Former Artistic Director David Nixon is currently in Columbus to assist in the rehearsal of Dracula. We had the opportunity to catch up with him and hear his thoughts on Dracula’s evolution, the ballet world, and his own artistic growth over the years.
Being back in Columbus, David doesn’t miss driving on the freeways and is shocked by the many apartment complexes that have sprung up. His favorite balsamic salad at Figlio’s is the same, though! Even as the years have passed, David looks back fondly on his time at BalletMet, recalling the blooper reel the company made for him on his departure: “When I left, the company had made for me a blooper tape of performances that, I don’t know whether I must have missed a couple of them or what, but there were some very funny things. There was a, once in Serenade, there’s a lift at the very end where the boys carry–are supposed to carry the girl, as the curtain comes down…and they literally, it was as if she was falling. I know she didn’t hurt herself, but it just was not what it was supposed to be. And there’s another one where the girl was in Swan Lake and she was balancing in second but she was losing her balance. So she was reaching for her partner and he literally just high fived her on stage. And I was watching this thing, thinking, ‘Was I at some of these performances?’ I must have been, because—I wouldn’t have laughed at the time. I would have been quite upset because I wanted everything perfect. But when you look at it after the fact, it becomes very entertaining.”
Few may remember that BalletMet was David Nixon’s first appointment as an Artistic Director. The shift from a dancer’s role to a director’s role can be a challenging adaptation. David credits his own transitional success to the team at BalletMet: “I always say it couldn’t have been a better first company, that was a team of especially women at that time. Nancy Strause, Daryl Kramer, Xandra Anderhalt, who were such experienced women and such fantastic mentors, and I think that that has always remained with me. And I had this fantastic board chair, Steve Rotella, and it was…I don’t think people understand how challenging it is for a dancer to step into being a director… As a dancer, you have some idea of what it’s like, but actually your idea is completely wrong. And you need these people that have this experience and that you can go and sit in their office and cry and sort of say, ‘I’ve done it all wrong. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And they can actually help you understand, ‘It’s fine. You make mistakes. What are you going to learn from it? How are you going to go forward from it?’ And, you know, to this day, I always refer back to my experiences here, and it was for me a very special time.”
A director is often given credit for the whole of the organization, but David is quick to honor his colleagues. In 2010, he received an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) and was then uplifted to a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2022 for his services to dance. He has been honored with numerous dance awards as well. Yet, in explaining these awards to BalletMet staff, he says: “It’s a wonderful thing to have these honors. I mean, you do feel—I always say that in my case, I can only receive it because of other people, because of the work they do with me. You know, it’s not like, if you’re a sculptor or something it’s your work. But when you’re an artistic director, a choreographer, without everybody nothing happens. So it’s a collective award, but somehow one person gets it.”
His awards show his growth as a leader and artist over the years. David views his emotions and sense of storytelling as a source of strength, but one that needs careful tempering in a directorial role. “I’ve directed almost 28 years and the whole time, the thing I’ve always had to monitor is that emotional side. I always say the positive of it is that it’s…it can be inspirational. But the negative is, you can sometimes bite. And people struggle with that. Especially administrative staff will struggle with it more than dancers because [dancers] grow up a bit with always being told, ‘This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, fix it.’ Whereas, you know, in the business world, people—that’s not quite the environment.”
And what happens when things don’t quite go right?
“I’ve always felt that every day you have to evaluate what you’ve done that day and what’s been good and what hasn’t. And you keep growing from it, and you take a step forward, you fall back a little bit, you take a step forward–I’d like to think, in the end, when I finished at Northern Ballet, that I had a really good balance. I think a lot of it is about, if you have a challenging moment in the studio, or with somebody, is to talk to them about why. Not just to let it be, let it go…The other day one of the dancers was not quite used to how I work. So I just pulled them at the end and I talked to them about, this is how I work, this is why I work, this is what I’m looking at, this is what I’m thinking. And the next day we both came back in the studio and had a great working relationship. And I think years ago when I was first here, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have just been upset, and the dancer would have been upset, and we would have split. And so then it takes a lot longer to come back to that place of mutual respect and an environment in which you’re both working productively.”
Striking that balance is hard, but essential to David. “I firmly believe that we have to have edge. I think we cannot inspire audiences and push to our potential if there isn’t some edge to it. It can’t all be nice and happy and sweet. It just doesn’t work. I see it all the time. When it’s too comfortable, the energy goes down, the attack goes down, the desire goes down. So there always has to be that edge, but it can be done in a way that is constructive.”
