British choreographer David Dawson is one of the most innovative dance makers working within classical ballet today. He is currently creating a new piece in Amsterdam for The Dutch National Ballet. ICONS Inspire spoke with David Dawson about his motivation, fears and his latest work, Citizen Nowhere.
You had a successful career as a dancer. Which influences from that period of your life have impacted you most as a choreographer?
David Dawson: Being trained in England, my first major choreographic influences were Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan, but going back further it would be important to credit my early development through doing the great full evening classical ballets. Those works are just astonishing in terms of quality and I’m very grateful to Sir Peter Wright for those experiences, dancing those incredible roles — it’s rare and doesn’t happen for everyone. I moved to Holland (Dutch National Ballet) because I was desperate to learn Balanchine. I absolutely loved the physical musicality of his work, particularly the “black and white” Ballets like Agon, Symphony in Three Movements, and The Four Temperaments. In Amsterdam we worked also with Hans van Manen, another great master and important support for me when I was younger. It was at this point that I created my first choreography for the Dutch National Ballet. From there I went to Ballett Frankfurt, to work with William Forsythe, which I suppose was my final fling with my dance career. I was there for two years, but I was able to experience a ballet company in a different way. For me it was about becoming an adult. You were given responsibility for the creative act that was occurring, and interpretation became very vivid. It was an amazing group of great masters that I was fortunate enough to experience. It’s as if each gave me a different shade of colour to who I became and who I am still becoming.
What made you decide to leave such a vibrant dance career at a young age? Was there a moment that made you realise choreography was your calling?
DD: In my opinion, I failed as a dancer — because of fear. When I started to choreograph, I became free of that fear. I spent so much of my childhood and my dance career being a very insecure person. I was gifted, but I was very much in need of guidance and direction from others. When Wayne Eagling asked me to make my first piece in Amsterdam, I felt I had some control of my art for the first time and it became addictive to choreograph because it was in the act of creating that I felt free. When I’m creating, I feel an unrelenting surge of energy that I just can’t turn off. As soon as a rehearsal is finished, I can’t wait to get back into the studio again. I just want to be there — creating dance. I feel compelled to create these emotionally driven shapes in movement and for them to be shared and understood in some way. I want the dancers to experience what I didn’t experience as a dancer. It’s as if you light a firework and you see the sparks fly. You know it’s dangerous and you know it could all end in tears, but nevertheless, you just can’t wait for the colours and the light. Because you know it can be. It CAN be.
Do you think you would have become a choreographer if you weren’t introduced to classical ballet?
DD: The fate of being introduced to classical ballet? Well, it was kind of just luck. What does one make of that? It was like following the yellow brick road — when you come to the fork in the road, you choose one way or another. I chose my road because it was an escape. An escape from where I came from and what I could possibly become. It wasn’t handed to me on a plate; I had to be strong enough every day to look for it and then fight for it. But as soon as I discovered ballet, I couldn’t get enough of it. For me, being a dancer was my training ground and where I learned my language. Then I could go on to use that language and make it my own.
What sparks your creative process?
DD: I’ve been asked many times, “What is the big bang moment?” And I have to say that I can’t really pinpoint that because it involves so many different things. Once you ask a question, you have to find a solution, and then another question and another solution, and another. All of those things start rolling around and only then can the process truly begin. There is no specific recipe for how I approach something. But there is one thing that remains true in all of my works: They all come directly from somewhere inside of me. When I made my A Million Kisses to my Skin I was 27 — and that was still me. Regardless of what processes were in place at that time or what was happening around me, it was still me. I’m still me. There are many things that make every creation different, but that is the one thing that connects everything I do.
You are working on a new piece called Citizen Nowhere in Amsterdam. Could you discuss the origins of the piece?
