Watkin leading rehearsal at Dresden Semperoper Ballett. Costin Radu, Courtesy Semperoper.

At Dresden Semperoper Ballett, Aaron S. Watkin Infuses the Repertoire With Contemporary Cool

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Pointe.

Every once in a while, a ballet company will come out of left field and reinvent itself in a matter of years. Until Aaron S. Watkin took over as artistic director in 2006, Dresden's Semperoper Ballett was mainly known as a midsize classical hub. As its dancers took to the stage last February in William Forsythe's newly arranged Neue Suite, however, their energy signaled a hungry, fierce and disciplined troupe. Couple after couple put on a display of speed and precision, conjuring feats of articulation as if to the manner born.


Under Watkin, the Semperoper Ballett has fast developed a voice of its own within the well-funded German state theater system, transforming into a modern neoclassical ensemble with a precious calling card: its association with Forsythe. Inspired and shaped by his repertoire, the Semperoper has stressed individuality and creativity, attracting choreographers such as popular Forsythe alum David Dawson—and a slew of dancers ready for prime time, including Sarah Hay, the star of the new TV series “Flesh and Bone."

Born in British Columbia, Watkin initially danced with the National Ballet of Canada. An early encounter with Forsythe, who created The Second Detail on the company in 1990, proved decisive. “With Forsythe, the movement quality felt so natural. It was the first time I really felt I could enjoy the moment onstage."

Watkin in rehearsal with ForsytheCourtesy Semperoper

Forsythe invited him to join his company in Frankfurt, but Watkin, feeling he wasn't done with classical ballet, moved to English National Ballet and later Dutch National Ballet. When Forsythe reiterated his invitation in 1998, Watkin, still reeling from a major injury, took the plunge.

After his retirement, the Forsythe connection eventually took Watkin to Dresden, where he set a program of the choreographer's works in 2005. The artistic directorship was open at the Semperoper Ballett at the time, and Forsythe recommended him. When Watkin was offered the job, he immediately opted for a clean break from the previous artistic direction to implement his vision for a more modern troupe. “The company was quite academic, very Eastern bloc. I knew that I wanted a very different dynamic," Watkin says.

That meant letting go of 25 dancers, half of the company. Watkin called on the network he had built over the years to recruit new ones. Soloists from the Mariinsky joined him, including the company's current prima, Elena Vostrotina; former partner Yumiko Takeshima and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet made the move from Amsterdam, along with Dawson as resident choreographer.

Watkin set about patiently remodeling the repertoire. The company presents 9 to 10 programs per season at the Semperoper, two of them new. “The main thing was to create our unique identity: The company did Neumeier and Cranko, but if someone wants to see these ballets, they can go to Hamburg or Stuttgart," he says. In addition to staging some classics himself, he turned to creations by Dawson, including his hit version of Giselle, and has recently nurtured Stijn Celis, who contributed a radical newRomeo and Juliet.

The company's relationship with Forsythe has become the touchstone of every season. In addition to its collection of short works by him, the Semperoper Ballett will acquire the worldwide rights this season for his famous triptych, Impressing the Czar, built around In the middle, somewhat elevated.

The mature company atmosphere is also heavily influenced by Forsythe's style. “I like dancers who come prepared, who don't wait to be told everything," Watkin says. “It all comes from Bill: He gives you so much confidence that you start to believe that you are interesting, that your opinion is valid."

Watkin has since recruited dancers from the nearby Palucca School, a pre-professional school for ballet and contemporary dance, and promoted from within. “It's important for me to have both senior principals and up-and-coming talent. Younger dancers can only learn by what they see, and there's nothing like the experience of a 40-year-old ballerina."

Plans to acquire more iconic works are being drawn up for the near future, but for now, the Dresden Semperoper Ballett is set to reap the rewards of its hard work, with tours to New York, Paris, Antwerp and Barcelona. “My biggest challenges were to get the dancers, the level and the company culture I needed," Watkin says. “Now it's time to make our presence known."

At A Glance:

Dresden Semperoper Ballett

Size: 56 dancers, plus 6–12 apprentices

Starting salary: around $4,173 USD (gross wage) per month

Length of contract: Year-round

Performances: 70 on the main stage in Dresden, plus tours

Website: semperoper.de/en/

Audition Advice

Watkin doesn't hold open auditions, but welcomes CVs with links to videos. From January to March, preselected dancers (typically five at a time) are then invited to take company class in Dresden. “I look for people who can move," says Watkin. “All I need to see is petit allégro, because it shows musicality, coordination and speed. If dancers can do that, they can usually do everything else."

Latest Posts


Jayme Thornton

Roman Mejia Is Carving His Own Path at New York City Ballet

In a brightly lit studio high above the busy Manhattan streets, Roman Mejia rehearses George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante. Though just 20, the New York City Ballet corps dancer exudes an easy confidence. Practicing a tricky sequence of triple pirouettes into double tours his breathing becomes labored, but his focus doesn't waver. He works until he finds the music's inherent rhythm, timing his turns evenly and finally landing them with a satisfied smile.

Since joining NYCB in 2017, Mejia has had the chance to take on ballets ranging from Romeo + Juliet to Fancy Free to Kyle Abraham's hip-hop–infused The Runaway. Though he often finds himself the youngest person in the room, Mejia is rarely intimidated. He's been immersed in ballet since birth. His father, Paul Mejia, danced with NYCB in the 1960s, and his mother, Maria Terezia Balogh, danced for Chicago City Ballet and Fort Worth-Dallas Ballet. Both of Mejia's parents and his grandmother attended the School of American Ballet. Now, Mejia is quickly building on his family's legacy, creating buzz with his shot-from-a-cannon energy, rapid-fire footwork and charismatic charm.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

Hi Everyone,

These are challenging times. The social distancing measures brought about by COVID-19 has likely meant that your regular ballet training has been interrupted, while your performances, competitions—even auditions—have been cancelled. You may be feeling anxious about what the future holds, not only for you but for the dance industry. And that's perfectly understandable.

As you adjust to taking virtual ballet class from your living rooms, we here at Pointe are adjusting to working remotely from our living rooms. We've had to get a little creative, especially as we put our Summer Issue together, but like you we're taking full advantage of modern technology. Sure, it's a little inconvenient sometimes, but we're finding our groove.

And we know that you will, too. We've been utterly inspired by how the dance community has rallied together, from ballet stars giving online classes to companies streaming their performances to the flood of artist resources popping up. We've loved watching you dance from your kitchens. And we want to help keep this spirit alive. That's why Pointe and all of our Dance Media sister publications are working nonstop to produce and cross-post stories to help you navigate this crisis. We're all in this together.

We also want to hear from you! Send us a message on social media, or email me directly at abrandt@dancemedia.com. Tell us how you're doing, send us your ideas and show us your dance moves. Let the collective love we share for our beloved art form spark the light at the end of the tunnel—we will come out the other side soon enough.

Best wishes,

Amy

Tulsa Ballet in Ma Cong's Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music. Kate Luber Photography, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Mark Your Calendars for These Online Ballet Performances

As COVID-19 has forced ballet companies around the world to cancel performances—and even the remainder of their seasons—many are keeping their audiences engaged by streaming or posting pre-recorded performances onto their websites or social media channels. To help keep you inspired during these challenging times, we've put together a list of upcoming streaming events and digital performances.

Keep reading SHOW LESS