on choreographing emotion through movement
David Dawson is an exceptionally busy man. As an internationally renowned choreographer, he seems never to stop working. “I don’t actually, it’s true!” He looks almost perplexed, as if this is a bit of a revelation. He says, “If I give my word to somebody, I must do all I can to make it happen. It’s been difficult recently because of Covid, with each project coming so close to the next, so right now I’ve just completed 11 productions in 9 months.”
I’m secretly pleased that he has found a window to talk to me before he speaks to Peter Gregson, the British composer. He explains, “We will be doing a full evening work for National Ballet of Canada in 2025. We are both very eager to have the experience of working together, not just that he composes music and I create the dance to it.”
Right now I want to take him back to his professional beginnings. I have read that he felt as if he’d been a failure as a dancer and wonder why. He tells me, “I didn’t always have enough courage. I was very afraid of being wrong. It held me back for a long time. It was within my personal life too, always doing what someone wanted me to do, looking for approval. That’s all in the past now and I’ve been making my best work because I feel so free… As a dancer, if you feel free, you can fly… I ‘found’ myself as a dancer once I became a choreographer, because I still dance through my ballets somehow. It’s a beautiful thing because I think somehow every dancer remains a dancer forever.”
There is an expression frequently linked to him: emotional physicality. It somehow describes accurately Dawson’s ability to let the dancers speak volumes without the need for narrative. He says, “Ballet is a language, and it is how you speak it that is so important. We are all drawn to performances where people can express their feelings about humanity, about who we are and what connects us. For me it’s all about these feelings… To become more than just classicism, more than a series of poses or positions.
“From the beginning, I was always interested in how I could connect shapes, one shape to another. If I can find a way to create movement that can get someone to connect together with their spirit or their body – to go somewhere else, to a place beyond. Dance should be a way to express an emotion… When you watch someone performing they are in a constant state of becoming – something more than human. It’s as if the dream you have inside of you is so big that it becomes the only way you can fulfil that feeling.”
He elaborates, “I try to combine movements to music as a way for a dancer to be an expressive artist, rather than someone who is just dancing something correctly. But it’s still a bit of a dichotomy because I am very particular about how a step is done. So on one side we aim to achieve a certain amount within the technique, but on the other the dancers are free to discover how they feel. It’s an oil and water situation. But if you manage to find a connection then that physical emotionality is released.
“Then comes the moment on stage, in performance, and that’s the most pure thing I can think of – that is when we can share each other’s truth. Over the years I’ve become more connected to that kind of truth. Helping the dancer to find a way to this abandonment within themselves and then share that with everybody, because when you’re watching it as an audience, you’re experiencing it… That is based on the performer who is dancing your work, it’s not only about the choreography. Choreography is something like a map, it’s a tool dancers use to perform. If the combination of the choreography and music works well, then we can all create something special together, I hope.”
His choreographic voice is very distinctive, and I wonder how he goes about casting his dancers, what he looks for. “They should know who they are and what they want. Have courage, wisdom, education, knowledge. They need to trust the journey, they should try to be open. It’s not always easy to do that, sometimes people hide because they’re afraid. Sometimes you can see a person and know who they are, through their eyes. I try to bring them somewhere, as part of a journey. It’s all about the piece we are working on. It can only come to life if it’s performed well, if it’s sung well or in this case, danced to the heavens.”
He continues, “When you’re standing in a room with the dancers in front of you, who are waiting to be given a step that you have to deliver in that one moment, there is a kind of alchemy that happens – an understanding of what I’m trying to do, an open-heartedness. It’s a lot! But it’s never about creating perfection, it’s always only ever about the process. We need to work without fear, en face, we cannot hide. So now, making the work I have made, I try to share my truth. It’s the only way I can make classical ballet.”
He expands a little, “We learn a language and it has to move through the centuries. Otherwise we are at risk of creating museum work. I’m free to do that now. I don’t know how many more works I will be able to create but I know it’s not going to go on forever. I have been producing a lot of work for the last 25 years and at some point the work has to start to slow down, become more measured, in a way more rare or more precious. My ballets are very physical, I have to be physical and I have to train everyday to try and stay in shape enough to go in to the studio… You pull your calf – how can you choreograph?”
I wonder if he wants to change things when he revisits his earlier works. “I can refine, make things more sophisticated. I can… look for a more poetic movement, more elegant and elegiac, so that the line can connect through everything. I can apply that to my work now in different ballets so that my style can be stronger.”
He’s honest about the way he approaches the day ahead. He says, “You have to try not to think ‘I’m not good enough’. Your inner saboteur is there anyway. I’m very self-critical about everything I do. Yet when you’re in creation mode it’s different – I am inside the painting trying to paint my way out of it somehow. But when I’m able to revisit those earlier works it can be a delight. Working on an existing ballet with a new company, you can reinvent the dynamics in a new way and that can be thrilling.”
This coming season he’s creating something new for Stuttgart Ballett, Dutch National Ballet are performing Anima Animus for the first time, his Romeo and Juliet and The Four Seasons return to the Semperoper, Metamorphosis in Perth, a double bill in Dortmund of Metamorphosis and Affairs of the Heart, Scottish Ballet revive his Swan Lake, and his Giselle returns to Karlsruhe. In September this year, English National Ballet will dance the world premiere of his Four Last Songs (Richard Strauss).
He says, “Sometimes you find yourself working with dancers who are so creative that you experience an artistic dialogue that is beautiful. It all depends on their level of experience and their confidence, what they know about my work and if they can really understand the music. But it’s never guaranteed and sometimes you can get stuck. For Four Last Songs I had always envisioned the dancers to be descending inside the dome of a cathedral, as if they were angels. I wanted it to be a choreographic ruin in some way. To take away the sharp edges, the clean finish, to try and create something more unreadable, more expressive. It’s as if they are messengers, arriving to remind us about forever.”
In my mind, I think of Dawson as the expert of ‘no visible preparation’. In other words, the audience is never aware of what’s coming next. There’s no easy settling in, expectant readiness for a pirouette. “That’s because I say every step is a preparation for the next movement,” he says. “You’re always in that state of becoming something else.”