Melt, melt, melt,” David Dawson urges the Royal Ballet’s Marianela Nuñez as she arches back further and further in a precarious lift, one knee on fellow principal Federico Bonelli’s shoulder. The choreographer and his assistants ponder the next movement, an elaborate, spiralling way out and back to the ground for the ballerina: “It will feel like you’re going to fall over.” Undaunted, Nuñez dives headfirst into her partner’s arms, legs stretched in the air with expansive urgency, the image a mix of acrobatic daring and intimate trust.
Two decades after he graduated from the Royal Ballet School, London-born Dawson is back to create The Human Seasons, his first work for Covent Garden. The homecoming is long overdue: since his breakout early works for Dutch National Ballet, Dawson has become a well-known name in mainland Europe but has remained strangely absent from the stage in Britain.
His postmodern take on ballet may have played a part in this. In Overture, Dawson’s latest work for Dutch National Ballet, 12 dancers in splashes of neon-bright pink, orange and electric green played under drifting rectangles of white light, arabesques arched high, every extension stretched beyond the strictly classical. This is Frederick Ashton’s famous catchword “bend”, taken to new extremes, and its lineage seems closer to William Forsythe’s hyperphysical ballets than to Britain’s traditionally more restrained manner.
Back in the Royal Opera House studio, the daring comes with a healthy dose of risk. In the blink of an eye, just as she is completing her perilous plunge, Nuñez lets out a small cry and curls up on the floor. Bonelli’s knee has knocked her neck, and the assembled team suspect a pinched nerve. The ballerina hobbles out of the room for a short break, visibly shaken. “On the plus side,” an assistant jokes as everyone files out, “It was correct. We got the lift.”
“I’m presenting my view of dance, of how ballet can be used as a modern art form,” says Dawson, who readily admits that he has often found the ballet world too closed in on itself. “When I started to choreograph, I wasn’t getting what I wanted to see from anybody. The classical form is very limited but over the years I have developed a language for myself.”
Dawson has settled on a deserted balcony overlooking Covent Garden, just outside the Royal Ballet studios, to sit down for a conversation. It’s an unexpectedly warm October day and he wants to soak in the sun; a workaholic during rehearsal periods, he looks physically marked by the process, oblivious to lunch hour and the nearby canteen, his eyes blinking wearily in the light.
The Royal Opera House he finds himself in now is, he says, very different to the pre-renovation venue he knew as a ballet student in the early 1990s, watching Kenneth MacMillan’s final creations from the wings. A classmate of Christopher Wheeldon’s at the Royal Ballet Upper School, Dawson has had a remarkably similar trajectory in some ways: after a brief stint as a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and later with English National Ballet, he left the country to dance abroad, frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of new work and diversity in London.
While Wheeldon was making a name for himself in New York, Dawson chose Amsterdam and Dutch National Ballet in 1995, where he found former Royal Ballet star Wayne Eagling at the helm, as well as the wider repertoire he craved. Eagling encouraged him to choreograph for the company and one of his first works, A Million Kisses To My Skin, singled him out as a talent in 2000.
It was Dawson’s association with Forsythe, the American who turned ballet inside out from the 1980s onwards, that set him somewhat apart from the young generation of British choreographers. As Dawson was winding down his career in Amsterdam, the choreographer invited him to join his Frankfurt Ballet. Dawson then spent two years in Germany.
“I couldn’t resist,” Dawson says. “[Forsythe’s] mind is incredibly quick. One thing he taught me is how to be an adult in dance. He treats everybody that way and it was new to me, very different from the hierarchy that I’d found elsewhere.”
Dawson is one of several choreographers to have come out of Frankfurt. Others include two of the rare female choreographers in ballet: Crystal Pite and Helen Pickett. Like them, Dawson pushes at the limits of the form in mostly plotless works, which in Amsterdam and elsewhere is considered part of their appeal. Besides Dutch National Ballet, he has thrived as resident choreographer with two companies closely associated with Forsythe, the Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Dresden Semperoper Ballett.
But when English National Ballet first programmed A Million Kisses To My Skin in 2006, along with another work that Dawson made under Eagling’s direction, a piece for two dancers entitled Faun(e), both met with an equivocal response in the British press. It was not until the Royal Ballet’s new director Kevin O’Hare took over in 2012 that Dawson, at 41, received an invitation to make his first piece for the company. The Human Seasons is set to a score by Greg Haines, with “gallery-esque” sets designed by German artist Eno Henze. Dawson describes the choreography as a “kaleidoscopic journey of time and emotion, which has distilled itself down to a seasonal situation”. It will be staged as part of a triple bill with Chroma by Wayne McGregor, another choreographer pushing for extreme speed and articulation in ballet, and MacMillan’s version of The Rite of Spring.
British ballet has “opened up” since Dawson’s own days in London, he says, with a greater emphasis on creativity; working with the Royal Ballet’s dancers has been a process of mutual discovery. His cast are alternating his new piece with Carlos Acosta’s version of Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet and, as he works with them, he gently adds modern inflections to a princely port de bras here, an overly triumphant lift there.
“My challenge is to get the dancers to be able to move in my style,” he says, “but they’re embracing it.”
Despite having his choreographic debut in London, Dawson’s artistic future seems firmly tied to mainland Europe for the time being. In 2014, he is scheduled to create a ballet version of Tristan and Isolde in Dresden; the possibility of directing a company has also been on his mind.
“But I need to be able to think about my ballets right now,” he says. “For the next five years, I want to go for new works, to build on the knowledge I have, the confidence I’ve been able to acquire.”
Freelance for the past five years, he has left residencies and company politics behind, and has called Berlin his home. An umbrella organisation for his collaborators, Dawson Arts, serves as his virtual family. “I feel more relaxed in Berlin,” he says. “There’s this great creativity there. I don’t work in Berlin, so when I’m there it’s my time, and I see as much as I can.
“I don’t feel like I have a nationality: it’s a life choice.”
‘The Human Seasons’ opens at the Royal Opera House, London, on November 9. roh.org.uk