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David Dawson, gazing at dancers during rehearsal

From his start as a principal ballet dancer in some of the world’s most revered companies (Ballett Frankfurt, English National Ballet, Dutch National Ballet), David Dawson has evolved into a renowned and much-in-demand choreographer, boldly contemporizing this centuries-old art form. Base got a moment on skype with Dawson, after two premiere engagements of his work in Europe.

Base: Besides being a choreographer, there’s so much more that you do: read sheet music and work with composers to recombine and re-imagine scores; sketch out props and costumes and work with each department to realize your vision; design sets. At what point do you reach overload and either collaborate with others to refocus yourself on the dance itself or explode from all of these expanded duties?

David Dawson: Ultimately I don’t feel that I reach any kind of burn out, a point of creative exhaustion. Sure, it gets stressful, but I’m driven by that place [of frenzy]. Sometimes I get to the point where I can’t make another creative movement, but that’s only because classical ballet’s vocabulary is so limited. Since I can’t make people fly or disappear—I’d like that—I’m left wondering what else can be done with the body. That’s the ceiling; that’s when I’m reminded that we’re working within a classical art form.

Whereas that could be a point of frustration, it also gives integrity for what you do as a ballet choreographer because such limitations can be good in the end.

B: Talk about your most recent piece, The World According To US.
DD: The World According to US is a meditation on art through the ages, using art, choreography, music, and narration. It was born as a response to Giselle [Dawson’s full-length, minimalist recreation of one of the oldest, most classical ballets ever written]. When I was asked to do World, I was heavily in Giselle, a piece that was very rigid, in that it already existed: there’s music for when they first meet, when she dies, when he visits her grave. For World, I knew that I could do anything I wanted to do. I could go in any direction. It felt like the whole world was open to me.

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Yumiko Takeshima and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet in Giselle, photo by Costin Radu

The “US” was the people I was working with at the time, during my three years in Dresden. The “US” was also people who thought the same way I did about art and its place in the world, how it’s appreciated, how it’s seen and recognized, how important it is. For me, it sort of gives me a reason to be… to be alive—without meaning to sound too naff. [“Naff,” meaning corny.] In other words, I live to dance; I dance to live. Blah, blah, blah.

World was how I felt about art. If we didn’t have it, we’d be at each other’s throats. It’s our history. It’s a symbol that we’ve been here before, that we’re human. Art is about our selves, one’s self, me, you, she, he. It becomes spiritual, intellectual, something emotional because it’s so important. And yet, in our time, we have to kick and scream to get funding. There’s no money for art. It’s like we have to put on Swan Lake all the time because we need the money. Nowadays there are fewer opportunities for new creations, things untested, pieces that will work: that fall within the budget, sell tickets, and compete with Kanye West and Madonna. You can’t produce anything beyond, something breaking new territory, because there isn’t the support behind it.

Anyway, World became this journey through art and dance. It was supposed to be modern, abstract, fragmented, kissing a narrative. Narrative doesn’t only have to be like the classics like Romeo & Juliet, where boy meets girl and then some story unfolds. Ballets don’t have to be dressed up in 18th-century ideals anymore. They can be modern art, vaguely narrative with suggestions and atmosphere, gesture and communication. At the same time, it has to be a show, a performance. It also has to stay within the realm of classical ballet.

I’m proud of being a classical ballet choreographer. Of course I’ve learned my craft from watching Petipa, Balanchine, Ashton, McMillan, going all the way back. But I don’t actually like the dance world very much. This heritage just informs my direction. The ballet world is a little twee—“twee” as in being prim. Sometimes it’s like the audience comes from another era, appreciating things that are pretty and nice, easy to follow, entertaining. They’re not always coming or looking for the Tate Modern of dance, to see a ballet equivalent of a retrospective of Olafur Eliasson or Cy Twombly or Wolfgang Tillmans. World is not necessarily for an opera house crowd. Although, it is, too. I’m not saying that they don’t get it, but the ballet world keeps presenting pieces with the same decorum, the same traditions. I think new traditions can be formed. That’s what I want to do. I want to know how you can continue producing new classical ballets that have, maybe, a blue background and that’s all.

