John Otto

‘Embraced, not confined’

1 December 2022

Interview with set designer John Otto

Set designer John Otto only needed to see one ‘David Dawson’ to decide that he wanted to work with this choreographer. Twenty years later, this collaboration is still just as special, and each creative process brings the two artists even closer together. “It’s a question of teaming up to search, break down and rebuild. My design is an interaction between us.”

Text: Lune Visser

His love of opera and ballet was kindled at an early age, and John Otto (New Zealand) still remembers his first performance well. “When Scarpia gets stabbed by the dagger in Act 2 of the opera Tosca, it makes a big impression on a ten-year-old boy!” At home, he liked to create his own performances, in a real puppet theatre. But soon he became more interested in the backdrops than in the puppets themselves. Later, during his set design studies at the Motley School, in London, it was confirmed that this interest was not just a childish whim, but that he did indeed want to make a living out of these ‘backdrops’.


Following his studies, Otto got his first official commission from the Nederlandse Opera (now: Dutch National Opera), in Amsterdam – the city where he eventually saw a work by David Dawson for the first time. “I was amazed by the ballet. It was different to the

other ballets I’d seen. It was beautiful and had some very interesting aspects. Although it appeared simple, it was very powerful at the same time. I thought these strong dynamics were very special and I asked David if he’d like to work together some time. Then we discovered that we understood each other really well, and that’s still the case today.”



For a time, Otto designed sets for both opera and ballet, but nowadays he concentrates on ballet commissions. “Even though they’re probably more difficult. It’s an unusual way of working, because you have to leave as much space as possible for the dancers. They have to stand out, and not be swallowed up by the scenery. You can’t just put something in between them that breaks the tension.” When he’s working with David, he also has to take  account of another specific requirement. “David wants the dancers to be embraced, but he wants them to be able to breathe. So I have to play with the space in a different way, so that the sets surround the dancers while not confining them.”


Creative process

In order to create such a design, Otto and Dawson go through different stages together. “Usually, he stimulates my imagination with ideas, following which I build various models. Then we sit down together, pull apart all the components, rebuild them, shift them around and create a new model. I also deliberately put small figures in it, which David moves through the model to look at the dynamics and the distance from the scenery.” And yet… “…we often return to the first idea, which turns out to capture the essence best after all.”

However, all those ideas are not in vain. “Colour or black and white? Very big or actually quite small? A grey wall or a reflective floor? The development of inventive ideas is what makes the creative process so inspiring. The set should be a representation of the atmosphere created on stage – dance needs a sort of background. It’s all about conveying a certain feeling. For this piece, for instance, we eventually switched from colour to grey, and that makes quite a difference.”


Airy sets

Legacy Variations is an exceptional piece, as David is working with three dancers who are very special to him, and it’s also a celebration of Dutch National Ballet. So we wanted to create something that’s inspired by the Dutch skies – which is now expressed as a sort of open space – but with a familiar, romantic atmosphere. The music has long lines and everything’s really stretched out, so I wanted to reflect that aspect in the sets. In addition, there are three light strips referring to the three dancers, which move up and down and together form the view of the skies. But this projection won’t be too over the top, because it mustn’t steal the show! So the light strips will move very slowly and not bounce up and down.”


Blending together

And finally, everything has to come together. “The choreography, the dancers, the sets, the costumes and the lighting; they all have to form a unity. You should get the feeling that all the elements work well together. On the other hand, it shouldn’t look like a chocolate box. It doesn’t need to be too neat or too sweet. It’s a personal work, with a major role for the relationships between people, but it’s also strong and stormy. Majestic. If that is conveyed – in unison – than something wonderful is created.”

  • Dawson will run from 8 to 16 December 2022 at Dutch National Ballet.