Australian Dance Reviews

Book review: ‘Ed Watson: A Different Dance’ by Sarah Crompton

Edward Watson. Photo by Paul Grover.
Edward Watson. Photo by Paul Grover.

Book: Ed Watson: A Different Dance
Author: Sarah Crompton, Prestel Publishing, May 2023

Sarah Crompton’s Ed Watson: A Different Dance is a visually stunning book with photos that stop you in your tracks.

It is a celebration of the life and performances of Edward Watson, principal dancer with The Royal Ballet who is now a repetiteur and coach for the company, retiring from performing in 2020.

The wonderful book includes photos of Watson in rehearsal and on stage, his balletic flying leaps, in his dressing room, fashion shoots and sculptural close-ups of his hands and feet.

Growing up in Longfield, just outside Dartfield in Kent, Watson followed his twin sister Elizabeth to dance classes at the age of three and was accepted into The Royal Ballet School at 11. There, he poured over the library’s ballet books, fascinated by the body’s “line” and sculptural shaping.

He likes unexpected challenges. As Crompton says, “Ask him to do something different, daring or unusual, and his instinct will be to give it a go. He is curious to see what there is around the corner, to find out what happens if you wring something dry, take it apart and put it back together again.” He analyses, questions and probes – if he doesn’t like a particular performance. Why?

He created more roles than any other dancer in The Royal Ballet and was muse to choreographers shaping British dance in the 21st century. When he arrived for rehearsals, he was “empty but ready to start.” He is known for his elegant style, pure line and great leap, as well as his amazing ability to get beneath the skin of a character (e.g. Prince Rudolf in Mayerling and Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis). He was a red-haired idiosyncratic dancer, with an eloquent face and gifted with a body with the ability to bend and move challenging traditional ballet norms. Interestingly, he was only created principal dancer in 2005, and danced Albrecht in Giselle in 2006 for the first time.

One of the singular dancers of his era, Watson’s many awards include Best Male Dancer at the Critics Circle National Dance Awards in 2001, 2008 and 2022, an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance in 2012 for his performance as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s Metamorphosis, and the Prix Benois de la Danse in 2015 for his performance in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. In 2015, he was awarded an MBE for his services to dance.

'Ed Watson: A Different Dance' cover.
‘Ed Watson: A Different Dance’ cover.

The book has several contributors. Crompton looks at Watson’s overall career, and his work with various choreographers including Arthur Pita and Christopher Wheeldon, while Wayne McGregor remembers various roles he created for Watson, also Watson having a mask taken and a serious tendon injury among other things. His ‘Letter to Ed Watson’, though, is mostly a rave about the various roles he created for McGregor, their friendship and collaboration.

Long-time great friend dance and theatre photographer Charlotte MacMillan (yes, the daughter of ballet royalty Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Deborah, a painter) discusses with him how he began, if there is/was a vocation or calling, and how Watson didn’t fit traditional ballet perceptions of a male dancer. The behind-the-scenes politics at The Royal Ballet are discussed, and she also takes him through the transitioning from performing to coaching as his body decided to protest.

Fashion designer Gareth Pugh considers the notion of duende (particularly used in Flamenco), when a performer is taken over by an overwhelming spirit that captures the audience (e.g. the original Sydney production of Les Misérables at the Theatre Royal — this reviewer was in a state of shock for a week afterward) — Opera Australia’s Evita, Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, The Happy Prince and the Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle in Sydney 2013. Also the extraordinary Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures’ Swan Lake and The Royal Ballet in Act 2 of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, to name just a few. Watson has the ability to jump between ground-breaking modern works and traditional classical – a giant insect or a dreamy prince or Romeo.

Amazing images are included throughout by leading photographers, but the final section is entitled “Dancing Outside the Box,” and we see works by Rick Guest, Nick Knight, Kosmas Pavlos, Nadav Kander, Paul Smith, Laurence Ellis, Teddy Iborra Wicksteed, Liz Seagrove, Paul Grover and Johan Persson. We learn how Watson prepares for a fashion shoot. Watson’s body becomes a sculptural painting, and we see him with and without a full face mask, on a huge plinth like a sculpture, wearing a helmet and billowing tartan strips, as a nude sculpture with a spiky necklace, wearing a jewelled headdress and rings, and, suited, a posh very large necklace almost like a jabot and rings.

Also discussed is his major collaboration with Anthony Crickmay, who photographed Watson from the age of 12 and then the photographer’s final shoot 30 years later.

In this dazzling book, Watson is revealed as a performer of singular originality and accomplished inventiveness.

By Lynne Lancaster of Dance Informa.

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