Rhein “the best address in Germany” to see van Manen's choreography in action.)
With b.21, Ballett am Rhein's latest triple bill, Schläpfer had the chance to not only restage another of van Manen's works but commission and appear in a world première by the choreographer – the first he's created for a company other than NDT or DNB in more than twenty years. The piece, Alltag (“Everyday Life”), is theatrical and self-referential: a quartet dramatises the challenges of the creative process, with Schläpfer dancing the part of a choreographer and the others (Marlúcia do Amaral, Doris Becker and Alexandre Simões) bringing his vision to life as he works through its potential upswings and downfalls. The concept is not an easy one to relay – do Amaral appears as a figure in Schläpfer's imagination, while Becker and Simões play company members performing his work on stage – but van Manen makes excellent use of lighting to depict this shift from notional to concrete: shadowy spotlights abound during Schläpfer's visions, and these eventually morph into full overhead lighting as he slips into shadows for the final “performance.”
There's a beautiful lightness to the choreography Schläpfer plays around with: strong lines gently melt into curves, and round embraces unfold into vertical positions. Do Amaral is particularly arresting, what with her effortless flexibility and supple arches, while Becker and Simões evince a sensual chemistry as they power through the motions Schläpfer sets out. The piece feels a little long by the end, but overall it's a stimulating, robust watch.
Sandwiching Alltag are two bright ensemble works: George Balanchine's Serenade and Schläpfer's own Symphonie Nr 2. The former expertly harnesses the neoclassical glamour that propelled Balanchine to the upper echelons of the twentieth-century dance world: the piece is all soft arms and crisp lines set under a sugary blue glow. The dancers' early formations are a satisfying thing to behold – think swivelling port de bras in perfect symmetry – though these unfortunately start to lose their sharpness as the piece goes on, and a small traffic jam actually occurred on opening night when two dancers in the corps misjudged their windows and ended up colliding. Still, the many pirouettes and poses remain tight during the climax – when soloist Ann-Kathrin Adam lets down her hair and flings herself to the floor – and right through to the final notes.
Despite its ghostly overtones, Symphonie Nr. 2 proves an uplifting finale for b.21. The piece is a tribute to the age of the romantic ballet and its enchanted world of wilis and fairies and swans. This manifests in the watercolour backdrop and yearning Brahms score rather than the dancing itself, which defies the willowy frailty embodied by the Carlotta Grisis of that time and instead opts for a modern and at times creaturely vibe. There are flexed feet and angular arms galore, which contrast sharply with the rounded notes of the music and suggest Schläpfer consciously set out to challenge the confines of tempo and tone when he choreographed the work last year. The ballet's athleticism is admirable, though its more gymnastic moves – cartwheels, somersaults – admittedly fall short of the classical ones the company's dancers so elegantly execute.