For the better part of the late 20th century, the three ‘Vans’ – choreographers Rudi van Dantzig, Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk – left a lasting mark on Dutch ballet. Of the three, Van Schayk was the one who tread the least in the limelight. The double bill Toer, which premiered on 14 September at the Nationale Opera & Ballet in Amsterdam, places the multitalented choreographer centre stage, just in time for his 85th birthday on 28 September.

Three years ago the Dutch National Ballet and Van Schayk made plans for an evening-length ballet inspired by Lucifer, a tragedy by the 17th century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel. But then corona hit, and Lucifer became yet another victim of COVID-19. The full-length version will never be. Yet, Van Schayk still had the sketches he made during preparation. This collage of abstract dance sketches, dubbed Lucifer Studies and set to music by Dutch composer Joep Franssens (Echos, 1983), now has its world premiere.

Lucifer Studies certainly offers some striking imagery. Most of the time the seven male dancers move as if they were Rodin statues come to life, moving from one strong pose to the next with arms stretched and knees bent. Their angular poses and sideways angles also bring to mind Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune from 1912 and the icons on ancient Greek vases.

The costumes – designed with the sets by Van Schayk himself – are equally eye catching, if also slightly puzzling. While the upper parts of the male dancers’ torsos are exposed, the arms and hands are completely covered. Everything is monochrome, with the bright colour on one of the arms the only thing that pops. The gloves, coupled with some of the hand gestures, reminded me very strongly of traditional mime street artists, although I’m not quite sure that this kind of whimsy is what Van Schayk was going for.

Van Schayk deliberately shies away from any narrative coherence. These are abstract scenes, placed in random order. Still, some story does bleed through in two duets in the middle of the piece. Martin ten Kortenaar takes the lead in both duets. He is the only dancer without a coloured sleeve, but he does come equipped with something black and shiny – sunglasses? – that obscures his eyes. In the first duet, he seduces Timothy van Poucke (the MVP of the piece); in the second, he breathes life into Nathan Brhane. Could he be Lucifer tempting Adam and Eve, even if both are male? Are the different coloured gloves a sign of man’s duality? We are never to know.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with creating a chain of abstract dance pieces. But experiencing Lucifer Studies left me feeling slightly lost and dissatisfied. Excepting the two segments mentioned above, it felt as if the dancers were going from pose to pose to pose without any real connective tissue.

To see an example where everything does flow naturally, look no further than 7th Symphony from 1986, hailed as one of Van Schayk’s masterpieces. From the very first notes from Beethoven, performed by Het Balletorkest with Matthew Rowe conducting, everything just fits together. as if this was the way it was always meant to be. Van Schayk effortlessly interweaves solos and duets with bigger ensemble pieces for up to ten couples, and just as organically switches from the joyous first part to the more solemn second movement – led by Young Gyu Choi, Jakob Feyferlik and Jingjing Mao – and then back to fun, frothy and flirty again. There are definite stand-outs, such as Young, Floor Eimers and Nina Tonoli, but, in the end, everyone gets a chance to shine.

If Lucifer Studies left me feeling underwhelmed, 7th Symphony left me wanting more.

Dates Toer

Photo: Hans Gerritsen