Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is for me an honour and a pleasure to address you from this chair, on behalf of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. I shall do my best to express the warm commitment of the Patron of our Foundation and his appreciation of Dance and its practitioners. We are happy, Your Royal Highness, that you are prepared to award the Prize as of old.
In his book Keeping Together in Time. Dance and Drill in Human History (1995), the Erasmus Prize laureate of 1996, William H. McNeill, develops interesting thoughts on the meaning of dance. In this book he claims that communal rhythmic singing and dancing are a prerogative of the human species. The first function of this, according to McNeill, is community-building: strengthening social bonds by means of joint rhythmic action. McNeill further elaborates on the meaning of dance for the evolution of the human species: dance makes personal rivalry disappear, fosters a feeling of togetherness and enables participants to work together more effectively. Ladies and gentlemen of the dance profession, you may always have sensed this, but now you are being told so by a historian. In the evolution of modern man, certain forms of ritual, song and dance probably preceded the development of language. But with the development of language the meaning of song and dance was not lost. They have remained fundamental communicative abilities, by means of which human beings could become stronger as a species, adapt to various living environments and become highly successful as a species. Given this evolutionary prehistory, we need not be surprised that it is difficult to express in words the kind of feelings evoked by song and dance. McNeill proposed the term ‘muscular bonding’, a sort of euphoric solidarity that enables groups to collaborate better and thereby increase their chances of survival.
Now why this academic exposition concerning the remote prehistoric past? There is an immense difference between communal song and dance, which interests McNeill, and dance as a performing art, which is our subject today. Dance as a performing art is no longer relevant to human chances of survival, at least not in an evolutionary sense. But the communicative value of dance, of whatever kind of dance, remains of great importance (‘Dance moves you’, as a well-known saying goes), even if we are spectators and not practitioners ourselves. Each means of expression has its own evolutionary history and its own relatively autonomous function. Language cannot be danced and dance cannot be spoken. Interpreting dance by means of language, communicating about dance with language, is problematic, to say the least. The experience belonging to one means of communication cannot easily be transferred by another means of communication. As the poet Tonnus Oosterhof said succinctly: ‘Dance is too concrete for words.’ It is not the reference to a message which is central, but dance as a means of communication in itself. This, Mr Van Manen, was often emphasised by you, when you were asked what you wanted to express in one or other new choreography. ‘Mimical explanation is not interesting, movements do not imitate words’, was your reply. What matters is the autonomy of the movement, not the engagement or a psychological explanation. ‘Dance expresses dance, nothing else’, is one of your adages. In other words: the art of dancing needs no other external legitimization.
I continue with the historical perspective, now focusing on the second half of the past century. Twenty-six years ago the Erasmus Prize was awarded in the field of ballet. In that year, in 1974, the Prize was awarded to two artists: the British dancer and conductor Ninette de Valois and the French dancer and choreographer Maurice Béjart. This year, Dance is the theme of the Erasmus Prize once more. I make a subtle distinction between ‘Dutch Dance’ and ‘Dance in the Netherlands’. As a term like ‘Dutch Dance’ could invoke associations with wooden shoes, it is better to use the term ‘Dance in the Netherlands’, for this better expresses the fact that we are not referring to popular dance rooted in national folklore. We are talking about a classic form of art which has risen to great prominence in post-Second-World-War Holland, and which has produced and attracted great practitioners from all over the world. This has become part of a tradition which is now being put into practice over the entire world. By saying this I do not wish to leave the impression that a Dutch board of a Dutch foundation, by choosing a Dutch laureate, has not looked around sufficiently. I assure you that the choice is not the result of national or even nationalistic myopia. The Prize is a European prize, which up to now has been awarded to a Dutch citizen only rarely. The Board listens to many voices, also outside the Netherlands, before it makes its choice.
As I said, this year the Erasmus Prize is awarded to Hans van Manen as a representative of ‘Dance in the Netherlands’. Hereby we honour a broad group of post-war professional artists. It is difficult to address ‘Dance’ as such. But I wish to sketch in brief outline what, in our view, are the special merits of Dance in the Netherlands. There are several factors which have played an important role in the development of Dance in the Netherlands. In 1987, Aad Nuis called the post-war art of dance in the Netherlands the ‘biggest surprise’ that had befallen our culture of preachers and teachers. What was that surprise? A tempestuous process such as this is not the work of one or more persons, but the result of many interrelated factors and circumstances. A handful of pacemakers, often following the ideas of colleagues from other countries, knew how to create unique precedents, in the spirit of post-war reconstruction and not hindered by the burden of tradition. One example is the establishment of the first ballet company especially for young people, and the creation of the first folklore company, which drew its inspiration not from our own soil but from across the borders. In a certain way the lack of tradition in the area of classical ballet in the Netherlands was an advantage: dance could be open to foreign influences and choose an entirely new way of its own. Modern American and English dance, for example, had a great influence. Many foreign choreographers, ballet conductors, guest teachers and dancers were invited to the Netherlands. In this way, in the post-war years, the baggage of cultural history was disposed of within a short space of time, baggage plagued by feelings of inferiority and backwardness. A special aspect of the post-war situation was the open-mindedness and willingness to accept diversity. In creating an interested audience, persistent taboos in the realm of eroticism, physical display and body-awareness had to be overcome. Up to the late 1950’s, for example, female dancers were told by local clerics that they were not supposed to bare their shoulders on stage. Male dancers in tights could a priori count on ridicule and laughter.