DD: Citizen Nowhere started off as a response to my own artistic journey. Any creative act is a very personal investment that takes a lot of thought and self-criticism. Through the years I’ve discovered what I need for my process. I know that I need time. I know that I need clarity. Being a choreographer today can sometimes feel like an endless stream of producing, like you can’t stop, or you shouldn’t stop. Citizen Nowhere came as an antidote to everything I’d experienced in the last three years. I had just finished making two full-length ballets, Swan Lake, and Tristan and Isolde, as well as The Human Seasons for The Royal Ballet and Empire Noir and Overture for Dutch National Ballet. So I decided my next creation would be a solo. For Citizen Nowhere I drew a line in the sand. I acknowledged to myself that I needed silence. That I wanted to reduce. That I wanted an experience of creativity that would be really unique. I decided to take the risk and follow my instinct to create the space around me for a more intimate experience. I wanted to create a tour de force for a particular dancer who I’ve been working with since 2011. Edo Wijnen is in some sense a muse for me, but really in the way of being able to be my physical voice. We have worked together now on a symbiotic level for years, so I will have the space to go further with my creativity and my ideas in this project. Citizen Nowhere is an opportunity to be who I am now. To express what drives me — what really drives the passion in my heart and soul, and leave the pressure behind for at least one project.
The Little Prince was one of the inspirations behind Citizen Nowhere. Could you discuss how the story relates to your new work?
DD: The Little Prince is in fact one of the top ten most read books in the history of mankind, so it’s a very big part of our humanity and society. The story shows how the solitary existence of being a human is the most precious thing in the world. Even if you are surrounded by a million people, you still experience your own pain. You still experience your own truth, your fear, and your joy. No one can experience those things for you. That is the miracle of being human. With this in mind, I began to focus on what the themes of the story really meant to me, and it has developed into something much larger than the story. I have never made ballets that are political, but this has become my way of having a voice about some topics that are happening in the world that worry me. The boy in the book — he is every single one of us. But his every knock on every doorway is reciprocated with silence. There is nothing coming back to him and that is the tragedy. We lose such a beautiful spirit and soul in this story and we don’t know until it is too late.
Do you consider yourself a citizen of nowhere?
DD: I left my home country when I was 23 years old and I’ve lived in continental Europe ever since. I built my life here. My home is here. I was totally heartbroken with the results of the British referendum to leave Europe. I woke up the next day and just kept saying, “I am European. I am. No one can tell me any differently.” Then shortly afterwards, the British Prime Minister said, “If you believe yourself to be a global citizen, then you are a citizen of nowhere.” This raised feelings that I had never felt before in my entire life. I had no choice but to take it as a personal insult based on an isolationist mentality that is sweeping the globe. We have come up against a 21st century problem that affects so many people unjustly. I think of the image of the three-year-old refugee boy who was found lying in the sand after he tragically drowned while trying to escape the war in his country. That image caused an outrage in the public eye. People couldn’t believe it was happening, but still the majority voted for exclusion rather than inclusion. When people who have an opposing opinion to mine, about life and the world, make choices for me, it makes me feel powerless. It makes me feel alone. It makes me feel like a citizen of nowhere. But I know as human beings we are all the most incredible and unique miracles; however, just like in The Little Prince, we sometimes aren’t aware of what we are giving up to move forward. The book was written in 1942 when the world was in a similar kind of crisis and in some way it can be read as a warning.
So in many ways, Citizen Nowhere is a political statement?
DD: It’s political. It’s personal. It’s cultural. It’s professional. It’s about challenging myself within my craft. It’s many, many different things. When I began work on the piece I didn’t know that all of these political events were going to happen. It’s made the piece evolve and it’s become my refuge. I’ve decided that if I don’t have the power to change the world, I do have power to decide how I want to live within the world right now — day by day. As much as Citizen Nowhere becomes an abstract portrait of the novel, it also becomes a portrait about childhood, love, immortality, friendship and fear. It’s all of these things; so in essence it is a portrait about being a human.
You’ve made many narrative as well as abstract ballets. Do all of your works have some form of narrative, even if it’s a hidden one? Where does Citizen Nowhere fall?