B: So… as you were saying, “art and dance,” “The World According to US”….
DD: Right. So, when we look at the Mona Lisa, do we see it anymore? Really see it? It’s so iconic that you can picture it with your eyes closed. And so, to really see it, you almost have to step back and ponder what it stands for anymore. And that’s one thing I sought to challenge in this piece: what it means to really see art.

World is like a gallery through time. Within each gallery there’s music, a particular painting representing a specific era of art history, and an exercise of choreography in relation to that same point of departure. The dances are presented in response to these series of paintings. For instance, there’s a scene of the Mona Lisa with Vivaldi, a dance of one girl being passed from one man to another, kind of like a rape, as she smiles the entire time. It was kind of like an auction, in a way.

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The World According to US, photo by Yugana Pskhatsieva

Another scene is based on the white acts of classical romantic ballets, like in Swan Lake or Giselle, mesmerizing moments when scores of women dressed in white dance and dance. In World, this next scene, called Veni/Veni, is represented pictorially by the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, with music by Mendelssohn. For inspiration we looked at paintings of angels, Madonnas, Venuses… their arm positions, which we adapted… upper body positions in Playboy, porn, and Victoria’s Secret catalogs, which we mixed up. On one side is a big pas de deux [a duet] and on the other side a massive presentation of what happens choreographically in white acts. Onstage are 10 women in all these various awkward, arousing, stylized, unnatural poses that, meanwhile, have become our dance language. There’s also a speaker onstage who recites what Venus meant to the world at that time. She represented the feminine, the iconic, the untouchable. The ideal.

So, what the audience sees is an image of a piece of art that features a musical idea, a Venus celebration, a certain choreographic idea, plus references to other modern or contemporary arts and artists, like Damien Hirst through text, “a unicorn in formaldehyde.” The narrator announces, “Title…The Dream. Price…50.2 million euros”—because what the audience is getting is a living painting in a highly trained, live way. It is my creative response to this particular painting.

World then goes all the way through the ages to our present commercialization period, which is sort of how I feel nowadays in our celebrity culture with disposable art: Pick it up. Throw it away. Produce, produce, produce at a rapid pace. Repeat.

Ballet is not usually seen this way. It’s seen in comparison to other classical art forms. And for this piece, The World According to US, to be performed in an opera house that plays all the classical operas, dances, concerts. Voilà… my thoughts about society today. All this that I’m saying here… is… bullshit, but it’s how the world is affecting me, affecting my art.

B: So, where’s the inimitable Dawson humor?
DD: I tried using humor. Kate [the narrator] is talking about Venus at one point, as Louis Vuitton handbags appear under her steps, which elicited laughs from the audience. It lightened the mood. That whole period that we were representing was very grand, with narration that’s grand and visuals that are grand. So we threw in grand luxury goods. Why not?

Also, there are three muses, who become, in a way, our supermodels. The three graces, the three beautiful women. Represented in a 21st-century way. They’re showgirls named Karaoke, Polystyrene, and Rohypnal. It’s referencing all of these things happening around us: Total chaos erupts onstage. The speaker is screaming. She’s covered in blue paint. The Veni are getting raped. The dancers are making words with huge, magnetic letters that stick to metal walls. Mona Lisa is there with a Venus and they’re at the front of the stage eating popcorn. One of the dancers had showed me her jazz-ballet routine when she was 11-years old, so we included that as an improvisational moment. All of this shows disintegration, a complete disintegration of being civilized.

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Kate Strong and company in The World According to US, photo by Costin Radu

But then, throughout the entire piece, there is an angel figure that represents a constant presence, a muse inspiring art. He connects the finger of God by Michelangelo all the way to where we are today. He is the thread through the ages. I find that to be very hopeful, a certain something that hasn’t ever changed. Inspiration is inspiration. It’s like learning.