And, clearly, finding that constructive edge brings something extraordinary to the stage–even though no one really knows if a ballet is going to succeed until the curtains open. “I had no idea Dracula was going to be a success. In fact, I was really scared it was going to just fall flat, because it could have…it could have! Because people had an expectation of more of a horror story than what it is and the way it came out. So it’s always been such a comfort as a choreographer to think that you have created something that, that not only really people enjoy and can enjoy over and over, but that as a work it just keeps going. And the same thing happened in the United Kingdom, in Leeds. When we do it, the Playhouse, it’s full. And it’s a different audience. That’s what I love about it, is that the title just attracts a different group of people who aren’t going to come to Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, but they are going to come to this. They’re interested, what have you done to this story? You know—I haven’t seen it so much anymore—but in the early years there were a lot of goths that came, in England, and they’d be all dressed up, and…I just love that. I love the sense of event for it…I did not expect it to become the success it has been and I’m just so grateful that it has.”
Dracula’s status as a fan favorite is wonderful to see. The ballet has returned year after year and in company after company. The restaging process is always a new experience, especially with as many iterations as there have been of Dracula. For David, each time he resets the ballet is a chance to step back and reevaluate the work. “If you’re a living choreographer, you always have to look at your work fresh every time you get to set it. You also have to look at the resources in terms of your artists that you’re working with. They’re not going to be the same people and the world isn’t going to be the same place either, and what they’re used to now, and what aesthetics and things…So sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you do want to discard everything in a certain sense because, you know, the world is in a different place now. But I’m a strong believer that we also have to respect what was and that there is value to what was and appreciate that and take it with us. So this time, I’m, you know, I’m really looking at the dancers I have here and looking at what I did. There will be some changes. Anybody who saw it a lot will probably clock it more than anybody coming for the first time. It’s just going to be a fresh experience for them.”
Many changes have been made to Dracula throughout the years. Consequently, a few surprises always come up in the rehearsal process. “I keep saying to Hisham, who’s been phenomenal at teaching so much of it and staging it for me—’where’d that step come from?’ ‘It’s there, it’s there’. And I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’, and then I look and, ‘Yeah, okay, it’s there, I had forgotten that’, sometimes. Because we set off videos, and often in the performance videos dancers do something not quite right in the performance, and you forget that that wasn’t what it should be because we’re not very good at notating that down. So that now becomes what you teach the next time. Because I do find, often, people are taking the most recent version to stage from.”
But there are some constants. “What remains pretty much the same is the pas de deux in the second act between Mina and Dracula. It’s because it’s what I started with. And I had this idea that if that worked, then I could do the ballet, but if it didn’t, I didn’t know what was going to happen [laughs]…So I think that that’s my favorite part…that pas de deux for me is just…You don’t get an opportunity all the time in ballet to create something that is real. And—it’s a real man and a real woman. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo & Juliet, fresh love or romance. It’s something deeper and less emotional, but richer.”
Among the factors driving change in Dracula are artistic choice and the advancements in theatre technology. “…The lighting that we can do today, it creates different—it can create a more mystical atmosphere than we were able to, you know, 20 odd years ago. And I think also just…aesthetic. My aesthetic has changed. So, I design most of my ballets as it is. But in the 21 years I worked with Northern Ballet’s wardrobe, we went on a journey. So the costumes that we would have started with when I first went over and did Butterfly is not how I approach things now. I was just rehearsing my Nutcracker there and we did a dress run—it was redone, the costumes, just a few years ago. So I was looking at them, thinking, ‘So that’s where we got to with that.’ We started with very clear Regency dresses that were pretty…you could look in a book and that’s what they were. And they evolved to things that are much lighter and airier and, and just…It’s a different aesthetic, a different weight as well. So the whole first act now looks bright to me, whereas it was beautiful before, but it didn’t have this lightness that I think one needed for the dance. …At Northern Ballet, I’ve completely changed the set and the aesthetic [of Dracula]. And it has even had an evolution from when I first did it…The last time we did it was just before COVID, and it was a really updated–I redid a lot of costumes in a different look, wigs in a different look, created an old Dracula –so I have two Draculas, and updated the choreography for the dancers that I was working with in the company then. And so when I was coming back here, I had to remember that they have a different version here. They have the original version here, original set, original costumes, original complete concept…Within that, and looking at the dancers that I have when I arrived: what can I do?…We are making some adaptations. It’s not exactly the original version that I did here in, what was it, 1999 or something? Yeah, 23 years. God, that’s a long time, isn’t it?”
It has been a delight to have David back in town these past few weeks. He will leave again after the curtains close on Dracula, but for now, his leadership and artistic guidance fill our studios once more.
Hear more from David Nixon in a behind-the-scenes rehearsal video of BalletMet artists below or at our upcoming performances of Dracula.