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Dawson imitating his bear t-shirt during rehearsal while dancers look on

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: In the state of creation, you’ve been known to dive fully and inescapably into your work, oftentimes at the expense of eating, sleeping, a social life, even health. During this all-consuming process, how do you stay focused, motivated, energized, and perky enough to charge and recharge an entire cast of 60 dancers day-in and day-out?
David Dawson: At the end of the day, when I’m finished—that is, when the waiting game begins—I can’t wait to get back into the studio. Any pause between rehearsals, I’m tense. I don’t eat because I’m not hungry and too excited. At one point I get ravenous, so I eat, of course. I smoke a lot because it gives me an opportunity to process what’s going on, to think about what I’m doing next—and for the nicotine, of course [laughs]. I can’t sleep because I’m too excited.

To me, all of those things are a positive, but they seem to be a negative to everyone else. It’s very sweet that they’re so concerned when I run myself down so much in the process of creation, but it’s not a problem. It’s my natural state. That may sound ridiculous—I could sound like a crazy person—but somehow being empty and getting to a high level of alertness, awareness, that’s when I can see more clearly, make my choices, my decisions. That’s when I’m most alive and creative.

B: What challenges do you need to surmount so that your vision is executed without too much artistic compromise?
DD: I don’t compromise often. I live in the real world and know what’s possible and what’s not. It’s a dialogue between what you see appearing before your eyes and what you direct, choose, realize. Compromise is a dangerous word because it makes me think of petulance, and I don’t want to be like that. You can’t go kicking-and-screaming to get everything you want; rather, you adapt to get it as close as you can to your vision. It’s about learning and working within the confines of your limitations, be they financial, physical, or temporal.

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Marissa Lopez and Kumiko Hayakawa in 00:00, photo by Angela Sterling

B: How important is control—artistic control, quality control—in your works?
DD: Quality control is very, very important, otherwise there’s no magic. As for artistic control, well, that’s a given. There are challenges to realizing what’s in your head, especially when working with other people. You have to allow them to be artists, too, and, as the choreographer, the director, you have to encourage and promote their artistry. Because if everyone believes in the project, then it’s going to be something special—usually. Also, because they’re experiencing the project and it’s part of their life, so you need to include them in the process. Otherwise….

B: Your ballets have premiered all around the world—England, Holland, Korea, Japan, Russia, Australia, America. Are there nuances in your works that need to be tweaked to accommodate cultural differences and sensitivities, or does ballet transcend all languages and cultures, even when of a contemporary interpretation?
DD: Yes…[laughs].

B: After your House Choreographer stint at Dresden SemperOper Ballett, what do you have planned?
DD: Well, um… recently I realized that I’m kind of busy until 2012, which may sound good or not, I don’t know, but to me, it’s a wonderful nightmare because not only can I be creative—the “wonderful” part—but I have to keep coming up with new ideas—which is the “nightmare.” These are all commissions, all new works. There will obviously also be some re-stagings of old works going on elsewhere, but, for instance, I just set up a three-season creation deal with Dutch National Ballet. Of those, they want me to create a piece for the 50th anniversary and one for the Holland Festival, a fun arts festival in the summer.

I’ve been given carte blanche to develop longer works, kind of like longer, one-act pieces, in the realm of stuff that I want to keep developing: not a short, entertaining piece of ballet for 20 minutes, but rather, a real piece of art, something that an audience has to look at properly, intently. We don’t have this so much in classical ballet. When I look at [Anne Teresa] de Keersmaeker or Shen Wei or Sidi Larbi [Cherkaoui], artists working in the contemporary dance scene, they’ve developed works that are big and more about concept and theater than just about steps. Ballet should be more about concept and theater and design than just about steps. Then again, that’s what separates classical ballet from the other dance forms: It’s not strictly come-dancing and body-pop, like what Madonna and Britney do, but it’s a highly trained technique. Take a look, Miss Thing… If you think Madonna can do what Sylvie Guillem can do… think again. She’s speaking a language. It’s like Shakespeare, a language of movements that was created centuries ago and has been protected throughout the years. It’s a certain thing, this ballet.

Anyway, I’ll be working a lot on new works and making sure that the stagings of old ones go smoothly.

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Ruta Jezezkyte and Steven Etienne in The Gentle Chapters, photo by Angela Sterling

B: Without a resident company onto which you can create, shape, and grow your works, how will you continue in the future with the ideation process? Does it happen in your head, and then you only need able bodies who can actualize what’s in your mind?
DD: Well, yes and no, because as you get more experienced as an artist, you become stronger in what you do, in knowing what makes you you. I started studying ballet when I was 8-years old, stopped when I was 30, and have been choreographing ever since. That’s almost 30 years of training the body and mind in the history and technique of classical ballet. That’s in me now; that’s ingrained. It’s not going to change. From this I derive my steps, my ideas, my visions for new creations. That’s going to happen whether I know the dancers or not, whether I’ve worked with them a long time or not. Sometimes it’s refreshing to walk into a studio with new dancers, who can surprise you with what they’re able and not able to do. That’s exciting.

The reason I’m freelancing is because I have felt stronger when not belonging to any particular company’s bubble. You know, internal politics can be like a small fiefdom. Sometimes the focus gets taken away from the work itself. Being part of a ballet company, that’s a part that I don’t need 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, because I don’t want to be burdened by things that I don’t want to be burdened by. Also, being freelance, I can spend more time doing research, which goes into what I produce, making that time, and hopefully the resulting piece, more valuable. This is a good time for me.

B: Do you use new technologies to either create or facilitate your works?
DD: Like what? Video? I use Flip4Mac, a little camera that you can use for YouTube. It’s like a mobile phone but with a camera. I use my Mac laptop all the time for music and writing out my ideas, which is great because I hate wasting paper. I often dream of skyping during rehearsal, but that hasn’t happened yet. New technologies are useful, but I don’t wet my knickers about it. Dance is physical. You need to communicate one on one. I can’t reach out and touch you [through skype] right now, can I?

B: What are your sources of inspiration?
DD: Everything that has ever existed and everything that exists now. [Laughs.]

B: If you could work with any living person—for inspiration, for fun, for personal bragging rights—who would it be?
DD: I just can’t answer that question. There are too many. People say things like, “Jesus” and “Leonardo” and people like that. I just don’t know. I can’t take that question seriously. Don’t be offended. [Laughs.]

B: What’s next?

DD: I just went to Barcelona to see Faun(e) by English National Ballet. Next up is another presentation of The World According to US by SemperOper Ballett in Dresden, in September and October, after which they’ll reprise last year’s full-length Giselle in the winter. There’s also a new creation that I’m working on for the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ 40th anniversary, with new music by Gavin Bryars, which leads into a premiere with the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet in Oslo in an amazing new opera house designed by Snøhetta that looks like an iceberg thrusting out of the fjord and boasts being the most state-of-the-art, best-equipped opera house in the world today. That’s exciting. And then I go to Amsterdam for performances of Reverence by Dutch National Ballet. And then there are new creations I have planned for Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, in America; something in Monaco; and on and on and on. That’s what’s coming up.

Read part 1 of this interview.

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Elena Vostrotina and ensemble in Giselle, photo by Costin Radu

View Dawson’s signature work, The Grey Area, the piece that won accolades and catapulted his choreographic career.