Church of Scotland Hall, London WC2 On behalf of the members of the London Ballet Circle Allison Potts welcomed David Dawson and thanked him for making time in his hectic programme to speak to us. David had just arrived from Singapore where he had been working with the Singapore Dance Theatre during the Arts Festival, which had included the Asian premiere of David’s work called ‘A Million Kisses to my Skin’. Allison began by asking how that engagement had come about. DD: I was helped by the Choo San Goh Foundation in 2005 on a production I was doing in Holland - my last one there. I was working with a composer, and the Foundation helped me with a grant which it gives to choreographers working on new productions. Later they asked me to go to their company’s 20th anniversary and present some of my own work - as a sort of ‘thank you’ for the award. Tim (Couchman, Dresden’s Ballet Master), and I were there for five weeks working with a small company of dancers. They are a very talented and very nice group of people. It was very hot and there was no air conditioning but they did a marvellous premiere on Friday night.
AP: You are in to London now to coach the English National Ballet in the same piece.
DD: Yes, they did it for the first time a year and a half ago but I was only here for the premiere which was outside of London. I didn’t get to see the London premiere as I was in Antwerp at the time making a new ballet, but I was born here and I really wanted to be in London for a show of something of mine. So I’ve come back now to try to put everything right after a year and a half of the company not dancing it. Plus I’ve made some changes to the ballet as well. I wanted the music to be faster and I wanted to do some corrections to the lights so I am here to oversee the production. It is at the Festival Hall which is where I made my professional debut in Nutcracker with the London Festival Ballet when I was about 12 years old - so it is kind of a nice full circle.
AP: Tell us how the piece got its name. DD: Whenever I make a piece it is formed of a series of ideas or layers. One layer of A Million Kisses to My Skin was the fact that I was quitting my classical ballet career and moving to Frankfurt to work with William Forsythe so I really felt like I wanted to show everything I had learnt via the classical ballet choreographers like Ashton, MacMillan and Balanchine. I wanted to show that I had learnt something from them and to say ‘Goodbye’ to my classical career. When a dancer is on stage and everything is going well – when you are turning and jumping; when you are warm and not in pain and the lights are perfect and the music is perfect - you can just sort of disappear in your own ecstasy and that gives you goose-bumps – that’s also what it is about. As a dancer I didn’t get that feeling very often because I was concentrating on other things and so when I made this ballet - which was my first big commission – I wanted to give the dancers that opportunity to feel free; expressive without rules or borders. This meant we were going for extreme physical levels and that can also give the sensation that you just disappear into the picture you are creating, and into the music. So that is where the title A Million Kisses to My Skin came from. It was also a commission for a Bach festival which was kind of wonderful and awful all at the same time because I had to go through many, many pieces of Bach’s music to find something I really felt attached to – so how wonderful it was that through this I got to know a lot of Bach’s work but I was also overwhelmed by his vast library. I found his first piano concerto, and when I first played it I just wrote down the ballet. It was so obvious, so clear, so the creation felt organic and it felt good and comfortable.
AP: Take us right back to the beginning. Tell us about your training. DD: I’ve been told by my mother that I was always dancing around. I really enjoyed it and everyone could tell I enjoyed it. One day she got a call from my headmistress at school who said ‘David has asked to put on a show at Assembly tomorrow. Has he told you about it?’ and she said ‘No’. So she crept into the Assembly Hall next morning. I had my record player and I put the needle down and I danced for about 20 minutes. It was arranged with the headmistress – who was a wonderful woman – that I would take some ballet lessons and the closest school was Rona Hart’s Cecchetti School in Hampstead, so I started lessons there and it seemed like everything else went away. I still went to school but every day it was my goal to walk up the hill to do ballet class and learn Cecchetti which is a wonderful syllabus and really helps me today. I started off by going once a week; then twice a week then four times a week then I also became a Junior Associate so I was dancing almost every day. Then it came to the time at age 11 when you have to choose your secondary school. It was clear that it wouldn’t be right just to go to any secondary school so I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, Nesta Brooking, Arts Educational – everywhere – and, luckily, got in everywhere but I wasn’t sure if I would be strong enough to survive White Lodge as you can get thrown out if you are not good enough, so I went to Arts Educational where I thought I would be able to learn more different styles of dance. The choice of school was left completely up to me which is quite a hard choice when you are just 11 years old. I went to Arts Ed from 11 to 16 then I joined the Royal Ballet Upper School and stayed there for three years. By that point I had decided that I really wanted to do ballet so the Royal Ballet Upper School was the best place to go. It was very tough but it was also where I really found out what ballet really was and having the company around at the time in Talgarth Road was so inspiring you had something to work for all the time. Every night you could go and see these people at the Opera House and I was there every night. I had a very flexible body but it was quite weak so they sent me to Pilates classes. I had to strengthen up and it wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I want to mention Brian Lofthouse who was my teacher at Arts Ed who told me to go to the Urdang Academy after school – so I would go there every day. I am surprised I had the energy to be doing all of that! But if you want to dance, you just do it and don’t have any energy left for anything else. You just go – it’s like an addiction.
