Van Manen, Madsen and Neumeier Three Masters and three reasons to celebrate

“Nijinsky”, Ballet by John Neumeier (2000), Hamburg Ballett
“Nijinsky”, Ballet by John Neumeier (2000), Hamburg Ballett | Photo (detail): Holger Badekow

Hans van Manen, the master of chamber ballet, has turned eighty. A biography has been published to mark the seventieth birthday of character dancer Egon Madsen. Forty years after taking up his post in Hamburg, John Neumeier is now Germany’s longest-serving ballet director. For decades, the Dutchman, Dane and American have been some of the German ballet scene’s most influential and highly respected artists. They all were celebrated in 2012 by the dance scene.

Hans van Manen – master of the small form

To congratulate Hans van Manen on his eightieth birthday, Het Nationale Ballet Amsterdam performed a gala, which was repeated in Baden-Baden. No other choreographer has developed George Balanchine’s abstract neoclassicism as independently as van Manen. He has composed some 120 short ballets. He draws inspiration from complex music ranging from Bach and Beethoven to contemporaries such as John Adams and Witold Lutosławski, but also Piazzolla (Five Tango Sensations, 1977) and Nina Hagen (In and Out, 1983), combining cool distance with elegance, humanity and wit. Van Manen has also been called the Mondrian of Dance on account of his clear structures and the unadorned refinement of his use of space and body language. In keeping with this, Keso Dekker, van Manen’s set designer for many years, often supplements the severe movement patterns with hatched backdrops and bright-coloured jerseys.

Van Manen was born in Nieuwer Amstel in 1932. His father was Dutch and his mother was German. He began to dance at the age of nineteen. He worked at the Amsterdam Opera Ballet and with Roland Petit in Paris. In 1961, he joined the Nederlands Dans Theater, which he directed until 1969. After quitting the NDT, he kept his spirits up with the choreography Keep Going (1971) for the ballet company of Deutsche Oper am Rhein Düsseldorf/Duisburg. International engagements, productions of his ballets and awards followed. Today, his cooperation with Martin Schläpfer, Director of the Ballett am Rhein Düsseldorf/Duisburg is particularly close. He says: “I study van Manen’s works to find out what he leaves out”.

Egon Madsen – untiring character dancer

The carefully researched, lively and competently written biography Egon Madsen – Ein Tanzleben by Hamburg culture journalist Dagmar Ellen Fischer was published right on time for his seventieth birthday. The cover shows Madsen in the solo Dear John (2010)), a homage to John Cranko by Eric Gauthier. “Cranko built me up,” the ballet dancer recalls. He became one of Stuttgart Ballet’s most versatile, popular soloists. John Neumeier created his first Hamlet (Hamlet Connotations, 1976) and Armand in Lady of the Camellias (1978) for the Dane. Above all, he appreciates his natural way of playing and dancing.

Madsen and Lucia Isenring, his stage partner and wife, took their leave of Stuttgart in 1981. As ballet director in Frankfurt, Stockholm and Florence, he always met Hans van Manen “with great respect”, reports Madsen, but he never danced anything by him. Jiri Kylian took him on in 2000 for the Nederlands Dans Theater’s senior citizens group NDT III. Madsen directed it until it disbanded in 2005. He still keeps coming back to Württemberg, his adopted home. He is a coach at Gauthier Dance at the Theaterhaus Stuttgart and dances in choreographies by Christian Spuck (Don Q., 2007) and Gauthier (M.M., 2009 and Dear John). He plays the soothsayer Madge in La Sylphide on the stage of the Württemberg State Theatre. Ballet director Reid Anderson puts his finger on the Madsen phenomenon, calling him “a genuine stage animal.”

Neumeier – a dance empire on the River Alster

Hardly anyone in Hamburg knew August Everding when the young dancer and choreographer came to direct the ballet of the Hamburg State Opera in 1973. Today, Neumeier is an honorary citizen and the “King of Hamburg”, as Marcia Haydée whimsically called him. He has built up a veritable empire by the River Alster. Ballet has long since been a theatre genre in its own right with Neumeier as director. Since 1973, he has directed the Ballettzentrum Hamburg - John Neumeier, which he founded, where children and young people from around the world study classical ballet. A day school and a boarding school are affiliated with the centre. In the former school building there is also a wing for administrative and artistic staff and rehearsal rooms for the company and the National Youth Ballet. In founding this troupe of eight young dancers in 2012, Neumeier took a major step towards setting up a separate junior company. All that remains to be done is to transfer Neumeier’s unique dance collection, including what is probably the world’s largest collection of documents on the work of Waslaw Nijinsky, to a public museum.

The focus continues to be on John Neumeier’s work as a choreographer, however. Audiences at home and on tour are enthusiastic about neoclassical narrative ballets (most recently Liliom, 2012)), symphonic ballets, based on music by composers including Gustav Mahler, and choreographies of sacred works such as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (1980) and Mozart’s Requiem (1991) by John Neumeier, a devout Catholic.