The story of Scottish Ballet’s powerful new take on Swan Lake
TCHAIKOVSKY’S dramatic music is swirling round every inch of Scottish Ballet’s light-filled studio. It’s from Swan Lake, Act IV, and it’s urgent, intense, tinged with fore-boding. Ten female dancers in motley rehearsal gear are up on pointe, poised and waiting for the cue that will send them flocking round the space. Speeding and spiralling with them – eagle-eyed amidst his corps of Swans – is choreographer David Dawson. Calling out a stream of immediate details as he goes: “Legs! lo-o-o-ng legs! Stride! Arms – push forward, push up! Aspire! Stretch that upper torso…” The sequence ends. As the dancers catch their breath again, Dawson talks through why his Swans can’t regress into dainty pitter-patter footwork. They have to be fierce. Wild instincts, an acknowledged sexuality, runs fearlessly in their veins – he wants to be able to see that, and more. “I’m looking for music, I’m looking for emotion,” he says. Then adds, with a conviction that stirs all of us on the side-lines, “You are soldiers of dance. Fight for it.”
Afterwards, during the lunch-break, he grins and says “We’re getting there. We’ve gone hell for leather with me getting my ideas out to them, and now we’re going back – discovering more, becoming it more, finding the dance within ballet so as it’s not a series of positions, a series of counts, but…” He pauses. You soon come to realise that when Dawson pauses, it’s not because he’s run out of words or thoughts. It’s to do with finding the words that connect best to what he has in mind, not just in his head but in his heart. That reluctance to be glib, or short-change himself and his work, has seen him putting a poem up on Scottish Ballet’s website. It’s by the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert, it’s called Study of the Object, and Dawson hopes that audiences for his forthcoming Swan Lake will take the time to read it, preferably before they watch the ballet.
“I read it, and it just spoke to me,” he says. “It touched my soul. And it inspired me when I was thinking about what ‘my’ Swan Lake was going to mean to me. The poem isn’t linear – you get these vision blasts of imagery in your mind from it, and in a sense that was how I felt about Swan Lake at the time. I had been thinking about the narrative in terms of abstraction, questioning it – questioning what was real about it, for instance. This poem supported that, but it also made that process far more universal for me. That whole interaction between reality and the ideal, the imagined, is very much a part of Swan Lake for me. The challenge, the mountain I had to climb, was how I could express that.”
A lot choreographers, established or emerging, would trample any potential rivals under foot if asked, by a company like Scottish Ballet, to create a version of Swan Lake that acknowledged classic traditions but refreshed them for a modern audience. Dawson, however, hesitated. He’ll joke that Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson – a long-standing friend ever since their shared days at ballet school – had to chivvy him into doing it. For sure, Dawson already had various global commitments on the cards. His talent for nuancing classic forms, re-energising them without gimmickry, has made him a peripatetic hot property. However his initial reluctance was more about his persona as an artist than any scheduling log jams. This where the pauses steadily creep into our conversation. How – never mind why – do you justify your instincts, your standards, without giving false impressions, or coming over as self-absorbed. It’s a question that would make most people pause, even those as intrinsically articulate as Dawson.
It so happens that Dawson, now in his early forties, puts a platinum premium on his independence as a person, and as a creative talent. He’s been woo-ed into residencies by various high-end European companies – he’s currently re-connected with Dutch National Ballet as an Associate Artist – but he gets itchy feet and an embattled feeling when any niche position begins to feel like a cage, or even worse, like a ticked box in some-one else’s marketing profile. The work he makes is rooted, absolutely, in his own inner being. If he had felt there was no point of contact between Swan Lake and what was going on inside him, or events in his own experience, then no matter how many reassurances Hampson gave him – no tutus, David, I promise and so forth – then Dawson wouldn’t be in a Tramway studio driving a “whiteness of Swans” (his own phrase) beyond the bounds of “the same-old, same-old 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 formula” (again, his own phrase.) Even before he agreed to come to Scottish Ballet, he’d tested his own inclinations against a battery of serious research: swans in mythology, women morphing into other creatures, the need for other-worldly beings in our daily lives, immortal goddesses. He devoured facts and fictions, but probably not biscuits. The plate of choc-chip cookies before us goes untouched as he drains back coffee – “frankly, I don’t have any appetite when I’m working” and when he works, he goes full out. When he arrived in Glasgow last year, he’d arrived at a way of finding a Swan Lake that felt right for him. He’ll reflect on what it means to square up to an icon and know that you can’t slavishly mimic it. Swan Lake is akin to a talismanic Mona Lisa in terms of ballet’s history and traditions. Are you setting yourself up to over-ink that, like the Chapman Brothers when they “rectified” Goya?
“I was never ever interested in over-turning everything that was traditional in Swan Lake,” he says. “What I wanted to do was give this company a work that would hopefully show them new sides to what they can do – and encourage their audiences to look at a much-loved, familiar ballet and see a fresh humanity in it. I did think, at the beginning that I would pare it back in terms of costumes – lose all the period signifiers, just have it in plain leotards, white rehearsal clothes. But I love the way that, when you’re in the studio, you can go back on yourself and choose to do something else. I’ve never been the kind of person who thinks I’ve got it right first time, and I probably won’t think that when it’s finished either.”
This remark brings us on to the character of Siegfried, whom Dawson doesn’t designate as a Prince any more than he sees Odette/Odile as a hapless victim, forced into Swan form by a wicked enchanter. “To me, she’s a goddess, ancient and very powerful, who renews her powers by bathing in this lake. Siegfried – well he’s the guy who is never the centre of attention, even at his own birthday party. He doesn’t feel able to join in. It’s only when he’s away from all the noise and chatter that he feels any kind of peace, and that’s when he encounters Odette, and his journey from boy to man begins. Is she really real? A figment; a way for Siegfried to find himself, even through a painful realisation of his own flaws and weaknesses?” Dawson backs away from tying his concepts down in exact details: it’s for audiences to explore what they see in their own way, and with their own context.
Meanwhile, in another part of the building, Sophie Martin and Christopher Harrison are getting to grips with Dawson’s choreography for Odette/Odile and Siegfried. “A lot of it is about being at that tipping point,” he says. “That off-balance moment where the possibility of falling opens up your every reaction so as to find new ways of using your body. I tell everybody – the main characters, the ensemble of swans – ‘show me how hard this is.’ I don’t want it hidden, pulled back to make it look easy. I want the opposite. I want them to show the effort it takes, because then they’re absolutely in there – physically, emotionally, absorbed by expressing all that we’ve been discovering together. Have we found my Swan Lake? Their Swan Lake? Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake? I’ve no idea. If I knew already, we’d only be half-way up that challenging mountain, having tea and cakes. We’ve got a lot of climbing to do before first night.”
And when those last strains of Tchaikovsky rise from the orchestra pit? Dawson laughs. “I might not know even then..”
Scottish Ballet premieres Swan Lake at Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 19 to 23.