by Maggie Foyer

Dresden, on the eastern border of Germany, has been called Venice on the Elbe. It’s well-deserving of the title as it boasts a distinguished cultural history. Caspar David Friedrich was one of the many painters who made their career there and the city abounds in fine art. Dresden was also a champion for new dance: both Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca opened dance schools here in the 1920s teaching the new expressionist movement. Opera tradition is particularly strong. Richard Strauss’ Salome and Der Rosenkavalier were premiered at Semperoper, as were many of Richard Wagner’s operas, including Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman. The resident Staatskapelle Orchestra is considered among the finest in the world and now Semperoper Ballett, under the direction of Canadian-born Aaron S. Watkin, is making waves.

Watkin, who has created a company with a distinctive profile delivering a broad repertoire, took up the post in 2006 and now, with his contract extended to 2020, has the luxury of long-term planning. He describes his vision as being “resolute from the beginning: to break down the barriers that traditionally exist between different styles of dance, and to embrace all styles — classical, neoclassical and modern — with the same respect and integrity. I would love us to just be a dance company — not ballet and not tanz. Defining it in a certain way only makes the person defining it feel more comfortable!”

Elena Sheshina, Olga Melnikova, István Simon (as Benno), Julia Carnicer and Svetlana Gileva of Semperoper Ballett in Aaron Watkin’s Swan Lake; Photo: Costin Radu

Under Watkin’s direction, Semperoper Ballett continues to broaden its international reputation with upcoming tours to New York, Paris, Barcelona, Antwerp, Belgium, and St. Pölten, Austria. The dancers form an impressive ensemble: a quality line-up of dedicated individuals, and Watkin has forged close collaboration with major choreographers, including William Forsythe, Mats Ek and David Dawson. The opera house enjoys comfortable funding from the German government and keen public support, while the ballet has particularly strong interest from younger adults.

Watkin graduated from the National Ballet School of Canada in 1988 and earned the Erik Bruhn prize awarded annually to the most promising student. His training included summer sessions at the School of American Ballet and he has studied most of the important styles of classical ballet. He also benefitted from personal coaching with such luminaries as Stanley Williams, Erik Bruhn and Irina Kolpakova. His diverse performing career laid the groundwork for his move into a directorship. “I think I always wanted to be a director, even when I was at school. I wanted to set ballets and rehearse them, I liked that side of it.”

He danced with major classical companies, including the National Ballet of Canada, English National Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. His career took a major turn when, in 1998, he joined Forsythe’s avant-garde Ballett Frankfurt as a principal dancer.

William Forsythe and Aaron S. Watkin in studio; Photo: Ian Whalen

“Until I found Forsythe, I never felt physically at home in dance. Dancing the classical rep, I never felt I could achieve what I was trained to do. I was too much of a perfectionist so there was never any enjoyment onstage. But Forsythe’s style felt so natural, like the clothes I wore on my body; it was just perfect for me.”

Watkin’s desire to experience new choreographic styles also led him to join Nacho Duato’s company in Spain and to work with Ohad Naharin in Tel Aviv. In June 2002, he was appointed associate artistic director with Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid, where he gained valuable administrative experience. “The company was very reputable, but the organization was pretty basic, so I had to really set down the system. I found I actually enjoyed the administrative side, which I didn’t think I would.” Now, he says, as artistic director of Semperoper Ballett, “it’s a nice balance when I leave my office and go back into the studio. I feel I can breathe again.”

His impact in Dresden was evident from the start when he introduced new faces, including several prominent Mariinsky dancers searching for fresh challenges, and new repertoire. Semperoper’s relationship with Forsythe has become a defining feature. “Bill said coming here is such a pleasure — it’s like family. He doesn’t have to teach the dancers the foundation, he can just add icing on the cake.” The company has many of his major works in their repertoire, and Forsythe even reworked some of his earlier pas de deux to create Neue Suite for them. Last season, the company added the evening-length Impressing the Czar to its repertoire. “Bill was here for three weeks and he changed all the first act for our dancers. If he would venture to write a new piece in his ‘past’ style, it would be here,” says Watkin.

Sweden’s Ek has also built a strong relationship with Dresden Semperoper, and he asked the company to perform in the January 2016 program in Paris marking his farewell as a choreographer. Semperoper Ballett performed Ek’s She was Black, a work presented by the company with great success over the last few years.

Semperoper; Photo: Matthias Creutziger

Semperoper, a magnificent example of Dresden Baroque style built in 1841, derives its name from the architect Gottfried Semper. The house has twice burned to the ground — first in 1869, then in 1945 during the Second World War — and the current building, completed in 1985, leaves the original design intact, but has state-of-the-art technology and a modern annex housing rehearsal rooms and administration. Despite the very formal aspects of the performing space, the classical proportions frame both traditional and modern performances to maximum advantage.

