Moving to pastures new: a conversation with Brandon Lawrence

This summer, now former Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Brandon Lawrence joined Ballett Zürich. David Mead caught up with him recently, talked about the move, looked forwards, and back on his twelve years at BRB.

Brandon Lawrence outside the Opera House in Zürich
Photo courtesy Brandon Lawrence

“The worst thing is regret. And it’s an opportunity I can’t ignore. I don’t want to be wondering, ‘What if?’” So says Brandon Lawrence about his move to Ballett Zürich.

While he stresses that he was very happy at Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), he was also very aware that the chance of moving to a company with a repertoire chock full of work he had never danced, with a new director forging her own artistic vision, might only come along once in a career. “I was never going to move to a like for like or similar-ish company. BRB have the biggest heart, and some of the best full-length productions. Zürich is a progressive company, doing different things, but in the same realm.”

The wheels for the move were set in motion in summer 2022. “I just struck up a conversation with Cathy. I had seen some of her work, The Cellist in the cinema, Jane Eyre and Victoria in theatres. We got chatting and it was an opportunity.

Many more conversations, a lot of thinking and a lot of weighing things up followed. “I went to Zürich in September for two days. My first time to Switzerland. It was the best introduction with beautiful weather. The lake looked a dream. It was like Mother Nature had switched everything on to make it even more desirable. And then there was the stunning opera house.”

Speaking immediately before he flew out to set up home in his new city, Lawrence admitted to being very excited.

With just 1,100 seats, the beautiful main auditorium
of the Zürich Opera House feels very intimate
Photo Frank Blaser

“When I was at school, I wanted to join Birmingham Royal Ballet. I’d seen lots of dancers go into the company and get opportunities from David Bintley. He was a choreographer too, so there was regular new work. I loved it throughout his time. And just as much through Carlos’ time too. Even with the pandemic in the middle. He came in with his infectious energy and drive to present the company.”

But when Zürich came along, he couldn’t help wondering happened where it could take him. “This was my 12th year at BRB. I’ve danced pretty much all the new works that have been done. I’ve done all the big 19th-century classics, and BRB has some of the best. I told Cathy, now I want to do more of the other stuff. New creations, the iconic one-act ballets and triple bills that we see less and less of over here.”

Brandon Lawrence with Céline Gittens in the Act III pas de deux from Swan Lake
(pictured at the 2023 Nuremberg International Ballet Gala)
Photo Staatstheater Nürnberg/Bettina Stoess

Looking further ahead, Lawrence reveals that, “After I’ve finished performing, I would like to stay in the ballet world and ultimately lead a company. “100%. I would love to be a director because it’s a chance to provide opportunities for people. All through my career, I’ve been given many opportunities in roles, experiences doing other things, and I see the real benefit that has in building people. I imagine it’s a hard job, but also very satisfying. This move will only help me nurture more skills, network and be exposed to different works and choreographers. It’s certainly not going to hinder that ambition.”

Returning to programming, he says, “When Cathy told me what Ballett Zürich’s repertory was going to be for the new season, I just thought it was incredibly diverse; a feast for any artist. I knew much of what she had planned but I hadn’t danced any of it. It’s completely new. I’m not just going to be stepping into a new country and a new building but I don’t know the first step of any of the pieces. It has been a long time since I’ve had that. This made me even more excited for my future with Ballett Zürich.

San Francisco Ballet in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind,
part of her opening Walkways triple bill in Zürich
Photo Erik Tomasson

Being part of an opera house will be something new. “A schedule that is very spread out rather than in blocks of performances is something I’ve not done. That will be a challenge.” Typical is the first mixed bill, Walkways, which premieres on October 6 and that consists of Marston’s Snowblind, based on Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome, which she made originally for San Francisco Ballet, Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces and Wayne McGregor’s Infra.. “I think there are 13 shows, really good for a mixed bill, but spread out to January 1 and 2. You’ve got to keep it in your brain for a little bit longer,” he says laughing. “And it overlaps with Marcos Morau’s Nachtträume and the opera as well.”

Ballett Zürich has more programmes than in any Birmingham season too. In 2023-24 there are eight for the main company, including the premiere in Spring of the big new ballet of the year, Marston’s Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel. The season also sees the biannual programme of new choreography by company dancers. “It’s something I could be open to,” he says, “but I prefer being more of a canvas, creating alongside a choreographer. I’m not eager to get my own work out there. But never say never.”

Ballett Zürich in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, which returns in the 2023-24 season
(pictured l-r: Wei Chen (The Instrument), Guilia Tonelli (The Cellist)
and Esteban Berlanga (The Conductor))
Photo Gergory Batardon

Lawrence says he’s especially looking forward to Walkways. “I think it’s a really great programme for Cathy to showcase her new company. Obviously, it’s impossible to dance everything but I’ve never danced McGregor’s work. I love Philip Glass music, so Glass Pieces would be amazing. And of course to work with Cathy on Snowblind, The Cellist and of course Atonement. I’m also really looking forward to the works with opera, Les Noces and Messa da Requiem”

Really new in terms of style will be Marco Goecke’s full-length Nijinksi. “I shared a dressing room with Cohen [Aitchison-Dugas] in Nuremberg at the recent gala, and who is going from Zürich to Berlin. He said that it was one of the top five works he’s ever done and was absolutely incredible.”

