David Dawson on doing ‘something new’ with Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake

Sophie Martin, Jamiel Laurence and Rimbaud Patron in rehearsals. Picture: Christina Riley
Sophie Martin, Jamiel Laurence and Rimbaud Patron in rehearsals. Picture: Christina Riley
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Choreographer David Dawson’s Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet dispenses with the stiff white tutus of yore in favour of a character led celebration of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, he tells Kelly Apter at rehearsals for the show

The first time David Dawson was asked to choreograph Scottish Ballet’s new Swan Lake, his reply was a polite “thanks, but no thanks”. Likewise the second, third and fourth time. Fortunately, artistic director Christopher Hampson is not one to take no for an answer. Eventually, Dawson said “yes”, and his work will be unveiled at a world premiere in Glasgow next week.

Dance rehearsals for David Dawson's Swan Lake. Picture: Christina Riley.

Dance rehearsals for David Dawson's Swan Lake. Picture: Christina Riley.

Widely regarded as one of the most exciting British choreographers of his generation, Dawson is regularly asked by companies the world over to make work for them. So why was so much arm twisting necessary with Swan Lake?

“It isn’t something I ever imagined I would make,” says Dawson, when we meet during a break from rehearsals. “So it was a surprise when Christopher asked me. It’s really a mountain of a piece, it’s epic and not something you take on lightly.

“As a person, you wonder if you can actually handle it – committing to something that’s going to make you question yourself and the artform. It makes you vulnerable, so you wonder if you want to take it on. But Christopher just ignored the fact I said no, because he really believed that I could do it.”

A belief that is well founded. Hampson and Dawson attended the Royal Ballet School together, so their friendship dates back decades. In the intervening years, Dawson has created ballets for internationally renowned companies such as the Mariinsky Ballet, English National Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, where he was resident choreographer for almost ten years.

In short, he’s no stranger to classical ballet – and Swan Lake in particular.

“I danced three or four versions of it as a dancer, and you kind of take it for granted – it’s something that’s always there,” says Dawson. “So the first thing I had to do was re-examine what Swan Lake means to me. It’s considered to be the Mona Lisa of ballet, but I had to follow my instincts and do something new with it.”

Purists may baulk at the idea of anyone doing “something new” with the world’s most popular ballet, but Dawson’s absolute respect for Tchaikovsky’s score, Swan Lake’s heritage and the artform itself should allay fears.

When we think of Swan Lake, we imagine the pomp and ceremony of the opening act, and a stage filled with stiff white tutus in the second half. We picture the evil Von Rothbart in his sweeping cloak, casting a spell over poor Odette. Those very familiar with the ballet, meanwhile, will also call to mind the legendary 32 fouettés (pirouettes performed with a circular whipping movement of a raised leg to the side), originally deemed impossible for most ballerinas but now part of Swan Lake’s fabric.

All of which is absent from Dawson’s production. The new ballet, he says, is “100 per cent original”, with no Von Rothbart and no tutus.

But changes to the ballet have not been made lightly – on the contrary, Dawson has given a huge amount of thought to how the characters could be better represented in the 21st century, and how an audience should relate to them.

“When I watch a play or a film, I have to connect with who I’m watching,” he says. “I have to be that person and put myself into their shoes – and if that doesn’t happen, I feel alienated and I don’t have an emotional response.”

So although the setting is neutral – it could be anytime, anywhere – the lead roles of Prince Siegfried and Odette the Swan Queen are now well-rounded and identifiable.

“The original legend is from medieval times, when society was very different,” says Dawson. “And I didn’t want my Swan Queen to be under any spell, or under the power of a man. I wanted her to have her own mind and vision, and to make her own choices. And for Prince Siegfried, this is his coming of age story – he has to grow up and become more knowledgeable about life and who he is.

“I want the production to be timeless and beautiful, not tied down by fashion or any particular period or place. That way it allows people to be free with their imaginations.”

Watching the dancers rehearse, it’s clear that the emotional heart of Swan Lake is beating as strongly as ever. The costumes may be lighter and slighter (all the better to see Dawson’s dynamic movement and the dancers’ bodies) but the large ensemble moments still fill the stage with beauty, and Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous, tear-jerking score has most definitely been put to good use. Most importantly, the feisty Black Swan is still present and correct.

“I wanted to make a ballet that is new and original,” says Dawson. “But at the same time, it needs to be a full evening production of Swan Lake. So all the elements are there, but it moves faster and there’s more possibility for people to really connect with the characters because they resemble themselves.

“If you come from the camp that says ‘I only want to see the classical version’, that’s fine – but there are other people who want to see a version that’s not so mired in the velvet and swag, and the way of living a long time ago.”

Scottish Ballet last staged a version of Swan Lake in 1995, and advance ticket sales would suggest audiences are happy to see a production back in the repertoire. Talking to the dancers busy rehearsing in the company’s Glasgow headquarters, their excitement stems not just from the chance to perform in such a well-loved and iconic ballet, but the fact that Dawson is choreographing it.

With both public and performers full of anticipation, is Dawson feeling the weight of expectation?

“Yes, of course,” he says. “But the thing is, I’m not trying to replace the original ballet. Swan Lake exists very strongly and you can see it pretty much anywhere. So what this becomes is something special in itself – something that is harder to see because it will be unique to Scottish Ballet.”

• Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19-23 April; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 27-30 April; Eden Court, Inverness, 4-7 May; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 25-28 May