Prior to arriving in Dresden, Watkin set Dawson’s Reverence on the Mariinsky Ballet and it was a boost to his new post that he could appoint the British artist as resident choreographer. In 2008, Dawson created his Giselle for Semperoper Ballett and over the years many of his works have been absorbed into the repertoire. Although no longer resident today, Dawson continues to create works in Dresden, including his second full-length narrative ballet Tristan and Isolde, which premiered in 2015.

The company also has a solid core of major classical works, including productions by Watkin of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and La Bayadère. His production of The Nutcracker, choreographed with fellow Canadian Jason Beechey, rector of the Palucca School in Dresden, joined the repertoire in 2011. Imaginatively designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, it pays homage to Dresden Baroque style, adding a local flavour, and has become a perennial favourite.

When I asked Watkin what made a good company, his answer was immediate: “Creating an internal company culture. I did this subconsciously, without realizing how important it was, starting from square one and building internally a work ethic, a generosity,” he says. “Generosity is a big word, but it’s something I see coming more and more from the company in what they are giving to the public and to each other, and is also evident in the dynamics from the ballet masters and the whole house.”

He was thrilled to announce that a recent Semperoper survey showed audience satisfaction ratings were highest for the ballet, with a majority rating the ballet performances best for emotional experience, and 93 percent box office sales. “The whole house — technicians, orchestra, chorus — is proud of our company. The board appoints you, then they watch and wait, and when you get success, they climb on board, too.’

Watkin says his mother, “who worked her way up from secretary to vice-president of the Canadian Automobile Association,” gave him lots of pointers, such as the need to delegate. “She said you will inspire people by giving them responsibility.”

Personal feedback is also important. “When I see real talent,” he says, “I can be even tougher on the dancers because I want them to get it together. But screaming and yelling doesn’t work, it brings down the respect level.”

He talks about the need to take some space for himself, which allows him to work more effectively. For instance, Watkin has a home in Prague. “I go there every weekend as it’s only an hour-and-a-half to drive. It is a good break in mind and spirit and a fabulous place.”

In both the dancers Watkin selects and in their daily training, a strong classical base is a prerequisite. Also, he explains, “What I am most interested to see in a dancer is their ability to process corrections. You get dancers that look fantastic on a DVD, but some are only trained to perform a variation and not to dance beyond that. I need co-ordination and they must be musical. When the body and the brain connect, it’s amazing.”

He believes in treating dancers like adults. “The idea of the eternal student stops dancers from thinking. Dancers need to have ideas and personalities, and schools sometimes train that out of them. I strive to find dancers who can do the full rep, from a world-class Swan Lake to pieces by David [Dawson], where the movement is even more intricate, more developed. I need artists who have a strong classical base, but can let go. This is evolution.”

Still a powerhouse of energy, Watkin has settled comfortably into the artistic director role. “This is the fun time. I have planted this massive garden, and fed and watered it, and now it’s doing its own thing. I feel like I am the gardener who puts the fairy dust on once in a while. We have a lot of public interest in the company now, and it is rewarding and inspiring to see your investments come to life.”

Yumiko Takeshima and Denis Veginy in StijnCelis’ Les Noces; Photo: Costin Radu

Dancers who helped Watkin create his vision are now moving on. The scintillating Yumiko Takeshima has hung up her pointe shoes, but continues her successful dancewear business. She designed costumes for all of Dawson’s ballets, many Forsythe works and the dancewear in the film, Black Swan.
JiríBubenícek, a powerful presence in both classical and modern works, has already created several works for Semperoper Ballett and now makes choreography his career. Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, who created many leading roles (including Albrecht in Dawson’s Giselle), is now ballet master and repetiteur with the company.

Semperoper Ballett under Watkin’s direction has built a reputation for the best in contemporary ballet. Dresden has become the place to see Forsythe and Dawson danced with passion to an impeccable standard. It is also the place to see Balanchine delivered with speed and precision; Jewels, for instance, has an unrivalled setting beneath the high proscenium arch of the opera house. Moments where ballet, opera and orchestra join forces are a special treat. Stijn Celis’ Les Noces was one such occasion. The orchestra and singers, partially shielded by an effective slatted screen, backgrounded the dancers to create a true Diaghilev moment of art.


Courtney Richardson and Fabien Voranger in David Dawson’s Tristan and Isolde; Photo: Ian Whalen