AP: Who was in your year? DD: At the Royal Ballet Upper School I was there with Adam Cooper, Timothy Couchman, Monica Zamora, Christopher Wheeldon and Matthew Hart – I started there in 1989.
AP: One of the special features of the Upper School course at that time was that choreography was a compulsory element. DD: Yes, Norman Morris and David Drew were running that department and we were all involved in it. I made one piece at school but it took me a while really to find my own voice. I had to find out who I was as a dancer and how my body worked. While you are training all this stuff is thrown at you about how it should be – you are learning this form and body architecture and you are trying to work it out and trying to do it physically. It was hard to know what that meant for me choreographically so I made a conscious decision when I was 17 or 18 years old to wait. I saw my dancing career as a training period for being a choreographer. I didn’t like performing at all.
AP: Nevertheless you were very good at it. You won many awards including the Professional Level Prize at the Prix de Lausanne and Alicia Markova’s Prize for most promising student.
DD: She was so kind to me. No, I’m not being modest – I always thought it was awful so I didn’t enjoy it myself. I had facility; I could jump and turn and I had nice feet and legs but for me it was like trying on different outfits – learning about what different choreographers thought; how they put ballets together; what was musicality; what was structure; what was style; what made choreography styles clearly different from each other; the philosophical ideas that go into them and what is the difference between abstract and narrative. So it was a period for me in which to find out who I was as a dancer before I was able really to go into the studio and say ‘This is what I want you to do.’ What makes the difference is what comes naturally to you as a human being; how you move and how you sense your body. When I left school I went to Birmingham Royal Ballet when the Director was Peter Wright. This was a really amazing opportunity for me to learn the basics of the classics. For me, you can’t beat Peter’s classical productions. In April I found myself telling my dancers in Giselle things that Peter had told me and that they themselves will be telling their students in time. In the studio it is important to realise that you are teaching because you can’t expect your dancers to know everything.
AP: Sir Peter put you into some fantastic roles from the outset. DD: Peter really liked me and gave me lots of opportunities and Kenneth MacMillan put me in Romeo and Juliet. In my first three months in the Company I was in the studio partnering Marion Tait, who was the first ballerina I ever saw – in Coppelia at Sadler’s Wells when I was about 10 – then I was partnering her! It was amazing and everything seems to have its circle. I did a lot of work there and because it is a touring company it is like a family. You are travelling around en masse together. You really stick together and really bond. I can’t speak highly enough of Peter who really instilled in me the importance of the theatre and understanding what the audience wants to see.
AP: In 1994 you received an invitation to join English National Ballet and you spent about a year there then moved on to the Dutch National Ballet.
