Introduction by Charlotte de Mille, Lecturer and Curator at The Courtauld Institute of Art
'Between endings and beginnings:’ an artist’s response to
David Dawson’s The Grey Area
David Dawson’s award-winning ballet The Grey Area is as he acknowledges, a work of transition. The choreographer had no ‘fixed’ vision for the completed work at the outset, only that it would express a universal, essential being, being in itself. With the loosest of frameworks then, he set to work to realize intense emotional experience in movement, a ‘place unknown’ he said. Dawson is renowned for his open creative process, working with dancers as individuals to find their own expressive language within his choreographical intentions, referenced in Watkins’ drawing Ten – the 10% brought uniquely by a dancer’s personality. To request such a level of personal input from his dancers is rare in classical ballet; Dawson stretches the art form, reshaping it for modern audiences. His method is generative, reflective, collaborative. It is no surprise then, that he welcomed artist Rosalie Watkins to the studio at the SemperOper, Dresden, to draw alongside the rehearsal process.
Watkins first approached Dawson as an anatomy student, enthralled by seeing The Human Seasons at London’s Royal Opera House. But by the time of her residency at the SemperOper, her focus had expanded. ‘Through the process of starting to draw’ she says, ‘it felt increasingly appropriate, and more exciting, to do something that wasn't strictly studies of anatomy applied to certain movements, which could have been applied to any figure in motion. It felt better to make something that was about his piece and his particular language with ballet since that was what drew me to approach him in the first place. So what started out as studies figuring out the anatomical elements became a lot more reduced, to lines which are hopefully more expressive even though reductive, and have lost the explanation of the anatomy.’ As a classically trained artist, Watkins was drawn to Dawson particularly for the way he breaks and re-shapes existing visual / physical language to find new modes for emotional expression.
Realising a physical comparison between the physicality of dance and the visceral act of drawing, Watkins captures the ‘sense of energy and erasure in the process of drawing, which mimics the nature of rehearsal.’ The rehearsal process is liberating for it’s fast pace and repetition of certain key movements and gestures. In some drawings, the ‘process became making lines and rubbing through them’, the erasure not only reflecting the repetition, but also the ‘freedom of getting into a pace in the knowledge that it could be rubbed through and re-hit with a fresh motion/part of the dance, and that they could layer up’ [See for instance Saal 2, Pas de Deux, or Bodyrock ]. In this erasure and layering, Watkins has been able to capture the emergence of the work, reminding us that visual experience too is a physical, temporal endeavor.
In an interview for Royal Swedish Ballet in 2018, Dawson reflected: ‘If you can realise yourself in that present moment, it’s the personification of being alive. That’s what The Grey Area is about… Being in the moment presently and honestly, and also in how fragile that is…. I found myself trying to create an in-between place… and that became the opposite of control, about freedom and beauty.’
Dawson’s liberation finds its mirror in Watkins’ expressive line in which she explores visual temporality and the processes of making and experiencing. Her drawings could be understood as a non-verbal conversation between artist and choreographer mediated, and realised through the performers. Dawson marks the moments in his piece where the dancers ‘become fused with every element of the performance’, dancing in ‘abandonment’ within the frame of his steps. In some sense, Watkins’ drawings are a further layer to this process, another beginning realised from the inspiration of the rehearsal room. Her initial sketches done in situ are worked through to these final iterations once home in the studio, with time to reflect. These drawings capture both the spontaneity of the moment and the intensity of that moment remembered, vividly, but distilled. Dawson’s hope to ‘create a kind of formless articulation’ manifests in spare drawings such as Circles, Ovals; Looping 1; Looping 2; or The Grey Area. For both artist and choreographer, the objective changed in the creative process, both brave enough to set out ‘to make one thing , then [allowing] that become something else.’ Watkins’ acutely perceptive drawings offer a unique window into the usually closed rehearsal space, interpretations to the danced creation but existing beyond and after the ephemerality of the moment.