A year ago, Derek Dunn was one of Houston Ballet's brightest young talents (oh, and he was also gracing Pointe's cover). So some were surprised when he announced that he'd be joining Boston Ballet as a soloist this season. We caught up with Dunn as he prepares for two season-opening premieres November 3–12, to see how he's settling in.
You danced with Houston Ballet for five years. Why did you leave?
It wasn't really about me leaving Houston—it was more me being curious about what else was out there. I got really lucky when I landed that job. I did a competition and afterwards Stanton [Welch, HB's artistic director] asked me to audition for an apprenticeship. I wasn't even necessarily looking for a job at the time; I was only a junior in high school, and I wasn't really sure if I was going to continue training for another year. So Houston Ballet was the only place that I even auditioned for, and really all I knew. After five years, I think it's only natural to be curious about how other places work and what their environments might be like. When I came to Boston to take class last year, I felt an immediate positive energy from everyone. On top of everything else the company has to offer—the rep, the talented dancers, the city—it was hard to pass it up.
What's it like being the new guy at Boston Ballet?
I've been really happy with my decision so far. Of course, joining a new company, you're not really sure what you're going to be thrown into. You have to prove yourself right away. But the amount of opportunities I've gotten already has been incredible and I'm really excited to do everything this season. It's been a really good start so far—very busy, but good.
Do you learn most of the repertoire early in the season?
Yeah, which is not what I'm used to. It's funny, we didn't start with the rep that we're performing first. We're doing a Bournonville festival at the end of spring and we've already learned Flower Festival. And we've doing a Justin Peck piece later in the year and Romeo and Juliet. It's been a different rehearsal and learning process, but it's definitely gotten my brain turned on.
What are you performing first?
Obsidian Tear by Wayne McGregor and Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, a world premiere by Jorma Elo. I'm involved in both pieces. Obsidian Tear starts with a nine-and-a-half-minute duet for two boys and then goes into a 20 minute group section, and I'm involved in all of it. It's definitely puffy, and getting thrown into something as big as this is intimidating at first, but it's exciting at the same time. Right now, I'm second cast of that. And then first cast for the Jorma Elo piece.
Have you worked with Jorma Elo before?
Not directly. In Houston, we did his ONE/end/ONE, but I only covered, so I didn't get any one on one time with him. But getting to work with him here has been a lot of fun.
Does Wayne McGregor's movement style come naturally to you?
Once I get the groove, it feels good, but it doesn't come naturally right away because it's not what I'm used to. In ballet, you hold your center strong and everything else moves. And I feel like with Wayne's movement, you have to let your center go so everything can flow with it. It's like taking a contemporary class every day—you have to really work at it to get the feel for it.
What is it like to work with a new artistic staff? Have they emphasized different things or offered new kinds of corrections?
I think it's different coming to a new company as a soloist, rather than completely starting over. I feel like I'm able to express myself individually, artistically speaking. It's a whole new set of eyes, so they're all getting to know me as a dancer. But the process has been great. They might say "we want to do it this way," but they allow me to be like, "well, I've done it this way," so there's a lot of back and forth and give and take.
Is the company's relationship with William Forsythe one reason why Boston Ballet was attractive to you?
Definitely. Doing his work is always so rewarding, and he's so inspiring. We're performing Pas/Parts this season, so he's already worked with us a little bit on it. I'm really excited to work with him more.
What do you think of the city?
This sounds cheesy, but when I first got here I couldn't stop smiling every time I went outside. It's like a little bit of Europe: There's so much history, the buildings are so old, the architecture is so pretty, everything is walkable. It's not too big and everything is really quiet at night. And my dog has adjusted quickly to the city lifestyle. That said, I'm a little nervous for the winter!