Beethoven, the evening-length programme by Het Nationale Ballet, was supposed to premiere during last year’s Holland Festival. Corona decided differently. Now, Beethoven is back, with both a live and an online version – performed and recorded on 8 June.

‘Welcome, and welcome back. We are so glad to have you here!’ Artistic Director Ted Brandsen’s greetings were met with loud cheers from the auditorium. And with good reason: for the first time in eight months the company was finally able to perform in front of a live audience again. The show was also made available as a livestream, but for the online audience the elation was short-lived, due to technical difficulties. I ended up watching the recording the day after. 

Beethoven was slated to premiere in 2020, to mark 250 years since the composer’s birth. This edition has been slightly altered: because intermissions aren’t allowed, Toer van Schayk’s 7th Symphony has been moved to September. 

Opener of the night was the world premiere of Prometheus, based on Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, the only ballet score Beethoven wrote. Echoing Collective Symphony, which was made in 1975 by Rudi van Dantzig, Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk (collectively known as ‘the three Vans’), Prometheus has three creators: Wubkje Kuindersma, Ernst Meisner and Remi Wörtmeyer. 

This collaboration turns out to be a peculiar beast. The central myth behind Prometheus – and the one this choreography mostly adheres to – is pretty well-known: Prometheus created the first human beings from clay, stole fire from the Gods, and was eternally punished for his exertions. 

But this is not the storyline Beethoven’s composition followed, according to a 1930s reconstruction by musicologist Jean Chantavoine and playwright Maurice Léna. The original libretto is much cheerier and lighter. Prometheus makes two humans (man and woman), then enlists the help of many divine teachers to educate them in the arts: music (Orpheus), tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia) and pastoral (Pan) and heroic dance (Dionysus). The ballet ends with a wedding – and they all lived happily ever after. Likewise, Beethoven’s opus doesn’t feature much anguish, foreboding or eternal damnation. 

By trying to graft the darker mythos onto the lighter narrative of the music, the choreographers start out at a disadvantage. Even when Prometheus (Timothy van Poucke) and his human creations end up writhing and twitching in a wall of hellish fire (a scene by Kuindersma, who created the lion’s share of the piece), there is a weird disconnect between the intention of the movement and that of the music. 

As a result, the lighter pieces by Meisner and Wörtmeyer feel more like isolated events. The four quirky duets Wörtmeyer has crafted are charming, for instance the part where Erica Horwood is moving like a jumping jack, manipulated by her partner Vito Mazzeo, and do make a better fit with the overall tone of the music. Still, it is unclear how this scene linked with Kuindersma’s story, even though Prometheus himself intermittently flits across the screen. Ultimately, the intensity and drama that most of the choreography aims at, just isn’t backed up by the music.

Het Nationale Ballet GROSSE FUGEchoreografie: Hans van ManenAmsterdam, 8 juni 2021, Holland Festival.
Grosse Fuge by Hans van Manen | photo: Hans Gerritsen

Thankfully, in Grosse Fuge, set to Beethoven’s string quartet of the same name, there is no lack of intensity or drama, neither in music nor in movement. It is mindboggling that this piece by Hans van Manen was created fifty years ago; it is as potent and current as ever, especially in its depiction of the four strong, self-possessed women in white bodysuits. No wonder the four men in black culottes desperately try to impress them. But while the men furiously strut their stuff, the women remain unmoved. The piece offers an electrifying battle of the sexes, in which the women undeniably win. 

The nicest surprise of the evening was a short dance film, Rose, which can be rewatched for free on the website. Rose, Brandsen warned in his introduction, is ‘totally not Beethoven’, but was included to be screened during the scene change for Grosse Fuge. Created by Milena Sidorova, one of three Young Creative Associates at HNB (alongside Kuindersma and Sedrig Verwoert), it is a short series of danced sketches surrounding a woman, Rose (Beatriz Kuperus), waiting in a hotel bar. Here, Sidorova is heavily influenced by Latin ballroom dancing, making optimal use of the sharp lines of Latin and the dancers’ long, long legs. With artistic choices like the one where bartender Rémy Catalan is gently bobbing his head, like one of those bobble head dogs you see in people’s cars, showcase her definite weird streak. Which is just the way I like it.

Beethoven by Dutch National Ballet

Photos: Hans Gerritsen