The dreamer

The mag­i­cal world of chore­og­ra­pher Liam Scar­lett

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

The night air is full of mys­tery and mis­chief. A flock of fairies dashes thither and yon, adorable in fluffy, richly coloured tu­tus and su­per-sized wings. Now you see them and now you don’t as they dart be­hind glow­ing flow­ers or are glimpsed up in the tree canopy, catch­ing their rulers hav­ing a do­mes­tic.

Oberon, wear­ing a strik­ing air of com­mand and a rather sexy frock­coat, likes to have things his own way but Ti­ta­nia, ra­di­at­ing the sil­very light of a moon­beam, gets it into her head that a lit­tle changeling boy is hers alone. The keen-to-please Puck pops out of a hid­ing place high above the for­est floor to start get­ting ev­ery­thing wrong on Oberon’s be­half and his ex­er­tions are com­pli­cated by a group of young peo­ple blun­der­ing about in the dark, in­tent on ro­mance and ex­cite­ment.

“They’re on a fairy sa­fari,” says Tracy Grant Lord with an imp­ish smile. Which would ex­plain the mor­tals’ lit­tle tents, the flash­lights, the nets, the ret­inue of rus­tics and the high spir­its bor­der­ing on hys­te­ria. Grant Lord is the distin­guished New Zealand de­signer who fash­ioned this en­chant­ing world for Bri­tish chore­og­ra­pher Liam Scar­lett’s new bal­let and she says Scar­lett’s brief was clear. He wanted a fairy play­ground for a mag­i­cal story.

To have a de­light­ful Midsummer’s Night Dream in the reper­toire makes sense for any bal­let com­pany. To have it made by Scar­lett counts as a coup of the high­est or­der. He is one of a tiny group of young clas­si­cal chore­og­ra­phers sought the world over and Royal New Zealand Bal­let and Queens­land Bal­let, which shared the com­mis­sion (and there­fore, sen­si­bly, the costs), now join the likes of the Royal Bal­let, New York City Bal­let, Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre, San Fran­cisco Bal­let and English Na­tional Bal­let with a Scar­lett work in their pos­ses­sion. It’s ex­alted com­pany, to be joined next year by the im­pos­si­bly glam­orous Paris Opera Bal­let, which in­volves Scar­lett in an in­trigu­ing pro­ject: he is one of five chore­og­ra­phers cre­at­ing a scene each for a new Nutcracker.

Scar­lett is, ob­vi­ously, hot­ter than hot and there is no sign of in­ter­est slack­en­ing. Talk­ing on a bright win­ter’s day in Welling­ton shortly be­fore his Dream opened in late Au­gust — RNZB had first dibs on the bal­let, which will come to Queens­land in April — Scar­lett is pon­der­ing his di­ary or, as he de­scribes it, “the lit­tle squares” that are in­creas­ingly map­ping out his life way, way into the fu­ture.

“It ter­ri­fies me some­times. I was plan­ning some­thing for 2019 last night,” he says, sound­ing a lit­tle sur­prised. “I have no idea what else I’ll be do­ing in four years but this square says I’ll be do­ing this. And there’s some­thing in 2020.”

But in the bal­let busi­ness it’s a fact of life that com­pa­nies plan their pro­grams three, four, even five years ahead “and there are things I don’t want to say no to”. “Op­por­tu­ni­ties come,” he notes.

In­deed they do. His rise has been swift and he’s mak­ing the most of it. It’s a good thing he likes trav­el­ling — “when you are in a for­eign place you of­ten feel the most at home with your­self” — be­cause he is on the road a lot. The truth is Scar­lett feels in­tensely happy in the stu­dio with dancers, wher­ever that may be. He’s rather shy and pri­vate, he says, but friends tell him he’s a dif­fer­ent per­son when he’s work­ing. “Be­cause this is my pas­sion, this is what I love.”

There’s some­thing sweetly old-fash­ioned about Scar­lett, who read­ily ad­mits to be­ing “too hon­est and too vul­ner­a­ble”. (He’s been smart, then, about steer­ing clear of so­cial media: he is on Twit­ter but has sent only four tweets and the last of those was 16 months ago.) He’s a youn­glook­ing 29-year-old with a steady gaze, quiet man­ner and am­bi­tion that hasn’t spilled over into per­sonal pride.

Scar­lett could well be for­given for be­ing a tiny bit pleased with him­self but that doesn’t seem to be part of his make-up. With in­creas­ing fame he’s be­gun to get in­vited to lots of things “but I’m not one for cock­tail par­ties and be­ing pa­raded around. It’s not re­ally for me”.

