David Dawson's Anima Animus

By Cheryl A. Ossola 

David Dawson’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Anima Animus, is, as he puts it, “physically emotional virtuosity combined to make something human.” It is indeed physical, emotional, virtuosic, and human—but there’s something transcendent about this combination. It’s most tangible in the section Dawson calls “Angels,” when the dancers seem to move beyond their mortal selves into a state of throat-clenching beauty. “Don’t do what you know,” he tells his dancers in rehearsal, “do something beyond. Unbound.”

Anima Animus is the first ballet Dawson has made in the United States; Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson invited him to participate in the Unbound festival after seeing his works in Europe. Anima Animus has no story, but as Dawson says, “dance is never about nothing.” The ballet offers a rich mix of contrasts, most meaningful among them Carl Jung’s concept of animus (what he called the male aspect of the female psyche) and anima (the female aspect of the male psyche). Another contrast can be found in the music, a violin concerto by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. “It felt to me like music that looks to the past and the future at the same time, much how I like to make dance,” Dawson says. Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West calls Bosso’s style “modern baroque,” evoking the violin pieces of Antonio Vivaldi but with a contemporary, emotional sound. A third contrast is visible in the black-and-white design concept, inspired by George Balanchine ballets such as Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which Dawson saw the Company perform last season.

Although Dawson doesn’t think of himself as a political choreographer, he did find himself responding to the polarized world we live in now, the loss of freedom. He understands the opposites that make up our world—light and dark, humanity and architecture, individual and group—“but between those opposites, which are the extreme ends of very fine lines, there is so much room where people can have choice without judgment,” he says. “And that’s freedom to me.”

SF Ballet rehearsing Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

These spaces between extremes are a kind of fluidity, and one that Dawson wanted to explore within dance. “My language is the classical art form; I’m trying to do something with that,” he says. Historically in ballet some steps are for women or men only. Dawson shifts this by giving “the opposing energy as a starting point”—in other words, giving animus choreography to a dancer who seems more anima, and vice versa. At times he gives the same choreography to both genders; for example, Principal Dancer Carlo Di Lanno’s solo starts with some of the movement from Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova’s solo, then goes in a different direction. “Be a swan,” Dawson says to Di Lanno, joking. “You might not get another chance.”

In the slower second movement, in the part Dawson calls “Angels,” he says “that’s where we go to archetype. In Jung’s philosophy, the female is the nurturer, the mother, the angel, the pure. And the man is the warrior, the strong, the hero. I’m trying to show it all.” Even in those archetypes, the theme of contrasts shows—the two principal women, Kochetkova and Principal Dancer Sofiane Sylve, couldn’t be more different. Watching them do the same steps, you see the potential in the movement—there is never only one way. Then, when the women float high above the stage, as close to the lights as their men can lift them, “that’s when they show their form as angels,” Dawson says. “That’s when they touch the sky and they show who they really are.”

Dawson sends his dancers skyward, but he wants them grounded too. This reads as a paradox—the dancers fly, gliding and slipping through intricate moves that do indeed make them seem as untethered as angels, and yet they have weight, and form, and mass. They have substance that goes far beyond the light, lifted aesthetic of classical ballet. Dawson creates this effect with a movement style he calls “whole milk, with cream.” In rehearsals, he’s constantly asking the dancers to let their classicism go. He applauds one woman who was dancing “a little less Lilac Fairy and a little more Carabosse.” He tells the group, “I’m breaking your training,” and asks for clawlike hands, for movement that is “deeper, squashed, crunched. I want it odd.”

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

But don’t think for a minute that Anima Animus is odd or ugly. “To fall, to slip, to slide, to dip, to dive—all of these things are different ways of approaching classical ballet,” Dawson says. He compares traditional ballet to Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci, “and of course I’m not that. I don’t want to be that; I want to be [graffiti artist] Banksy. I want to take history and show somebody my view on it.” To get there, he starts with an internal process—which leads us back to this idea of physically emotional virtuosity. In choreographing, “I feel my way through the movement,” he says. “I emotionalize it, if there’s such a word. Because for me, physicality is driven by emotion. If someone’s angry or sad, it becomes physical, doesn’t it? It’s expressed through the body.” To communicate his ideas, Dawson invades the dancers’ space and shows them possibilities. He moves among them like a coach who can’t stay on the sidelines, standing mid-stage, arms wide, to intercept their trajectories, and moving alongside them while issuing commands and encouragement. “I’m being emotionally visible,” he says. “I need to show them where I feel emotionally that [step] can go.”

Any given rehearsal yields a handful of Dawson’s colorful images. A glissade (a low, gliding jump) “should be grounded, like you have magnets on your toes,” he tells the women. “So when you do jump, it’s big.” To one dancer who’s being too delicate: “Do it again and Wonder Woman it.” To the men, about a lift: “Be more bold, more dominant.” To Kochetkova: “When you go into that arabesque, give it some resistance. You should be like wax just about to get cold.” To Soloist Wei Wang, about a shoulder lift: “Hold her tight and create her. Glamorous.” Dawson wants no holding back. “Speak with your feet; dance with your whole body,” he says. And while you’re at it, “make it look like you have all the time in the world.”

In Bosso’s music, Dawson hears both hope and doom. “You are here to tell us something,” he tells the dancers. “You’re saying to the public, ‘Be careful. It’s not going to end well if you keep going this way.’” Though his message acknowledges doom, it keeps reverting to hope. As much as he emphasizes unity, he’s interested “in the power of the human being,” he says. “I want each person to dance more like themselves than they ever have been.” That mindset is, in effect, his spirituality. “I believe in the universe,” he says. “We’re energy and carbon and atomic; creation is happening all the time. That’s why I love what we do, because we’re embodying what life is all about.”