Movement Director Andrew Dawson Explains ‘Pearl Fishers’ Opening Sequence

Perhaps the most arresting moment in our latest production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is the opening sequence. Upon Maestro Domingo’s downbeat, three aerialists appear one by one from above, appearing to audiences as if they’re swimming through water.

In a production that’s been called a “treat for the eyes and the ears” (LA Daily News), the opening sequence has garnered buzz regarding whether the sequence was a projection or used real people to create the illusion. The “swimmers” are very much real, thanks to the wonderful choreography from movement director Andrew Dawson.

Directed by Penny Woolcock, the production debuted at English National Opera in 2010, and eventually made its way to the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve in 2015. This is the first time Woolcock’s production of The Pearl Fishers has been performed on the West Coast, but Dawson has been part of the process since the early development. He recalls being asked by Woolcock whether a fly/swim sequence was possible during the overture. Dawson attested that it was, even before planning the logistics that went into it.


“When [Penny] was asked to do Pearl Fishers, she wasn’t sure about doing it at first because it’s a traditional opera John Adams and Bizet are quite different,” Dawson said. “She had a vision of the overture of seeing these girls swim for pearls actual pearl diving. She asked me if we could do this, and I said yes without really thinking about what it entailed.”

Eventually they realized the most cohesive way to achieve this illusion was through aerial flyers. Initially, Dawson practiced with his hands to map out the movements and illusions that could be mimicked with the body. He sketched out how their bodies were to move in the air, eventually mapping out the choreography with the exact timing of the music. The goal was to make the sequence as organic and graceful as possible. And though the end result appears effortless, the preparations to make the sequence possible were astronomical. According to Dawson, finding the right performers with the right training was the first step.

(Courtesy of Andrew Dawson)

Early sketches for Pearl Fishers (Courtesy of Andrew Dawson)

“Really, the idea is to mimic water in different ways … It was almost easier to teach non-aerialists to ‘swim.’ It’s hard to undo what they knew. Between the flying and swimming, we figured out the movement quality that was required,” continued Dawson.

After casting the aerialists for the American premiere, Dawson spent about six weeks training them in New York City. There were more challenges that went into the choreographing the sequence. Dawson knew that in order to achieve what he wanted aesthetically, he would have to sacrifice the physics of real swimming.

Dawson added: “The trick is not necessarily reality it’s more of an illusion of reality. The sequence is only two to three minutes, so how much action can you fit into that time, without them swimming too fast.”

The training was so intricate and lengthy, Dawson noted, that the same aerialists were brought from New York to Los Angeles because they didn’t have the time to train new performers. Given the dimensions of the stage, Dawson also knew there had to be three aerialists to balance out the negative space. Additionally, rehearsing the sequence presented its own challenges, as the aerialists could only be in the harnesses for a limited amount of time without causing harm to their bodies.

“You can only be in the harnesses a few minutes at a time,” Dawson continued. “Due to the pinching of arteries where the harness meets the body, restricted blood flow can cause permanent damage.”

The final product that audiences witness is only a sliver of the time and energy put forth to create the jaw dropping moment. But the only way to get the full experience is to witness it live.

Two more performance remain for The Pearl Fishers. Tickets can be purchased here.

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