For the first time in four decades, the esteemed Dutch National Ballet (DNB) is touring the United States. Lucky for us in New England, one of its stops is at Jacob’s Pillow, where the company makes a historic festival debut, July 5-9.
“It’s such a coup,” says Pam Tatge, Jacob’s Pillow’s executive and artistic director. “This is the only place in the East Coast they’re performing. It’s such an exceptional company, really known as one of the top European ballet companies for the breadth of choreography as well as their dancers — they’re amazing. And the works on this program are really demanding and exciting. It’s an event.”
Founded in 1961 and consisting of more than 80 dancers from around the world (34 will be coming to the Pillow), DNB has evolved over the decades into one of today’s most critically acclaimed ballet companies, regularly performing at international venues and festivals.
The company is celebrated for its unique, wide-ranging repertoire and a tradition of innovation. While full-length classical and romantic ballets are integral, the company’s repertoire also features highlights of 20th-century ballet, from the repertoire of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to works by Sir Frederic Ashton, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and others, including former artistic director and resident choreographer Rudi van Dantzig, an influential figure in Dutch ballet.
The company also embraces contemporary works from internationally acclaimed choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, and Sibi Larbi Cherkaoui, to name a few. And along the way, DNB has nurtured a new generation of choreographers, including resident choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, associate artist David Dawson, and Ted Brandsen, the company director since 2003 who is credited with putting DNB on the map. (All three are former DNB dancers.)
But no choreographer is more revered by the company than Hans van Manen, the 90-year-old Dutch choreographer recognized around the world as one of the grand masters of contemporary ballet. Creator of more than 150 works and counting, Van Manen had his first great international successes with the Dutch National Ballet, and the company has access to all the choreographer’s work, calling it “the backbone” of its repertoire. Two of Van Manen’s works bookend each Pillow concert — ”Variations for Two Couples” and “Five Tangos,” set to the music of Astor Piazzolla. “Both are demanding, beautiful works that really show off the dancers,” Tatge says.
Van Manen’s choreography, which has been performed internationally by more than 90 companies, is known for its refined simplicity, clarity of structure, and musicality, while steeped in a concern for the wealth of human relationships. Tatge says, “His work has a range of emotions that can come through in a single performance, with incredible, demanding partnering. That kind of work can’t succeed unless you’ve built up extraordinary trust between the dancers. … They have great confidence in their technique and because of that, they can be fearless.”
Van Manen’s work has helped shape not only the company’s profile but the dancers themselves. Known for being both elegant and athletic, all bring a sense of self and an open curiosity to the table, Brandsen said in a recent podcast.
“Hans helped emancipate the dancer,” says DNB’s associate artistic director Rachel Beaujean, who started with the company in 1977 as a dancer and now heads the company’s Hans van Manen Foundation. She was the choreographer’s muse, dancing in every work he created for DNB during the 20 years she was a performer. “He changed the way we look at classical ballet in the Netherlands. He has had such a vision about how to make ballet modern. He always says ‘I like adventure. I don’t like romanticism.’ And his ballets explain themselves very well. … Even people that think they don’t understand ballet will connect with them, and that’s a special thing. It touches you right away.”
Beaujean cites the influences of modern dance pioneers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham as contributing weight and boldness to Van Manen’s work, which in turn has strengthened the company’s versatility in a range of repertoire. The Jacob’s Pillow program is a case in point. It includes William Forsythe’s elegant tour-de-force “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” and “Two & Only,” a romantic ballet for two men by the company’s creative associate Wubkje Kuindersma. Victor Gsovsky’s virtuosic ballet staple “Grand Pas Classique” (1949) showcases the company’s newest member, former Bolshoi Ballet star Olga Smirnova, who joined Dutch National Ballet after leaving Russia when it invaded Ukraine. Her story was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”
Tatge says, “She performed ‘Swan Lake’ then walked off the stage in protest and left the company and her home country. The fact that Pillow audiences will get to see this Bolshoi star perform this classical work is extraordinary. … The range of work that they will experience in a single evening is so rich.”
DUTCH NATIONAL BALLET
At Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, July 5-9. www.jacobspillow.org/festival
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.