The breakthrough took place in the 1970’s and this cannot be dissociated from the increasing permissiveness within Dutch society in general. Characteristic of this change was a freer attitude towards a sensory, physical expression of art such as dance. During this time many taboos concerning the human body were broken, and we also encounter this in dance as a performing art. The Dutch National Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, also Scapino Ballet and the first modern dance groups, formed a breeding ground for contemporary choreography, bringing together all parties. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Rudi van Dantzig, Jaap Flier, Job Sanders and Hans van Manen were given the opportunity to manifest themselves with their own choreographies. From the 1970’s Holland became an international, choreographer-exporting country. Typical of post-war choreography are a number of aspects, best rendered in keywords such as dramatic depth, conceptual clarity, soberness and character. Apart from these aspects, there was also a sense of humour and relativisation. At an early stage, the ability to touch a world of underlying emotions by a single gesture and look became typical of the work of Hans van Manen. There was constant experimentation. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the young Nederlands Dans Theater acquired an exemplary function for companies elsewhere and formed a bridge to new developments in dance in America. The Dutch National Ballet also showed character in its repertoire, on neo-classical lines, without denying the dramatic European cultural heritage. This Dutch repertoire consisted of work by Rudi van Dantzig, Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk. Rudi van Dantzig, in particular, made his mark on the company as its artistic Director from 1969 to 1991: his work has explicit Romantic traits: yearning for innocence, social commitment, and awareness of transitoriness. The history of Nederlands Dans Theater is more recent. NDT combines classical techniques and modern dance; after 1975 it was under the artistic guidance of Jirí Kylián, who opened up the company to make it a platform for young foreign talent. Besides these companies, Scapino Ballet occupied a special position. The dancer Hans Snoek began the company as a ballet group for children; that was a unique formula at the time. The International Folkloristic Dance Theater, fulfilling an exemplary function for amateur folk dance, is the fourth large company that deserves mention.
When speaking of the particular development and merits of Dance in the Netherlands, we must also express our acknowledgement to those who actually gave hands and feet to this development. Carel Birnie succeeded in having a theater built, the first in the world entirely geared to the needs of professional dancers. Just like his Amsterdam colleague, Anton Gerritsen, he was convinced of the need and importance of dance facilities. Thanks to the efforts of both gentlemen, the facilities and professionalism of the stages for dance have had an enormous boost.
From the mid-1950’s, Hans van Manen played a prominent role in the artistic development of the two large companies. When he decided to take up a position with the Dutch National Ballet, after ten years of work as in-house choreographer and co-director of Nederlands Dans Theater, he formed a clear link between the two companies, whose missions are so different, but also between the larger and smaller companies. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he became a true ambassador for Dance in the Netherlands: his creations and his role in international relations within the art of dance have long proved their export value. Over the past 25 years, the laureate has continued to surprise his audience. His methods changed, but his central axiom remained unchanged: ‘Dance does not need to refer to a story, the movement itself carries and communicates meaning.’ It is clear that his creativity, based on this formula, enabled him to appeal to a large public. This was made clear in 1992, for example, when he was offered a liber and video amicorum for his 62nd birthday. An entire Holland Festival dance programme was devoted to him on that occasion. He is now one of the most sought-after choreographers, with choreographies performed everywhere. He is cosmopolitan in his interests and in his significance. Another major argument to crown him as representative of Dance in the Netherlands is his importance for the next generation of professionals. He has discovered individual talent and brought this to prominence. This holds not only for classical ballet dancers, but also for those who would prefer not to follow his dramatic rules. His guidelines for dramatic interaction of space, rhythm and the use of human movement are applicable to all styles of dance. Thanks to his craftsmanship, his artistic insight, his respect for the qualities of others and his courage to take risks, he has become the master, who teaches both his public and his colleagues how to look at dance. With an oeuvre of over 110 ballets he has changed the world of dance for good. By the clarity of movement and structure, the soberness and density of his choreographies and the always-present tension he has created a style which is directly recognizable.
Dear Mr Van Manen, your share in the growth of this form of art has been of emancipatory importance, and more than that. You have passed on your insights and your taste to a new generation. Your signature lives on in the oeuvre of many other dance professionals all over the world. You created a new public for dance; you have innovated dance and given it its own autonomous value within the tradition of the performing arts. For this reason we honour you as the flagship of the Dutch dance fleet. In your person we honour the dance, a flourishing art thanks to the large and small companies. Thanks also to the teachers, the first-class choreographers who have contributed to this tradition and to all other professionals concerned with dance. And last but not least, of course, to the professional, skilled artists who dance for us: the dancers themselves.