The con­sen­sus is that suc­cess couldn’t hap­pen to a nicer, more tal­ented man. “He’s a com­plete dream to work with,” says Grant Lord, part of an all-lo­cal pro­duc­tion team. “Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”

Even if he says “it just hap­pened”, mean­ing his chore­o­graphic ca­reer, and even if to the world at large he seems to have rock­eted out of nowhere — nowhere be­ing the lowly rank of first artist as a dancer at the Royal Bal­let — Scar­lett has spent al­most all his life pre­par­ing for ex­actly this.

In the short ver­sion, Scar­lett got on the world’s radar with a well-re­ceived main­stage work, the one-act Aspho­del Mead­ows, for the Royal in 2010. That led to a com­mis­sion from Mi­ami City Bal­let for 2012 and the flood­gates opened. Ethan Stiefel, then artis­tic di­rec­tor of RNZB, was one of the smart ones who got in early. In fact, Scar­lett says A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of his first com­mis­sions. That par­tic­u­lar lit­tle square in the di­ary was filled in about 2½ years ago. Once Scar­lett had agreed to make the bal­let for RNZB, QB artis­tic di­rec­tor Li Cunxin quickly came on board.

The longer story starts 25 years ago in Ips- wich in the south of Eng­land when Scar­lett was four, an en­er­getic lad sent off to bal­let classes. Early on he started “ar­rang­ing peo­ple on stage nicely” for things, as he told a Bri­tish news­pa­per sev­eral years ago.

He was good enough to be ac­cepted into the Royal Bal­let School at 11 and that’s where he re­ally started ar­rang­ing peo­ple nicely.

Stu­dents were en­cour­aged to chore­o­graph and learn an in­stru­ment (pi­ano for Scar­lett). It was the best foun­da­tion he could have had. Scar­lett can read a score flu­ently, say­ing it’s not only help­ful but a mat­ter of re­spect to be able to talk to a con­duc­tor with that level of un­der­stand­ing.

Steven McRae, an Aus­tralian-born prin­ci­pal dancer with the Royal Bal­let, has had key roles in sev­eral new Scar­lett works and tells Re­view: “His at­ten­tion to de­tail is re­mark­able. The way he cre­ates move­ment that re­flects the mu­sic gives you the sense that the mu­sic is in fact com­ing out of you.”

Scar­lett won prizes and got no­ticed from the off. Suc­ces­sive RB artis­tic di­rec­tors gave him op­por­tu­ni­ties be­fore and af­ter he joined the com­pany in 2005. In 2012 he was named artistin-res­i­dence at the Royal, a po­si­tion cre­ated for him. Although he still en­joyed be­ing on stage, Scar­lett de­cided to con­cen­trate on chore­og­ra­phy fully around that time, just af­ter cur­rent RB artis­tic di­rec­tor Kevin O’Hare had given him a huge com­mis­sion — a three-act nar­ra­tive bal­let for the 2015-16 sea­son.

“And then I stopped danc­ing the next day or some­thing.” That com­mis­sion couldn’t have a more dif­fer­ent flavour from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as its ti­tle sug­gests — it’s called Franken­stein, and opens in May next year. “Soon,” Scar­lett says, with a lit­tle laugh and kind of sings the word. “Soo-oon.”

Scar­lett doesn’t mind a dark sub­ject. When Stiefel first called him about mak­ing a work for RNZB they tossed around ideas for about half an hour be­fore Stiefel brought up Shake­speare’s much-loved play. Scar­lett laughs and says Stiefel wanted Dream from the start but worked up to it slowly, “maybe be­cause it in­volves fairies and my usual aes­thetic doesn’t veer to­wards that”. This is true. Scar­lett’s CV con­tains two bal­lets with ti­tles that re­fer to the after­life ( Aspho­del Mead­ows, Acheron); a bal­let about artist Wal­ter Sick­ert’s ob­ses­sion with Jack the Rip­per ( Sweet Vi­o­lets); a par­tic­u­larly dark ver­sion of Hansel and Gre­tel; and a take on WH Au­den’s The Age of Anx­i­ety.

Dark fan­tasies can come to life in the safety of the­atri­cal per­for­mance, he says. “But I do love cre­at­ing glo­ri­ous and happy pieces too. I just think the whole spec­trum of hu­man emo­tion should be ex­plored. I love mak­ing an au­di­ence feel some­thing.”

De­spite the fact that he re­ally, re­ally needs to get down­stairs to the St James Theatre to work

on the light­ing plot and other tech­ni­cal mat­ters for Dream — RNZB’s of­fices and stu­dios are, hand­ily, in the same build­ing — Scar­lett ex­udes calm and fo­cus that would be en­vi­able in some­one twice his age. While there’s clearly still much to be done he has the air of some­one who can cope with a mul­ti­plic­ity of de­mands (he also de­signs sets and cos­tumes from time to time) with­out los­ing his cool.