Ballett Zurich in Marco Goecke’s Nijinski
(pictured: Jan Caiser as Nijinsky and Irmina Kopaczynska as his Mother, Matka)
Photo Carlos Quezada

When asked what he will miss about BRB, Lawrence’s answer is instant. “The people. Hands down. I adore them. Close friends. Their quirks. And it’s all I’ve know since school. It was my first job. And I will miss the Hippodrome. It’s a big stage and a gorgeous auditorium to look out on.”

He says he’ll also miss some of the outreach and other work. “I’ve loved being an ambassador for the company. Not just being on stage but doing stuff for the LEAP department, going into communities and doing introductions to ballet, all of that kind of stuff. Dancing in the Bull Ring, outside in a square. It’s been great.”

Brandon Lawrence in Apollo
Photo Johan Persson

In 2022, that included representing BRB at a big Windrush Gala Dinner at Edgbaston Stadium. “It was really amazing to be there, not only representing the company but, for myself as a dancer who has a heritage of Windrush, to be able to meet and connect with that community. This year, I couldn’t go as Tzu-Chao and I were in New York for their Pride event, but Celine was able to perform the Dying Swan at a Windrush event at The Rep. I know she had a very good time and how appreciative they were.”

And not miss? “It’s always so lovely going to Sadler’s Wells but bits of the touring. You do get experience constantly adjusting to different stages, but it’s hard. You kind of go through a wave. At first, there’s a lot of learning; a lot to get used to. Then, for a few years, you think you’ve got it down. ‘It’s easy, I know what to do…’ And you do. You get on with it. Then comes it gets hard again. Maybe you’re having to do more intense roles. Life more generally gets in the way a little but more.”

Brandon Lawrence (right) with Tzu-Chao Chou in Interlinked by Juliano Nunes
Photo Tristram Kenton

Asked what he would choose if he had to select some ‘Desert Island Ballets’ from his time at BRB, Lawrence immediately went first for Interlinked. “It was quite a time creating that with Juiliano [Nunes] and Tzu-Chao [Chou], who is a very dear friend. Yaoqian Shang as well. That was the last new work I did with the company.”

Penguin Café. 100%. Summer 2023 was the perfect triple bill, he says. “The most incredible swansong. Apollo. I love Balanchine work and it’s an iconic piece, especially for a male dancer. Interlinked, the last new work that I helped create and then Penguin Café. Not only do I adore it, but it’s my original director’s work, and the guy who pushed me all the way to principal. It was quite poignant. That’s why I wanted to dance all three on the Saturday night.” While confessing it was hard, they did come in the perfect order, he says. “Apollo: white tights, proper ballet. Interlinked: I’m comfortable with it and know it really well. In Penguin Café, as the Zebra, I’m not responsible for holding anyone up! And triple bills are what I love.”

Brandon Lawrence in David Bintley’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café
Photo Johan Persson

Turning to full-lengths, “Romeo and Juliet is a beautiful ballet from start to finish. I had the best time dancing with Céline in that. I adore Swan Lake as well. The pas de deux are just timeless and the score is so emotional.”

Less obvious, Lawrence opts for Wink by Jessica Lang. “She came in my first season and made Lyric Pieces. He says that when you join a company, there is a hierarchy and a timeline. You wait your turn, especially for the full lengths. But, “I remember she chose me to be in the original group for that, which was a big deal, being new. Then she came back for the Shakespeare celebration programme and created Wink based on his sonnets, casting me in the principal role. I always feel I owe her quite a lot. She provided a stepping stone. A way in.”

Brandon Lawrence in Wink by Jessica Lang
Photo Andrew Ross

Elite Syncopations. “It’s a funny one that. I saw it at the school, and I disliked it. Then it came into the repertoire. I was cast to do Friday Night and Bethena Waltz, and it was so much fun.”

Finally, two more full-lengths. “A huge surprise for me was La Fille mal gardée. When it last came back, I was down to do it with Delia [Matthews]. Neither of us had done it before. “We were both freaking out about it but we had the best time. We had a blast.” Lastly, “Beauty and the Beast, the first principal role David Bintley cast me in. I love the final pas de deux. It’s the pas de deux I really love about dance.”

Brandon Lawrence in Elite Syncopations
Photo Andy Ross

Will we see Lawrence back guesting with BRB? Acosta has told him to keep in touch, he says. “Who knows? It depends on scheduling. Coming back for a new work is probably not going to happen. It just takes too much time. Slotting into a ballet I know, might be different but then again, if it’s something I’ve already done quite a lot of, I have to ask, ‘Why?’ It will always be only if its fits.”

Away from BRB, Lawrence’s work with GradPro, the platform for vocational ballet graduates, sitting on the board at Elmhurst Ballet School, and being a patron of bbodance (formerly the British Ballet Organisation) and New English Ballet Theatre, will all continue for now, at least. He says, “We’ll very much just see how it goes as we go forward. But I’m open to trying to make it work and it’s not like I’m on the other side of the world.”

Reflecting on coming few weeks, Lawrence says, “There will be a lot of adjusting but I’m just looking forward to getting in there. It’s not all going to feel perfect to begin with, but you just have to be open to it.”

Ballett Zürich’s new season opens on October 6, 2023 with the Walkways triple bill. Jeannette Andersen will report for SeeingDance.

Read also Jeannette’s conversation with Cathy Marston here.

Brandon Lawrence
Photo Sinéad Skinner