David Dawson discusses Tristan + Isolde
Interview by Valeska Stern
Published in Glanz & Klang, Magazin der Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden
The protagonists of your latest work are Tristan and Isolde. What attracts you to these two figures and their mythological context?
David Dawson: I think the relationship between Tristan and Isolde is quite unique: mysterious, mythical, dark, romantic and tragic all at the same time. Therefore it is a real challenge to create a piece infused with all these emotions. »Tristan + Isolde« is more than just a simple love story, although that would be interesting enough in itself; love is a captivating subject for us all. Yet, »Tristan + Isolde« tells the tragic story of finding and losing true love, of meeting your ideal partner and then being forced apart by moral and social constrictions. In contrast to Romeo and Juliet, the greatest lovebirds in the history of ballet, Tristan and Isolde are adults, and their love is an adult love. They try to suppress their attraction to one another and stay faithful to those around them. When this tactic does not succeed, they choose suicide. This is a very human drama, and that is what makes the story so unbelievably touching.
What are the challenges of creating a plot-driven full-length ballet in contrast to an abstract choreography?
DD: In fact, I would say that all my works are narrative in some way or other. They always deal with a specific topic, in which diverse emotions come to light or particular situations are examined. The unique challenge of a narrative ballet is to work with a fixed linear plot. As a choreographer you must find a way to convey a complex story without words. Diverse characters, as well as their individual feelings or thoughts, must be portrayed using movement. The legend of Tristan and Isolde is perhaps especially complicated in view of the various time frames in which it takes place as well as the internalized nature of the story. At the same time it is an advantage to make use of a well-known story and not to have to make every single decision oneself. After creating so many abstract choreographies in recent years, I am enjoying working on a narrative ballet. It’s as if I have descended from a heaven of opportunities back down to solid ground. Now I have a foundation. That really is a nice challenge.
The name most closely associated with the lovers Tristan and Isolde is Richard Wagner. However, your choreography will feature a new composition by Szymon Brzóska rather than Wagner’s music. Why is that?
DD: There is no doubt that »Tristan und Isolde« is a true masterpiece; but it is and remains an opera, in which the vocal parts and orchestral parts are inextricably linked. The vocal melodies and the orchestral melodies are in a continuous, organic flux, so that the score cannot simply be taken apart and glued back together again. Yet, ballet demands an entirely different narrative style – flashbacks, as often used in opera, are difficult to realize. Therefore we decided to create something wholly new, to choose contemporary, more abstract music, in order to realize an innovative and fresh interpretation. The aim is to reinvent the myth of Tristan and Isolde. We are a different generation, with its very own unique take on things. The ballet should be able to function on its own terms.
After your first narrative ballet »Giselle«, which tells one of the biggest stories of the ballet repertoire, in your second narrative creation you go with a myth that isn’t done very often in dance: Tristan and Isolde. Why do you use this old legend?
DD: In the ballet world we are always looking for stories that can be expressed though dance and music, and that will move people. Some of these stories exist already in many different interpretations. Just during the last year there have been many new versions of “Romeo and Juliet” that have been produced! In contrast, the legend of Tristan and Isolde in dance is quite undiscovered – although it has such a huge emotional potential. For me the big attraction about this legend is that it is a love story, because love is a big subject for everybody in life. At first sight the journey of Tristan and Isolde of course is a drama, but it’s also an example of humanity.
Since thousands of years the myth has been told in many different ways. Which way did you choose for your choreography?
DD: My own one. Indeed, the problem with this legend is that it consists of too many different stories. As I am interested in the love story of Tristan and Isolde, I concentrate on this couple and its conflict. I also had to limit the places where the plot takes place. I could not start the story on the ship and talk about the what had already happened as Wagner did. You can’t really do flashbacks in ballet, and, therefore, one must try to simplify the story and break it down to its essence. Try to tell the emotional story. That’s why I decided to tell the story in “real time”.
And how do you tell the love story of Tristan and Isolde choreographically?
DD: The heart and soul of the piece are the four pas de deux of Tristan and Isolde. Every Pas de deux shows a moment of their relationship and expresses another stage of their love. For instance, the first pas de deux shows the first meeting of the couple. While Tristan doesn’t know yet who Isolde is, she is realising that he has murdered her uncle. Isolde is torn: should she stay or should she go? But the love that both of them experience together when their eyes meet the first time is undeniable. Their bodies become just vessels for an emotion they don’t have any control over. So after a short hesitation the first pas de deux becomes a moment of instant soul connection between them. They give themselves up to joy and innocence, of a new love. In contrast, their second meeting is much more desperate. Being aware of the hopelessness of their love they decide to die. But instead of the death poison, they take a love poison so they fall in love more deeply. What follows is a drug induced escalation of their relationship, and in that moment they seal their doom. The third pas the deux shows their physical love, and now it’s much more sensual. Isolde has tried to fight back her feelings for Tristan while Tristan has been in pursuit of her, simply because he didn’t know she was Isolde. By the time Isolde gets to the third pas the deux her arms are open and she wants him. It’s total equal. At that point both of them have passed through the deception. They’ve chosen something – now they let themselves feel their love very consciously. It’s a love that is brought to another level within the fourth pas de deux: here it becomes more than an emotional or physical love. It becomes a mother love, a god love, a universal love. Tristan refuses to be healed by Isolde again, and Isolde chooses to go all the way with him in that direction. This is the end of Tristan and Isolde but also their beginning and their freedom. These four pas de deux show four different stations of love. But not only about Tristan and Isolde, also about love in general. One moment it’s their story, and then it’s our own, and then it’s about something very spiritual and about life itself. That’s how magnificent “Tristan + Isolde” has always been to me personally. It’s so massive. It’s about the energy of the soul. It’s about being human.