DD: What happened was that Peter was leaving Birmingham and I thought it was a good time to try something different. I had been in Birmingham for three years which although wasn’t a long time, I felt I needed to see more theatre, more exhibitions and at that time in Birmingham there just wasn’t enough. At the same time we were on the road a lot so we were always busy and tired. Wayne (Eagling) called me from the Dutch National Ballet and said he would like me to go there. He had invited me before, when I left school. Derek Deane and Julie Lincoln – who was my Ballet Mistress at the time – persuaded me to stay in England and to go to London and work with English National Ballet but what was happening in ENB was the same as what had been happening in Birmingham and I wasn’t getting enough repertoire. At that point I had done a lot of the classics and a lot of Ashton and MacMillan and what I really wanted to try next was Balanchine. At the time Dutch National Ballet was the biggest European holder of Balanchine repertoire, so I went to Wayne – where I stayed for quite some time. I was living in Amsterdam which was very easy for an English person. It’s a wonderful city; it’s like being in Disneyland every day! It was a wonderful theatre too. In Amsterdam they have a great view of the arts. They want new, new and new all the time. It is very creative - they have Nederlands Dans Theater, Dutch National Ballet and Rudi van Dantzig and the whole culture is very important to them – just as important as Ashton and MacMillan are to us in England. So it was great to be able to dip a toe into that side. I just loved the Balanchine rep. The stage in Holland was massive so you could jump and fly across the stage and you could be a big as you liked to be and dance your heart out.
AP: In the press at the time you said you felt that English programming had become too narrow and that was one of things that drove you abroad. DD: For me personally, doing what I was doing, the company repertoire had become too narrow. I wanted to be as physical as I possibly could and I needed to do a more modern repertoire. I needed to have more creations made and I needed to be part of the creations and I needed to understand what it took to make a creation – all the drama, deadlines and stress that goes with it and to learn how to deal with people.
AP: You also said that it was liberating to get away from all the people who had known you half your life.
DD: Yes, that’s true. The dance world is a small world and when people see you as a student, in a way, they always see you as a student. They are always going to be older than you and part of the establishment that decides what happens. I wanted to grow up faster. I didn’t want to be looked on as a child. I had bills to pay and I had my life and I was being an adult outside of dance and I wanted to be treated as an adult inside of dance as well. I was interested in being a ballet artist not just a ballet dancer. As much as it is helpful to be told how things have been done before, I think you have to re-create and make things new all the time. Sometimes you need a fresh start and need to reinvent yourself somewhere else so you can decide who you are without carrying your mistakes from your childhood. It was refreshing to go but Wayne had known me since I was 16 – he used to teach me solos at school – so he was always there for me and was a big supporter and he is a really good friend now.
AP: Your mentors are clearly very important to you. What advice would you give someone who is just starting out now? DD: I don’t think you can go to school to learn how to be a choreographer. Just keep looking inside and keep creating. Take whatever opportunity you have – say ‘Yes’ all the time.
AP: Your first ballet was Born Slippy in 1997. How did it come about? DD: It was just a workshop ballet. The Company had a choreographic workshop every year and I felt I wanted to make something that I wanted to watch – everything, including the lighting and the steps. We had to do it after work so it was just for fun and I had a really good time making that piece. It wasn’t long – only about 12 minutes – and it was received really well. I got really good reviews from very harsh Dutch critics and I was surprised.
AP: Just two years later Wayne commissioned his first work from you – Psychic Whack. DD: Yes. I am a very opinionated person when it comes to work. I am really passionate about the morals of art. We would have fights all the time about what was right and what was wrong but he believed in me and gave me an opportunity. Sometimes I find the title first, sometimes it’s just a concept and that was how I felt after I created it!
AP: What do you think is your trademark? What are the key characteristics of a David Dawson work?
DD: You shouldn’t ask me!
Tim Couchman: David’s work shows you how you get from one step to the next – it is a continual flow of images which is a very difficult thing to accomplish.
DD: I try to see it from every possible angle on the body and try to make it look something from every angle.
AP: In 2000 you created A Million Kisses to my Skin but you also got an invitation to join Ballet Frankfurt as a Principal.
DD: I went home one night and listened to my telephone answering machine and there was William Forsythe saying ‘Hey, David, I want you to get yourself down to Frankfurt as soon as you can. You must join my company.’ So I played the message again and again and I thought ‘OK’. I had kind of ‘done’ the classical companies and the rep was beginning to repeat itself and I am really not into repeating things. I thought that either I should quit dancing or go to Frankfurt and have a final fling. So I said ‘Yes’ and went to Frankfurt, which was my first step into Germany and the German dance scene. I was there for two years. There, with Bill, I found out more about myself as a dancer than anywhere else. He leaves you to put things together yourself. You can get asked to go on stage and do a solo and you can ask ‘What are the steps?’ and he’ll say ‘I don’t know.’ You might then ask ‘When am I performing it?’ and he’ll say ‘Tonight’. You have to know what you are doing as an artist – you are not being told any more. He always says he has a company full of choreographers – that’s how the improvisation technology came about. That was another liberating moment for me. I had been used to trying hard to please the person in front of me but there, there was nobody telling you what to do. It made you break down everything you had learnt; throw it away then start again and that was where I found out how I could really move as a dancer and to put it together in a way that is interesting and I still find that very thrilling as a choreographer.