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Claudio Cangialosi as The Blue Angel in The World According to US, photo by Costin Radu

So I ask, Do people appreciate art these days? This is how I see art—especially classical ballet—as a modern art form being underappreciated.

B: Moving away from the specifics of a piece, scores of patrons must delight in your rejuvenating interpretations of ballet and unflagging passion to make them more relevant to audiences growing up with different values, different classical references, different interests and desires. How supportive have audiences and the media been of your works? Does that propel you forward?
DD: Audiences, I have to say, seem to enjoy my work, which has been very fulfilling. It’s been nice having a good response, in terms of applause. But, of course, I can’t say all audiences have liked it.

As for the press…critically it’s been well received. But I don’t really worry about marketing and media; rather, my passion goes into my work. It’s about something bigger than one person’s opinion, mine included.

B: On the flipside, in the process of contemporizing classical ballet, you must encounter detractors and purists who don’t share your vision and feel that you’re “contaminating” the art form. Can you share an example of one of those experiences?
DD: We recently premiered Faun(e) [Dawson’s take on Afternoon of a Faun] in London. Traditionally, it’s a very pure and gestural ballet. We started with that language and also referenced many things, most especially pulling from Ballets Russes’ legacy: eternal youth, male dancers as forms before manhood but after boyhood. I wanted to explore what happens when one becomes the teacher and the other the pupil, the intersection where information gets passed on.

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Dawson and Esteban Berlanga of English National Ballet rehearsing Faun(e), photo by Costin Radu

It was funny because someone wrote… [laughs]… that I didn’t know anything about Ballets Russes at all: to have two men wriggling around onstage in skirts! But, for me, Ballets Russes was about creation and, at that time, many of the works presented were highly controversial. So, in a way, this person had written an oxymoron: On one hand she said that I didn’t get Ballets Russes at all, but, on the other hand, she was basically repeating people’s complaints about Nijinsky, who at that time was totally scandalous. First, there was hardly any dancing; rather, it was more in tableau, like the side of a vase, depicting a short moment in an afternoon when a faun encountered nymphs. Second, there were sexual references. At the end of the Nijinsky version, one of the nymphs drops her scarf and runs away. Nijinsky took this scarf, laid it on a rock, and then started masturbating—well, gesturing as such. It was incredibly suggestive of self-pleasuring, which I find beautiful. Sensuality—sexuality—was important to me when I made this piece. That’s why I used two men. In my way, I was making it okay for two men to dance together, to display affection, like two men holding hands walking down the street. I’m happy when I see any two people, men or not, being happy.

My version was also sexually charged, like Nijinsky’s. It was labeled “homoerotic” because it was two men. It’s funny, when you see any art with a man and a woman, do you call it hetero-erotic? No, of course not. And when you see two women dancing together on stage, do you call it lesbo-erotic? No, it’s just erotic. But when two men are onstage together, it’s automatically homoerotic. I find that closed-minded. We should be beyond that by now. It’s 2009. We shouldn’t be so judgmental of what people do. We should be beyond that. As long as you’re not hurting anybody….

Getting back to your question, when you talk about detractors, you have to expect any opinion—but it still hurts when someone just doesn’t get it. I start to doubt. “Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I’m not good at this.” It calls you to question yourself when you hear commentary like that. But at the same time, it strengthens your point of view. In the end, you do your piece and I’ll do mine.

I’m not complaining, but it’s not easy when you only get one week to complete a ballet, and everyone’s expecting a new classic. In the end, if you hear anything good, you don’t believe it. And when it’s bad, people say, “It’s only one person’s opinion; don’t believe it.” So all you can do is close your ears, be an artist, do what you need to do, and don’t worry about what people think. It’s more about being real and true.

Read part 2 of this interview.

Don’t miss Dawson’s signature work, The Grey Area, the piece that won accolades and catapulted his choreographic career.