David Dawson


The story of Scottish Ballet’s powerful new take on Swan Lake

Article by Mary Brennan
Published on heraldscotland.com
March 2016

Swan Lake is certainly the best-known classical ballet, much loved, much parodied and drawing huge audiences. David Dawson who has written this new interpretation for Scottish Ballet sees it as the dance equivalent of De Vinci’s Mona Lisa. There are many versions of the traditional ballet, but the famous white act remains instantly recognisable with iconic poses and dancers in feathered headdresses and white tutus.

Dawson had written a very successful neo-classical Giselle but had not yet considered Swan Lake. It was Scottish Ballet’s CEO/Artistic Director, Christopher Hampson who pressured him to tackle it. Dawson revealed, ‘Chris believed I could do it, more than I did! I wasn’t sure how I could reinvent it, what I had to offer. It had always seemed so imperial and I’m a great believer in equality for all people.’

With this in mind, Dawson created a Swan Lake that modern audiences could relate to. ‘It’s about trust, love and betrayal. Odette gives Siegfried her precious heart-stone and when he gives it to Odile the trust is broken, the relationship changes and things can never be the same again. When Odette and her swans disappear in the final act, Siegfried is devastated. For him it’s a coming of age story. He has to experience this moment to unlock his feeling and move forward. I wanted the people who watch to be included, to see themselves on stage and relate to the love story. Siegfried has experienced his first heartbreak. But once you’ve known true love, you are able to return it, to share it and that is the greatest gift of all.’

Rothbart, the evil magician who holds the swan maidens captive has been eliminated. ‘I removed Rothbart because his presence made Odette passive. My Odette is a powerful, magical creature.’ Dawson rewrote the narrative, using another German legend about swan maidens. Existing within their own reality, they appear once a millennium to bathe in particular lakes to rejuvenate their beauty and magical powers. It’s Siegfried’s destiny to see them in this very rare moment and fall madly in love with Odette. Siegfried is a dreamer, he lives a lot in his mind, so you have to ask yourself the question; is this just part of his imagination? 

The first Swan Lake, choreographed by Julius Reisinger in 1877, was not a success. However, the second act revived at the Mariinsky Theatre with choreography by Lev Ivanov in 1894 was such a success that Petipa and Ivanov rechoreographed the complete ballet the following year. ‘Ivanov has always been a hero of mine,’ says Dawson, ‘so the choreography for the swans was going to be the most beautiful movement I could create. I wanted to emphasise the bird-like quality: gliding on the water and taking flight. The arabesque played an incredibly important role. We’re imitating nature, but in a stylised way to surpass the human condition.’ As Ivanov introduced movements more modern than Petipa’s formal classicism, so Dawson takes the swan movement forward to the twenty-first century in his distinctive neo-classical style. The torso is the focal point where the movement starts, expanding into the upper body so arms appear to grow from the spine and lifts swoop and fly like birds.

Rewriting the most famous of pas de deux was a particular challenge. ‘I remember walking into the studio to begin the white swan pas de deux – it was like going to the gallows! I was looking at a mountain and I was at the bottom. I thought, “I can’t reach the summit, it’s too far, it’s too difficult.” But I kept going and when you reach the top, you have this view! It’s very rewarding.’ First shown in 2016, this breathtaking pas de deux became a YouTube sensation when it was viewed worldwide.

Dawson’s choreography is challenging by any standards, but he says the secret is to think of movement as process. ‘Dancers often take movements position by position and I have always been against that. When it’s all connected, it’s not difficult. Every step is a preparation for the next step, so you’re in the constant state of becoming something new, and you’re free. Then when you really know the choreography, you can start to interpret the movements and it’s pure pleasure.’ When you see his swans gliding on the lake you will understand what he means although most of us will only ever manage the moves in our imagination.

The second scene of each act, at the lakeside, is otherworldly but the first scenes play out in the real world. In the traditional Swan Lake these are designed with elaborate costumes in palace ballrooms. Dawson rejected the grandeur, ‘I wanted it to be inclusive. I didn’t want spectators watching history, I want the characters to be you and me.’ The opening scene of the ballet is pastoral with the virtuosity and spectacle saved for the party that opens act two. Dawson decided against the traditional 32 fouettés for Odile, but there are plenty of other thrills. ‘The dancers love the challenge of virtuosity and audiences love to see them succeed.’ In contrast to the lyricism of the lakeside this is a sophisticated, glamorous world and Odile is a pleasure seeker, beguiling Siegfried into giving her the precious jewel.

The tutu, another essential feature of the swan persona, has also been consigned to history. In its place are exquisite embroidered leotards that show the lines and the bodies to perfection and, of course, there is still the magnificence of Tchaikovsky’s score.

It is four years since Dawson was in Glasgow to create the ballet. ‘Scottish Ballet has made me feel very welcome. The dancers are warm and open and have created a very productive environment. Since I was last here, the company is so much stronger. A lot of the younger ones have grown up and I feel incredibly proud to see what they are achieving. It’s wonderful to watch dancers grow. The relationship is direct and fresh and that provides the opportunity for me to give something back.’ 

This article was originally posted on heraldscotland.com, March 2016
Copyright © 2016 by Mary Brennan / Herald Scotland