DAVID DAWSON: The Romantic Choreographer
Article by Maggie Foyer
The words ‘romantic’ and ‘ballet’ rarely conjure cutting edge modernity, that is unless you’re writing about David Dawson. He is a choreographer with a strong allegiance to classical ballet yet his artistic associates in music and design are the foremost and most innovative in their fields. Dawson is unique in taking the classical technique to the limits of the human body to carve out a twenty-first century aesthetic, then matching it to the emotional nexus of love, life and death, which lies at the heart of each of his ballets.
Dawson’s choreography is challenging. It moves the dancers from their comfort zones and demands mental and physical agility. He needs dancers who share his passion and go to the depths and heights with him. Courtney Richardson, who created Isolde in the 2015 Dresden Semperoper production of Tristan and Isolde, said, ‘you can feel his energy, his passion for what he’s doing. He knows what he wants, and he’ll push to get it.’ Dawson has the reputation of a hard taskmaster, but the results are astounding. One dancer watching a video playback in the studio blurted out, ‘Did I do that?’ Continuing a previous conversation, I asked if he still expected his dancers to fly? He smiled. ‘Yes, and they do! They are a joy to watch. Taking a performance beyond the limit is what makes it special. It takes the dancer beyond the realm of their imagination and into their emotions. There it becomes honest, true and very real.
Dawson says, ‘classical ballet is being danced differently today. It’s a slow, quiet evolution and kind of amazing. Suddenly you’re confronted with new generations of dancers who have been educated in new ways, new styles and even when they dance the classics, it’s astounding how fresh they look and how beautifully they are danced.’
Born in London, Dawson now lives in Berlin and is equally at home in Amsterdam, where he is artistic associate to Het Nationale Ballet. He joined the company as a dancer in 1995 and has maintained his relationship over the years. ‘But’, he says, ‘it was never a plan to become a choreographer. I just wanted to create. Coming to Amsterdam was like a liberation. It was somewhere I was accepted for all of my flaws. I was allowed to find my uniqueness and dance in a way that suited me. I was able to explore myself further.’
In Amsterdam, Dawson created his first major work, A Million Kisses to my Skin, in 2000. It proved a great success and continues to be danced in companies all over the world. Dawson finished his performing career in Ballett Frankfurt with William Forsythe. ‘Bill, was another incredibly important person in my life. The company culture and how everybody worked together was another push towards becoming more self-productive and self-reliant. Bill put things together in a way that is interesting, and that still inspires me as a choreographer.’
His time in Ballett Frankfurt was not a ‘goodbye to classicism’ as he thought it might be as he returns more and more to it in his choreography. ‘I am part of an artform, I love classical ballet and the incredible beauty to be found in an arabesque. Respect for the art runs through my whole schooling, who formed me and what formed me. There are my memories, my inspirations and things that are almost mythic, like Svetlana Beriosova teaching us Saturday morning classes. I will never forget it my whole life. These things spur you forward and 1 propel you to be brave, and creating ballet needs an enormous amount of courage.’
Dawson’s brand of ballet defies conventions. It is not the child’s world of rainbows and unicorns neither is it the Imperial courts of kings and queen. Working with costume designer, Yumiko Takeshima, also a former dancer with Het Nationale, Dawson’s ballets are off-limits to tulle, tiaras and tutus. Dawson believes ballet can be about ordinary people and engage with tough contemporary ideas. His concern for threatened values of diversity and empathy inspired Citizen Nowhere, (2017), a tour de force for a male dancer that won Edo Wijnen the coveted Zwaan Award. It was built on a raft of ideas: political statements, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s, The Little Prince and themes of loneliness and statelessness came together accompanied by a commissioned score from Szymon Brzóska and wrapped in Eno Henze’s set and video projections. It was ballet immersed in finest contemporary art.
The Four Seasons, created in Dresden in 2018, is part of the new triple bill. The title suggests abstraction but for Dawson, ‘the ballet represents life, the life around us and the life we experience from birth to earth. The fresh green of spring, or the bare branches of winter. All the colours are experiences and emotions and even when something ends, it’s about to begin. I find that really inspiring because it represents hope.’
The ballet has an ensemble of ten dancers and three lead couples and features some of Dawson’s most thrilling pas de deux. The dancers are dressed in body tights, designed by Takeshima in a kaleidoscope of colours and lit by Bert Dalhuysen while Henze’s set designs features geometric shapes to embody the changing season. He chose Max Richter for the music. ‘I created Nature of Daylight to his music and wanted to return to it for the beauty, the melancholy and the modernity.’
In Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, to give the full title, Dawson finds affinity with his own philosophy. ‘It’s bridging time. You have the Vivaldi recomposed and sometimes you’re fooled into thinking you’re listening to the original. I try to do that with dance where I’m using classical ballet but in a different way, so the audience understand what they are seeing in terms of the classicism yet at the same time you’re taking them forward. It’s evolution.’
Choreography is one of the most personal expressions of art. Dawson remembered a friend saying, ‘When I watch Million Kisses, I always see ten Davids on stage.’ Dawson has worked with many of the world’s greats and observes how style comes from the choreographer’s nature and their individuality. ‘When you see a Van Manen piece, you see Hans in the work very, very clearly. You would say the same of Forsythe, of how Bill dances, his knowledge and his experience.’
The studio has been a safe space for Dawson since his first ballet class at seven years old. It’s the place he nurtures his ideas. ‘Each piece I’ve made has been a way of creating another world, full of different ideas and different emotions. My ballets are not abstract they represent emotion in different worlds. For me they are very tangible things.’ Dawson comes to the studio with his ideas prepared but creates the choreography with his dancers. ‘I really see the choreography as 2 a guide for the dancers to express their artistry. For me the most interesting thing is the dancers’ interpretation. Sometimes you need to let go of your ‘out of studio’ plan and then things happen, things that seem so right and natural.’
Dawson’s striving for great art is the motor that drives his creativity. ‘Without art what would humanity become? It’s an incredibly important force. I’ve been an outsider most of my life, but it was always my own self-criticism that gave me the impetus to achieve my goals. I want to make dance, I am making dance and I will go on making dance through all adversity. I enjoy my work now more than ever and every opportunity I have to create a ballet is really amazing. The struggle to create the right kind of work, the best work you can do, is not about being ‘happy’. Nevertheless, at this point in my career, I feel more free, I feel more natural, I feel the only relationship I look for is the relationship between the music and the dance and trying to achieve a symbiosis between them.’
‘I have to go through this long journey, working with the big picture. I’m thinking thirty years on and all of the ballets that I hope to create in that time. You look at A Million Kisses which I made when I was twenty-seven and you look at The Four Seasons. It’s a different period of my life and I know different things. I know what I want to make without trying to be, let’s say, ‘accepted’. I’m a romantic choreographer, so I am letting myself be so.’