It’s not often a dancin’ mom gets to have a long chat with her dancin’ son’s artistic director—especially when he dances professionally. However, I had the unique opportunity to interview Aaron Watkin, the artistic director at SemperOper Ballett in Dresden, Germany, just after my son, Julian, danced the biggest role of his career, Des Grieux in Manon.
I knew the role was unique and that being chosen by the McMillan Foundation to dance the part was an honor, but I had no idea really why the part of Des Grieux was so challenging or attractive to male dancers. I’d heard that some dancers wait their whole careers to dance the part of Des Grieux and retire with that one feather missing from their hats. And some, like Jirí Bubenícek, a former principal at SemperOper Ballett, danced it as his last role before retirement. In fact, he danced two of the six performances; Julian performed twice after Bubenícek’s shows.
What follows is my conversation with Watkin. Born in the Cowichan Valley, British Columbia, Canada, he graduated from the National Ballet School of Canada in 1988 winning the prestigious Erik Bruhn Award, awarded to the most promising student in the school. Watkin enjoyed a full career in dance beginning with leading classical companies including National Ballet of Canada, English National Ballet, and Dutch National Ballet, where he worked his way up from corps de ballet to the ranks of soloist. After seven years of the classical repertoire, he was invited by world renowned choreographer William Forsythe to become a principal dancer with Ballett Frankfurt. During this time he learned a completely new vocabulary of dance and had numerous opportunities to create new works with Forsythe. Watkin always admired the works of Nacho Duato, and in 2000 joined his company, the National Dance Company of Spain.
In June 2002, Watkin was appointed associate artistic director to Victor Ullate Ballet in Madrid, Spain. Watkin was a personal choreographic assistant to Forsythe. In 2005, he also assisted David Dawson for his creation of Reverence for Kirov Ballet and Johan Inger for his creation of Negro con Flores for Cullberg Ballet. Watkin was artistic associate director of The Loft Dance Studio iand of the annual Dance For Life AIDS Benefit Galas at the Cirque Royal Theatre in Brussels, Belgium.
Watkin was appointed Artistic Director of the Semperoper Ballett on August 1, 2006.
My conversation with Watkin took place the day of Julian’s second performance as Des Grieux in Manon. I hope his comments will inspire other young dancin’ boys to dream big, work hard, and be ready when opportunity knocks on the door. The combination of these three things will help them achieve their goals.
What makes the role of Des Grieux so challenging and, at the same time, attractive to many dancers? Some male dancers wait their entire careers to dance it, and never do. Others feel it was the most challenging role they perform during their career.
First, it was created on Anthony Dowell, who was one of the most exceptional male dancers, especially at his time. He was far beyond his colleagues, especially in his adagio work and his control. So you need control over and ease with your adagio type of technique.
Second, I think the attractive thing about Manon for a man is it really shows another side of your technique. A lot of times men do big jumps, spins, and turns, more bravura moves. Manon has three solos, which are more adagio. To perform them you need an extreme amount of control. You need to really work your lines in a way that men don’t normally have to.
Another thing that’s extremely challenging is that right after or right before each of these solos, there’s a huge pas de deux.
If the role offered just some solo adagio work, it would be one thing. But it involves everything. It’s dramatic. I think, foremost, the characters and their emotional states are the most important thing. It’s a wonderful role to play, and
Third, you have to be an excellent partner. It was tailor-made for Dowell, and he embodied all of those things. It’s hard to find another man that has all that.
What you usually get is dancers who can turn well, or jump well, but maybe you have to really work their adagio lines. Or you get the opposite—someone with beautiful lines but not strong enough to do the partnering.
I think for any male dancer, this is an extremely challenging role on many, many different levels, and therefore, it’s very interesting.
In addition to the adagio work and the emotional aspect, what else do you have to bring to the role of Des Grieux to succeed?
Kenneth McMillan’s work is all about relationships, personality, and characters. Half the people in the audience won’t know if your foot stretched or not or if you make a little hop and a turn, but they’ll not know if you’re not carrying the ballet emotionally or dramatically.
How difficult is it for a corphyee (demi-soloist) like Julian, to jump from that position to a principal part like this one, which happens to be more challenging? When he danced the Nutcracker Prince, I thought that was a big deal! But Des Grieux seems like a huge jump in difficulty.
I always love when people come to set these productions from outside. I like them to see the company with their own eyes. Most of the time, they pick the principals to be at least first cast. If, like in this case, they come to me right away and say, “We really would like Julian to learn this role.” I think, “Wonderful. Why not? Give him the challenge.”