DD: It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. What I’ve discovered is that I’m less interested in defining the differences between an abstract ballet and a narrative ballet; it’s the similarities between the two that I’m looking at more closely now. Citizen Nowhere has taken on a multi- narrative form which one could think of as being abstract. However, it’s impossible for anything to be really abstract because when you look at an abstract image there is still a narrative force present. Your brain is making some kind of sense of the abstraction. That’s why I love abstraction — it opens up a real personal response for the viewer. But my own intentions for the work become almost irrelevant. It’s up to the observer to find out what it means to them. That said, you can’t expect everyone to make sense of your work. You have to remain humble as an artist. But I know what my work is about and what it means to me and that’s why I make it. It can only mean what it means to me personally. I do not expect it to mean the same to anybody else.
What are your work processes? How do you prepare for a new creation?
DD: I’m working all the time — every moment. I’m constantly looking for many different aspects of what I will take into the studio and what I have to say. It’s like humming a tune; my body sings the shapes that I’m choosing to create. Once I can see clarity in that, then I’m able to address the issues within what I see. The first point of departure is an honesty of movement and emotion. Also a big part of the responsibility relies on the dancers’ ability and expertise. It’s never said enough, but the dancers’ own imagination, creativity and understanding of themselves are essential to translate ideas and go forward from the initial starting point. People are often surprised to find out how I am as a person outside the studio. When I’m in the studio, the only thing that matters is what we are all there to do. The Piece, The Art, The Dance — nothing else matters. Outside the studio I’m completely the opposite and I care very much about everyone’s individual development and feelings. You can never fully prepare for a creation. You learn by doing. I could compare it to going into the forest with all the supplies you can carry. You are okay for few days, but once your matches are gone and your food and water supplies run out, you have to learn how to make the forest work for you. You have to survive without what you’ve come prepared with. You have to use what is right in front of you.
How would you describe your style?
DD: Style comes when you are honest and natural and pure to your own voice and you are not second-guessing yourself or trying to make something that other people approve of. This runs parallel to being a person. What I used to expect from people, or the kind of love I wanted in the past, has evolved. My style has in a sense become more and more defined, because I’ve become freer and more confident in my body and my mind. I can better understand how to express my ideas.
How has your approach to creation shifted or developed over time?
DD: I’ve gone through different phases in my career. At the beginning, I was very interested in what the body was doing within itself, and later I became very interested in what the body was doing in space and in relationship to other people. I’m very lucky because everything I’ve ever done has been a self-discovery. Addressing subject matter that is philosophical, spiritual, factual, historical and mathematical has given me a rich experience as a person. I feel like I’ve never stopped learning and I never want that to end. An obsession with ideas has never left me. I often speak about the same things over and over, and I’m sure dancers get tired of hearing them! I constantly refer to the Vitruvian man. I constantly refer to the Fibonacci code. I think of Monet painting water lilies hundreds of times. These are things that are just kind of obsessive. I don’t believe I’ve made my best work yet, and as far as I’m concerned, time is always running out. I am searching for a perfect creation. My body is now older, but my maturity level is higher and I hope my best work is still yet to come. Having said that, I am also learning to accept my achievements and can choose for myself what my work means to me — not only what others think of it. This is a very different part of my personhood that has come to the surface lately. I’m accepting who I am, who I’ve been, and how I pursue my art form today.
You mentioned earlier that as a dancer you believe fear obstructed your career. How do you deal with fear as a choreographer?
DD: In some ways I have to protect myself. There are many highly pressurized situations and many expectations all around me. Whether it’s in the press or in the studio, you can end up being pulled into places that are not healthy. I take my work very seriously. Every single creation is so important to me. It’s never a walk in the park, which has probably been hard at times for the people working with me. It has been like a matter of life and death…all the time. In a way, Citizen Nowhere is a cure for my artist self. My Mona Lisa. But I am also unsure of this piece and it’s place in the world. Just like The Little Prince and his place in the world. But I feel confident making this piece in Amsterdam because Ted Brandsen really believes in my work. So I have to be brave. We all have to be brave.