Which aspects of being human do we find in this old legend, which are still relevant today?
DD: »Tristan + Isolde« tells about the tragedy of having love and losing it because of being bound by loyalty and duty. When you look at the world today, these problems still exist: The world around you insists how you should live while your heart sometimes tells you something completely different. The heart knows no prejudice, rules, or boundaries. We don’t choose who we fall in love with. But we sometimes forget to listen to our hearts. We are so busy trying to survive the rules, trying to be a part of the race that the world has become nowadays, that we do not take care of love and always judge people who are different. Tristan and Isolde show us that love has to be stronger than boundaries and rules, that we have to fight for it.
Tristan’s and Isolde’s love develops in-between social structures which surround them. How do you show this world?
DD: Actually, I show two worlds. One is Isolde’s world: It is very natural, organic, and perhaps a little bit random. In its center you find Isolde. She comes from nature, she’s a mystic. She is able to heal people, and perhaps she also knows how to tell the future. That’s why she is very different to the world of King Marke, which is very rigid and square with all its rules. Instead of dancing couples there are soldiers. That doesn’t mean Marke is a horrible person, but in his kingdom there is much more hierarchical structure. Perhaps that is what makes the love of Tristan and Isolde so magnificent: both of them come from totally different worlds, and their love is a symbol for the unification of world.
Does the outside world also develop in your choreography?
DD: Of course I show different group scenes: First there is the presentation of King Marke and his soldiers followed by the idyllic place I call »The Pastorale«. This pastorale is destroyed during the battle when these two worlds clash. When the invasion occurs, when Tristan arrives with Melot and the soldiers, it seems like lambs being slaughted. The peace and innocence of the pastorale will never exist again. The wedding of Marke and Isolde shows a much more structured picture of society which has lost the innocent image of the pastorale.
By loving each other Tristan and Isolde have to lie and hurt the ones they love …
DD: Yes, they can’t help themselves. That’s the thing in life: sometimes you can’t guide emotions or situations rationally. There’s a lot that happens by mistake, on the moment, by accident. One can’t plan everything. One can’t always realize immediately what is right and what is wrong. It depends on where you stand in time. If we could stand in the future and look back, then of course we wouldn’t make any mistakes. Because we would know what the consequences are. But that’s not how it works. And that’s why I can’t judge Tristan and Isolde: They try to fight against their feelings, but in the end they have to give in to them.
You don’t judge Tristan and Isolde and at the same time you don’t call King Marke their enemy. How do you show his character?
DD: Marke is a king who wants to build his kingdom, but he is also a human being. Raphaël Coumes-Marquet for whom I created this figure is in his character very similar to Marke. He is very astute, very experienced, very clear in what he wants, and he has arrived at a certain point in his life where he has a lot of wisdom. But he is also very human: he is understanding and he has compassion. King Marke loves Tristan like as if he were his son – which is a problem for Melot who is actually so much more dedicated to Marke than Tristan is. By trying to get Marke’s approval he spies on Tristan and betrays him. But only because he is driven by his heart, too! A lot decisions in this piece are heart-decisions.
Is King Marke’s reaction on the betrayal also a human one?
DD: Yes, perhaps it’s even a superhuman one. After Marke discovered the lovers Isolde begs for his forgiveness. She tells him her story and explains her feelings. And Marke lets her go, he sends her to Tristan. At this point in the choreography we have an exchange between the loving men. We move from the forest to the cell, and at the same time Marke and Tristan exchange their position. So there isn’t a face to face forgiving moment between Marke and Tristan. I think this is truly tragic: Tristan has no possibility to see Marke before he dies.
Have you ever thought about Tristan or Isolde staying alive in the end?
DD: No. From the very beginning it was clear for me that both of them have to die. That’s how it becomes a tragedy, and that’s how we can learn a lesson. Sure, it could also be interesting to show them as an old couple sitting on a park bench and looking at young people while they remember how their own love started and developed. I would love to do something like that! But that’s a totally different kind of story. »Tristan + Isolde« doesn’t tell the story of a real-life relationship which always is hard work. It tells about a love which cannot be lived, because both of the lovers cannot get out of their social and moral structures. It’s all about obligations and duty: Isolde has to marry Marke, she becomes his trophy wife. It’s not the same as the love Tristan and Isolde have in the first moment together. But she still goes ahead with that because she has duty – to her country, to her people, to her family. Otherwise the fight would never end, and even more people would die. Tristan also believes it is his moral duty to stay away from Isolde, because Marke isn’t just his king but also kind of his father and friend. The tragedy of these social structures can only be shown by the death of Tristan and Isolde. Only by telling their death we understand that we mustn’t try to fit into the structure around us at any time. If we are really sure we love who we want to love, we have to get out of the structure and go – to be in our love! That’s the lesson we can learn from Tristan and Isolde.
This interview was originally posted in German in Glanz & Klang, Magazin der Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden, March 2015
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