I think Des Grieux is a huge role, and you can’t compare it at all with the Nutcracker prince, because that’s made for a young naïve sort of talent that’s up and coming. The work, the technical demands and artistic demands, they’re not easy, but they’re simpler.
Going to something like Des Grieux for your first big debut in a ballet is quite something. I think it sometimes happens in companies. It’s not something I would promote to happen all the time, but I like it when it happens—if someone is ready. And Julian clearly was ready, because, when he performed, we could all see, the performance was complete.
He did a very substantial performance. Julian is a very natural partner, which helps him incredibly in this role. Without that, he wouldn’t be able to do it.
I would say it’s quite difficult [to jump into such a large role]. So it’s wonderful to see that when you put that kind of load on someone, they can handle it, not just professionally but also psychologically. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a young dancer. That’s why a lot of times I like to give them a bit more time, but if someone can handle it, why not?
I know Julian struggled a bit with some self-doubt. As he did the run-throughs, he said some of his nerves went away. By the time it came to actually perform, he felt ready. These initial feelings are probably fairly normal, right?
Yes, but I would say that’s quite positive also. I would probably be more nervous as I was on the stage. He gets nervous earlier. He told me he usually was never that nervous when he was dancing. This was the first time he felt like there was a huge hill to climb. But the more he rehearsed, the more confident he got. By the time he got to the stage, he wasn’t panicking nervous.
That says something for a soloist because not everyone has that. Even with a lot of talent, that emotional side or stress can bring people down, or they can’t handle it on stage.
What tips would you offer to young men who would love to be offered the kind of opportunity Julian was given in Manon? Maybe they’re in a company, and they’re not quite there yet, but they want to get to the point where somebody would offer them that large a role.
The more experience I have, the more I believe in timing. In a way, it’s hard work tied in with destiny and timing. You know when your planets are all aligned.
You could be working and working and working for something, and it seems that there’s always something that goes wrong—a little injury, that other person, you didn’t quite make it into the role (just the understudy for it again), or this or that.
I think you have to be diligent. Responsibility and your desired outcome are going to come through hard work. Being there every day, working your body, honing your technique and craft, and being ready when someone throws you a curve ball. Then it’s not like, “Oh my god, now I have to learn how to get my partnering together and everything all in one second.” You’ve already got it all together.
There are only so many opportunities, and it’s probably about where you are as well. If you see that you’re always last cast, and you don’t see anyone leaving the company for the next 20 years, if you really want to dance then maybe you should think about going somewhere else. If you see that you are that one that’s being considered a lot and getting a lot of roles, or you are understudying the roles, you’re just about there. Just be ready.
We often have situations here when I say to the new dancers, “Even if you’re understudying the role, pretend you’re going to dance it. Because then you’ll see someone goes [off stage injured], and in one second you have to jump in.” If they can’t do that, no one is not going to rely on them next time.
I think it’s about just keeping an eye on your goals. See where you’re going the whole time, and you just keep taking a step, after step, after step. Even if you slip back a little bit at some point, and you feel like you’re moon-walking, after a while you’ll start to go forward again.
Of course, all of this depends a lot on your talent, too. Not every dancer is going to get to be a principal from working hard and being there every day. “Principal” is a very specific category, and it takes a specific talent and a specific mind. You sometimes can see the dancers who aren’t as talented, but they’re there every day. They’re reliable, and they do the job. They’re consistent. With the others, after a while, you might say, “This one is really talented, but he’s always off; I don’t trust him. He can be third cast.” Sometimes when you do that, that person, when they don’t have the pressure of the first cast, actually dances so much better.”
Which also tells you that when the pressure is on, the dancer enjoys it or thrives.
Or that they don’t or can’t rise up under the pressure.
How unusual is it for someone as young as Julian, like a 21-year-old, to dance a principal role in a ballet like Manon?
I saw an interview with Sylvie Guillem, and she was saying that she was so grateful to Nureyev for taking her when she was 19 and giving her all those opportunities because so many directors don’t push the young people fast. I would say in her case, and in very specific cases, I agree.
I also think there is something to be said for going through the core, into the demi-soloist’s roles, into the soloist roles, and then into the principal roles. By the time you get to the principal roles, you have all the tools in your toolbox. You have all that experience also psychologically that helps you handle the position.
I would say, in most cases, I think it’s better to keep dancers going through a certain path. But along the path, when you see that there is some exceptional talent, and also maybe you need to have that talent at that point doing those roles, then you need to also take care of that person, promote them, and push them in a certain way to help them get there sooner.
Photo of Sarah Hay and Julian Amir Lacey – Manon – courtesy of Ian Whalen