This article was first published in 2016 for the Swan Lake souvenir programme. Get access to newly commissioned, exclusive articles like the one below in our 2020 Swan Lake souvenir programme, available to pre-ordernow or in-theatre.
By Mary Brennan.
David Dawson is disarmingly frank: choreographing a new Swan Lake wasn’t an urgent ambition on his to do list. He had his reasons, of course.
A diary crammed with commissions saw him more or less constantly on the road — 2015 alone saw him creating new works for SemperOper and for Dutch National Ballet while keeping an eye on re-stagings of existing ballets. 'Chris just wouldn’t give up,' he laughs — the Chris being Scottish Ballet’s CEO/Artistic Director, Christopher Hampson, and a long-standing friend ever since their shared days at ballet school. 'I probably said "no" eight times over the years', he continues, clearly still amused at how resistance proved futile. 'I’d point out how many great Swan Lakes there were already. How many different Swan Lakes there were already — traditional classic versions, more contemporary ones, Matthew Bourne’s re-working with all-male swans… But somehow I still found myself here, in a studio over a year ago, working with Sophie Martin and Christopher Harrison on early material for the production that Scottish Ballet will premiere in their spring tour. Thing is — I don’t really remember saying "yes"'.
He’ll add that it’s been intense, exhausting even, but the energy in his voice suggests he doesn’t regret taking up the challenge.
Though Dawson was born in London, trained there (from the age of seven) and danced his first major roles in the UK, his profile as an award-winning choreographer has been forged almost entirely on the stages of mainland Europe, not in the UK. This, in itself, makes his first ever full-length Swan Lake something of a coup for Scottish Ballet. The ideas, the insights and the sheer creative craft that he brings to the piece will also mark it out as a major re-engagement with an iconic ballet — one that is rooted in classical technique even as it shapes that technique, and the narrative it holds, into a meaningful experience for a 21st century audience.
'There are no tutus'. Dawson grins, a little mischievously. 'Even if that hadn’t been a part of the brief — which was, really, to give audiences a fresh look at Swan Lake — I would have drawn a line through the kind of costuming, set designs, the velvets and swags that dictate so much about how we see Swan Lake. Those design elements lead you into making assumptions: assumptions about the time and place of events, assumptions about who the characters are — I had to come at it from my own perspective, which is about simplicity in environment and complexity in terms of choreographic language'.
That complexity sees balletic forms taken to their astonishing extremes, with pointe-work balances poised on a tilt that challenges gravity to unstitch the relationship between ballerina and partner — the latter will already have countered the usual mechanics of weight transference and graceful transitions in one-arm lifts that morph into swirling turns where the ballerina is breathtakingly airborne… Kinetic sculpture on one level, but also — on a more profound level — an expression of emotions and trust. Watching, you know your own plush-enthroned body could never get off the ground let alone fly — but Dawson’s instinct for movement somehow draws you into knowing what the emotional subtext is within the imagery, the effort, the flesh-and-blood physicality.
In this Swan Lake, he has evolved significant movement palettes: one for the human world that Siegfried inhabits, and another for the scenes which he describes as intrinsically ‘creature’ based. He pauses, almost in mid-sentence here. Partly because he’s still creating choreography and is loath to tie free-form discoveries down in words, and partly because he’s not keen to have audiences decide what to think in advance by giving too much away in programme notes! He does, however, go on to explain that for him, Swan Lake is 'Siegfried’s story, a kind of coming-of-age journey where a young boy — an innocent who doesn’t really fit into the ‘real’ world — becomes a man because of the choices he makes, and because some of those choices turn out to be mistakes he regrets but can’t change'.
And the Swan herself? Dawson refuses to show her as a victim. 'In my version she is not a prisoner of any kind of spell. Rather she is a goddess, a divine being in her own right — and free to make her own choices in terms of her relationship with Siegfried'. Rather than take the 19th century romantic scenario at face value, Dawson went researching into other source material. He came across a mythic version that sparked his imagination. 'It described these goddess-creatures who, once every hundred years, would come to bathe in the lake so as to replenish their beauty and immortality. The chances of anyone ever seeing them… it shouldn’t happen, but Siegfried has, yet again, gone off by himself, and — like something out of his own inner imaginings — he encounters the exquisitely ethereal Odette'.
Their first pas-de-deux — which has gone global, ever since Scottish Ballet posted an early studio rehearsal of it on their website — saw Dawson testing out his ‘creature-palette’ of movements for Odette, and exploring how the shades (and shapes) of her body lines could signal her as different from Siegfried even as they spoke to his innate need for something ‘other’ and life-changing to enter his isolation. Dawson frequently refers to his choreographic processes as being linked into a kind of spontaneous instinct. 'I knew I wanted to bring together two different kinds of physicality — the scenes where we are dealing with people, I saw as having more of a virtuosity of technique. The ‘creature’ based scenes for me were about a virtuosity of poetry, and a palette that even though it was inevitably limited by what I could ask human bodies to risk, could still convey the spirit of this goddess, Odette. The pas-de-deux, especially, was about the initiation of trust between them — and for me, trust is love. So as I’m watching Chris and Sophie trying out moves, it’s really my instinct shouting out "No! Yes! No! YES!" — because our instincts can sense, can know, truths that we haven’t thought through'.
His own instincts have, so far, kept him overtly unsettled. He lives in Berlin, but doesn’t work there. He has left residencies with some of Europe’s most prestigious companies, rather than see his own creative identity subsumed into some corporate image that basks in his talents but doesn’t necessarily reflect his interests. 'It is — a bit like Siegfried’s journey in Swan Lake — a matter of making choices, and then living by them', he says. 'And who knows? Maybe, like Siegfried, I’ve made mistakes. But you can only learn, and go forward, if you use your choices to enable a more confident and direct connection with your art and your audience. Would I have made a Swan Lake if Chris had taken my first, or even my second "no" as a definite refusal?' He half-shrugs. It’s time to head back to the lake-side where a story is still unfolding. A story that melds myth and reality with grace in both body and soul. 'These stories are about people', he muses. 'About relationships, choices, consequences. Love. I connect with them because I try to see myself in the characters. It is the human aspect of the story that interests me. I think every generation can retell these stories from their own perspective and make us think again about what they really mean. These are stories that are happening every day'.