Interview | Leo Dixon on Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House

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Sessions for Death In Venice, photograph by Gavin Smart

Stuart Martin


Leo Dixon on Death in Venice
at the Royal Opera House

At only 23 years old, British dancer Leo Dixon has already begun an impressive career at the Royal Ballet. Not content with conquering the Royal Ballet, he is now making his Royal Opera debut, dancing the role of Tadzio in David McVicar’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice.

I got the chance to watch some of the rehearsals and see Dixon creating the role in this new production with McVicar. Watching McVicar interact with Dixon and the other dancers, his enthusiasm and good humour and the relaxed attitude seemed encouraging.  ‘He’s just been amazing in terms of the acting side of things,’ says Dixon. ‘Not just for me: I’ve seen him with other people, like, someone’s right at the back of the stage and he sees what they’re doing and he’s like, “No, no, do this!” He really does do personalised stuff, which I think will show. It’s also been nice to work with Lynne [Page, the choreographer]. She’s been really accommodating to what my strengths are as a dancer, which makes it easier going into the actual shows’

Death in Venice is about a writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who is depressed and suffering from writer’s block. An encounter with a mysterious traveller makes him decide to travel south to Venice to refresh his imagination. At his hotel in Venice, Aschenbach is struck by the beauty of Tadzio, a Polish boy who is holidaying with his family. During the following days Aschenbach’s fascination with the boy grows: he watches him on the beach, and secretly follows him through the streets of Venice. Even when rumours of a plague in Venice reach Aschenbach, and a series of unsettling incidents unnerve him, his obsession with Tadzio prevents him from leaving.

‘It’s quite naturalistic,’ says Dixon of this new production, ‘It seems quite interesting in the way that they’re going from naturalism into Aschenbach’s mind, and kind of going out of reality when you do that. There are moments where it kind of trickles into his psyche, and then becomes quite fragmented or obsessive in the way the movement comes across. I think that’s a really interesting part of what David’s done.’

One difference Dixon notices between ballet and opera is the acting: ‘I find that ballet acting is a bit more subtle and “mimey”, whereas this seems more real – although I do think David’s trying to push that as well. It’s been really great so far, just to be involved. [It’s been a little bit of an adjustment] in a way because, especially this, the role of Tadzio, is quite featured, so there is a lot of focus on him. I think it’s quite important to get that right, but David’s been really good with that, and he has a really good eye for knowing “you need to do more there,” “that bit doesn’t work,” so that’s been really helpful.’

Dixon has become quite a fan of the opera and its differences to others that have been stage. ‘I hadn’t heard the music before working on Death in Venice,’ he explains, ‘but since I’ve been working on it, it’s really interesting because it has such a range of the orchestra, there’s quite interesting percussion that I’ve not heard so much of before.’

Dixon has created a number of new roles in ballets, including in Frankenstein, Flight Pattern and Corybantic Games, as well as Tadzio in this new production. Is that easier, more exciting than following another dancer in a current production, I wonder? ‘I guess when you create the role (because you’re putting yourself into it), that can make it, in some ways easier, because you’re not trying to do something else, copy and paste. It’s just you – especially this role [as Tadzio], because it’s so featured, I can be a bit more me in it. This role is very much about the character, so that’s been a challenge, as well as a pleasure.’

In talking about this, the creation of new roles, I asked about what his most rewarding experience had been thus far at the Royal Ballet. He singles out a role he played last season in Asphodel’s Meadows by Liam Scarlett. It was the first time he had been given a principal role. “It was quite a big thing for me, says Dixon. ‘I was quite young as well, and to tackle that, and achieve it and do well with it, was a powerful moment for my career and for me as a dancer. It gave me a drive that this is what it can be like, and I want to get more of that. I do think that Tadzio will be as well; again, it’s quite nice to be focused on, especially in the creation. Ask me afterwards and I’ll probably say this!’

So how did he first get into ballet? ‘I have three older sisters,’ says Dixon. ‘The classic story! They were going off to lessons and I was sitting at the back and the teacher was like “do you want to have a go?” and it escalated from there, none of them dance anymore – just me, flying the flag!’

Leo was promoted this season to the role of First Artist at the Royal Ballet. With his career moving from strength to strength, we talked about dream roles, both the type that he would be hoping for soon and the ultimate role he’d like to play. ‘There’s a ballet called Onegin,’ says Dixon. ‘The role of Lensky, I think that’s a really beautiful role, especially for a younger-ish dancer. He has a nice pas de deux with the girls, and there’s also a solo, and it’s got the drama – it’s got a bit of everything, so that would be an amazing role to play. My dream role overall is Albrecht in Giselle. I just love the ballet and think the role is just stunning. That’s the one!’

When I met Dixon, as well as rehearsing for Death in Venice, he was also dancing in Manon, a triple bill, and rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty. I wonder how he copes with that level of pressure. ‘Day by day, if not hour by hour, minute by minute,’ he says, ‘because if you try and think of everything at once, it’s a bit overwhelming. I do try and switch off at night, because I think if you take it too much home then you’ll never escape it, so when I go home I try to just leave work at work and then come in ready for the next day.’

For those wondering if ballet is really for them, Dixon has the perfect solution: ‘I like to try and sell the cinema screenings. It’s a good price and it’s a really good way for anyone, not just those in London, to come and have a look.’

Having now performed both ballet and opera, I thought Dixon was perfectly placed to explain to people, who may never have been to one or either, why should they go to see them. What makes it special? ‘I think, it’s just an amazing way to be taken away from the daily grind of whatever your life is and if you go to a performance and the lights go out, you can completely be in that performance for a couple of hours. That’s a really nice thing to have, especially these days, with so much going on outside and tensions overall. Why not get an escape? It’s a combination of what you’re seeing and the amazing music as well; I think that, for me, is a big part of why dance and why opera is so good.’

Interview by Stuart Martin.

Death in Venice opens on the main stage at the Royal Opera House on the 21st November and is running until the 6th December. For more information, visit www.roh.org.uk


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