AP: Since that time you have generated an amazing collection of work. DD: I quit dancing and I didn’t know what I was going to do at all. I was jobless for the first time. I went back to Amsterdam and stayed with a friend. I had a commission to make what became The Grey Area but I had no plan about becoming a choreographer. After I made that piece there was four months of silence then the phone calls started. There were some offers from America and Scandinavia so that was how it started to get busy. It all started with The Grey Area which is a piece about not knowing and I was embracing the ‘not knowing’ – I took my hands off the steering wheel and let the Universe take over for a bit! The piece was very autobiographical. My Grandmother had just died and she had been a very important part of my life and it was difficult to grasp the reality of her death.
AP: It met with a great deal of success. You won Benois de la Danse Choreography Award and the piece was voted the Best New Production in Holland receiving the Golden Swan Award. DD: The great thing is one moment you can be working on a piece in the studio and the next you thing that happens is that piece takes you to the Bolshoi in Moscow. What comes out of your heart, spirit and mind can send you forward into all these journeys. That piece gave me a lot of experiences and took me to a lot of places.
AP: Perhaps it also contributed to you becoming Wayne Eagling’s successor as Resident Choreographer at the Dutch National Ballet?
DD: Yes. I had been in the Company as a dancer and the public liked me so it was a nice opportunity to be given the role of the house Choreographer. I took the opportunity to make as much work there as possible.
AP: In 2005 you received an invitation from the Kirov to make piece for them which went on to win Russia’s most prestigious theatre award – The Golden Mask Award for Best Choreographer– indeed you were the first English choreographer to be invited to do so. DD: Yes, I got a phone call from Makhar Vasiev, the Director of the Company, who invited me to go to St Petersburg. That was interesting because there were no footprints in the sand as they were just opening up to the West. There was no particular way things had been done before. When you go into a studio in Russia, the floors are raked and wooden and the dancers don’t speak any English so you have to show everything, all the time. They perform a different ballet every night, Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quichotte – it really is a ballet factory. Waiting for the premiere was a nightmare as nothing was done; the sets weren’t finished and everyone was going crazy but no-one was doing anything. The dancers were amazing. In the studio it looked like a disaster then all of a sudden they went on stage and it looked gorgeous. I was working with six dancers and they were really beautiful artists. It was pure magic to be at that theatre for a premiere.
AP: In 2006 you created Gentle Chapters, your last work for the Dutch National Ballet, winner of the Choo San Goh Choreography Award plus many more before going to Dresden.
DD: I was approached to help set up the company in Dresden. By that time I was quite well established and the new Director at Dresden thought I would bring more attention to the Company and could help him bring in dancers. As a choreographer, you want to have your work performed regularly by one group so you can really develop a style, so you don’t have to keep starting from scratch with a new group of people – sometimes people resist. If you have your own company, people come because they want to work with you rather than you imposing yourself on them. So I decided that it offered me a little more freedom and a lot more opportunity to develop myself. Awards are nice to have; it’s nice to have your work acknowledged but it doesn’t change anything at all.
AP: But they must open doors for you. DD: Yes, they do – that is one good thing about them. It’s nice for everybody to get together for the event as well. But I much prefer to be in the studio.
AP: Earlier this year you created your first narrative work – Giselle - which was premiered in March this year.
