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Five is the magic number

The music is from Argentina, the moves are by a Dutch choreographer – and tonight Scottish Ballet will bring both elements together in the company premiere of Hans Van Manen's now legendary Five Tangos.

In rehearsal at Glasgow's Tramway, dancers have been kicking up their heels with frisky precision, or swooningly bending over backwards, all under the watchful eye of Mea Venema as, tango by tango, she teaches them steps that have travelled the world. So far, more than a score of companies have been given permission to take the work into their repertoire. Scottish Ballet is about to join that carefully selected number. For days Venema, who danced in the 1977 premiere of Five Tangos, has been passing on her familiarity with the work and bringing the company up to speed, but now the choreographer himself is in town, sitting in on final rehearsals and ensuring each tilt of the head, each smouldering prowl or split-second swivel turn is just so.

If it is hard to believe this sparky, sexy ballet is 35 years old, it is equally hard to accept that its choreographer is now an octogenarian – Van Manen celebrated his 80th birthday in July. Dutch National Ballet, a company he has had close associations with throughout his career, paid tribute to him by calling a showcase of his work Hand van de Meetser, a nice piece of visual word-play that translates as "A Master's Touch". That inspired and inspiring touch has, across the decades, brought Van Manen a fine array of awards, a Herald Archangel among them – prompted by a multi-faceted retrospective of his work at the 1998 Edinburgh International Festival. It was this paper's acknowledgement that Van Manen's choreographies (rather like their creator) have verve, insight, flair and a buoyant longevity.

At 80, he could sit back in his Amsterdam home and bask in the honours that are consistently accorded him, concentrate on the photography that has also won him plaudits and enjoy the fact that companies far beyond the Netherlands are eager to challenge their dancers with his particular eclectic blend of movement vocabularies. If classical ballet remains at the heart of his choreographic vision, its technique is frequently filtered through a prism of other idioms, tango being just one of those piquant influences. But no, Van Manen is still very much in harness, either looking in on rehearsals of his work or plunging into future projects.

Ask him why he's still keen to head into a studio and spend hours making new work and his soft, growly voice – its husky depths burnished by the cigarettes he continues to smoke with relish – is ever more animated as words like "risk" and "adventure" punctuate the flow of conversation. Van Manen, it seems, is still possessed of the restless curiosity that led to the making of Five Tangos. He recalls a night in Berlin, a pleasant evening with friends and colleagues: "Suddenly, I heard this music. So unlike anything I had heard before. And I have to ask. Who is this?" Even though the name of composer Astor Piazzolla meant nothing to him, Van Manen was hooked.

That was in 1976 and within a year he had made Five Tangos. Laughing, he says: "My friend fed my curiosity by giving me all these tapes of Piazzolla – I think there were about 20 of them, they weighed about five kilos in my luggage. But it was wonderful music that we didn't know in Holland at the time."

It's now a matter of record that, thanks to Van Manen's interest – and Five Tangos – Piazzolla's music gained a new, and hugely enthusiastic following in the Netherlands. So much so that, during one concert, the composer turned to the audience and publicly thanked Van Manen for bringing him and his music to such international prominence.

The little shrug that Van Manen gives as he mentions this is, actually, very tango nuanced. There's another half-shrug when he remarks: "People said at the time – the critics, of course – that what I had done in Five Tangos wasn't 'real tango'. But that was never my intention. I had made a ballet to Piazzolla's music, so it had the mood of tango but I had put the girls in pointe-shoes.

"Because, you know, nothing can spin faster than a dancer on pointe. Even the women who dance tango in Argentina, or on-stage in very high heels, can't quite match that quick, precise quality that comes from having only this little bit of contact with the floor," he measures a scant inch-and-a-half of air with his fingers.

"And of course, like very high heels, pointe-shoes make the legs look really long, elegant, glamourous." The smile at the corners of his mouth is a reminder of how a frisson of the erotic, the sensual and sexual is never far from centre-stage in Van Manen's choreographies.

"Without it, everything would be boring," he says. "In my ballets, the dancers always look at each other. They connect. Whatever occurs between two people is always a dialogue – and there is always an erotic side to that. Without eroticism, there is no life. Why would we watch?"

There is a wise honesty, as well as roguish humour, in what he says – a self-aware thumbnail sketch of his own most successful and potently affecting work.

Five Tangos delivers more than fabulous steps that ooze panache and tease the eye with their brinkmanship: it offers slices of everyday life in the way the dance also carries the language of relationships, from flirty attraction to tense conflict or from separation to re-negotiated partnerships.

Tonight, he'll see how Scottish Ballet take to his tangos. The company already has some of his works in their repertoire but this piece for seven couples will certainly test the dancers' mettle, and their acting skills.

"I'm very bad at telling stories," he says. "That's why I never make full-length ballets. But tango is full of drama, it has a history."

In Five Tangos, Hans Van Manen clearly has the master's touch with both.

Scottish Ballet will give the company premiere of Five Tangos as part of a triple bill that opens at Glasgow's Theatre Royal tonight and runs until Saturday, before going on tour.

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