DD: I remember many years ago watching Marion Tait doing Giselle and I was blown away by that ballet on so many levels. Giselle is human drama – the duality – the day and the night; it’s simple, it’s human; it’s a situation that people find themselves in and it’s still relevant. I’ve always loved it for its magic and it’s been on my mind forever. I spent seven years figuring out a concept and dramaturgy that worked – I’m quite slow when it comes to these kinds of things. I wanted to simplify it and to take away class and I wanted it to be timeless and in no particular place and to make them real people – not just caricatures or clichés. In the romantic era women were treated a certain way but it’s just not like that now. I didn’t want to do a production of the original because I am not a producer – if you want to see a good Giselle, go to see Sir Peter Wright’s version. So I had to make my own version – there was no choice. But I would never do that with Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. The concept became simpler – striped down but more intense in terms of its drama. I didn’t update it to become a deconstructed modern ballet; it’s still a story ballet and it was a challenge to make that happen. You surprise yourself sometimes. You go into the studio and you can feel terrified about making it happen then, all of a sudden, the music tells you what to do and it just kind of happens then the rehearsal is finished and you realise that scene is done and that you have to get on. I had about three and half weeks to make it and it was all new choreography. It also had to have integrity and it had to be art – I didn’t want to make entertainment. So it was a dream come true to make it and it is a piece I shall be working on for the rest of my life. It is not trying to replace the original Giselle - this is my response to it.
AP: Will we have the opportunity to see your Giselle in Britain? DD: I don’t know. Pacific North West Ballet in Seattle is taking it so is the Royal Ballet Flanders in Antwerp possibly. It would be nice to bring the Dresden Company and tour it here. When I joined the Company it was with 35 new dancers out of 55 and this new Giselle really for the first time brought everybody together. It is not an easy production and they were amazing. Not just anyone can do the lead role – and I wanted it to be that way. Only a good principal dancer can do the lead role.
Question from the audience: Your dancers come from many different schools. Do their respective styles influence your choreography?
DD: Yes, absolutely. When I went to the Kirov, I made a ballet to suit them. In particular their main attributes are the upper body, arms, epaulement and attitude with the head and the lifting of the chin. Their style now is very lyrical. I made the ballet Reverence. I was in reverence to being there and one of the things that really inspired me was their attitude to bowing on stage – it was very grand – so the whole thing became about the upper body and also about the attitude of the Russian spirit. There were three very different dances: one was about the fiery redhead Natalia Sologub who came with me to Dresden; then there was Daria Pavlenko who was Death and she got dragged around the stage. She has the longest feet - beautiful. I always try to create for the dancers and to make them look good. If I am restaging something, I’ll change it for whoever is dancing it and to make them look good because I think it’s a short career and they need to enjoy every show and if you can see someone on stage taking pleasure in performing, then you believe them.
Question from the audience: When you receive a commission, like the one from the Kirov, can you choose all the elements? DD: Yes. You can choose the dancers but right now, most directors want you to make a massive ballet using the whole company. But it is the choice of the choreographer. I always insist that I am allowed to choose the people I want to work with. It is important for me – I have to love them. When I create, it comes from deep inside me and if I don’t get on with the dancer then it just doesn’t work. When I was creating Reverence, I got on really well with Natalia Sologub and as a result, she never left the stage during that piece. I had made it in sections and when we had the first run through Natalia was gasping for breath, saying that she couldn’t be on stage for that long! So I told her to stand still and catch her breath then join in again when she could! The ballet gets created through the experience you have with the people and I didn’t have any resistance from them. In the studio I am quite emotional – I tell everybody how I feel and what this means to me and the people I choose tend to jump on that – it’s not just a ballet that you make – we experience that moment together and learn something about who we are as people.
Question from the audience: How important are sets and costumes to you?
DD: They are very important – everything is important. It is all about what you want that ballet to represent to the public. I have made ballets that have almost no set but when you look closer, there is an idea behind it. In The Grey Area they say it’s just a side curtain but my idea was to shift everything to the side so that they were dancing on the wall. With the ballets that I am making now, I am playing more with the sets. I am hiring set designers – and fighting with them! I don’t want to create an obvious setting. I love modern architecture and curved lines. In Giselle, it is not a forest in Act II – it curves and swoops and creates the forest of the mind of Albrecht. If I don’t visit galleries and exhibitions I starve. I have been living in Dresden for a year and half and I am going to move to Berlin because I need to be able to go and get lost in antiquities or modern art.
On behalf of the members, Allison thanked David, and Tim, for taking time out of their busy schedule to talk and closed the meeting by wishing them every success in the future. Report by