“Liam has the sen­si­tiv­ity to read his dancers, know­ing when to push them, take them out of their com­fort zones yet gen­er­ate a level of trust that al­lows the dancers to put their com­plete faith in him,” McRae says. Li de­scribes Scar­lett as hav­ing a cu­ri­ous, open mind. “He’s also very dar­ing. Not will­ing to be type­cast in one style.”

RNZB’s cur­rent artis­tic di­rec­tor Francesco Ven­triglia (who in­her­ited the bal­let from Stiefel) says Scar­lett uses the clas­si­cal vo­cab­u­lary with a new mu­si­cal­ity, and as­tutely com­ments that though Scar­lett’s Royal Bal­let train­ing means he has the style of RB found­ing chore­og­ra­pher Fred­er­ick Ash­ton in his DNA, “he’s got a strong enough voice to make it his own”.

Scar­lett isn’t over-awed by the fact Ash­ton’s one-act ver­sion of Shake­speare’s play, The

Dream, is one of the best-known bal­lets on the sub­ject. (He knows it in­ti­mately, of course.) Like Ash­ton he uses Men­delssohn’s In­ci­den­tal Mu­sic but needed to aug­ment it to fill two acts of dance. Other Men­delssohn pieces were ar­ranged and or­ches­trated by RNZB mu­sic di­rec­tor Nigel Gaynor and wo­ven into a score over­flow­ing with lus­cious melodies.

Scar­lett takes se­ri­ously the re­spon­si­bil­ity of fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the RB’s two great master chore­og­ra­phers, Ash­ton and Ken­neth MacMil­lan, and com­pany founder and chore­og­ra­pher Ninette de Valois. “I’m a very lucky boy. I know that, and I don’t take that for granted. When­ever I go to new places I take the RB’s name with me.”

A con­nect­ing thread be­tween them all is a pro­found belief in the power of sto­ry­telling. Vivid act­ing and in­tense mu­si­cal­ity are two of the Royal’s defin­ing qual­i­ties and they are cen­tral to Scar­lett’s Dream, which vi­brates with vivid char­ac­ters.

“The story is al­ways such a huge part for me. The dancers will hope­fully tell you I couldn’t care less whether they fall on their faces or if they don’t do two pirou­ettes, but if the nar­ra­tive doesn’t come through, if the in­ten­tion or the emo­tion doesn’t ap­pa­rate some­how, then it’s fu­tile,” he says.

Ap­pa­rate? “I’m in the fairy world at the mo­ment,” says Scar­lett with much laugh­ter. “Ev­ery­thing comes with a puff of smoke or a burst of glit­ter. That’s where my vo­cab­u­lary’s been go­ing with this. I can’t re­mem­ber the num­ber of times I’ve said ‘ magic’ or ‘ glis­ten for me’, or ‘fly’. Story is a big thing for me and a very per­sonal thing.”

It doesn’t faze Scar­lett to walk into a room full of dancers he’s never met, all of them look­ing at him to make some­thing hap­pen. “The ap­pre­hen­sion has gone. When I was younger there was a cer­tain naivety that cov­ered that up. Now I love it. It’s my job in the stu­dio to make sure ev­ery­one has a great time, a good cre­ative process, a col­lab­o­ra­tive process as well. I work with all casts in the stu­dio. I don’t have my first cast out the front. I will cre­ate equally on ev­ery­one. That’s very im­por­tant.”

Dancers ob­vi­ously ap­pre­ci­ate his ap­proach, which is heav­ily in­flu­enced by his re­cent time as a dancer. Lucy Green, an Aus­tralian who is one of RNZB’s Ti­ta­nias, says she’s never worked with any­one who has given so much to dancers in the stu­dio.

“When he demon­strates, you can see what he wants straight away. I’ve seen him demon­strate pretty much ev­ery role in the bal­let, and he nails it ev­ery time. He’s so be­liev­able as a fairy, so be­liev­able as the heart­bro­ken lover, and then as the don­key, and you go wow, you could do the whole show your­self. Not all chore­og­ra­phers are like that. I can ab­so­lutely see why he’s such a star.”

Teri Crilly, a QB ju­nior soloist, bub­bles over with en­thu­si­asm as she de­scribes a quick visit Scar­lett made to Bris­bane to sort out some lo­gis­tics be­fore he re­turns for re­hearsals next year. “He loves his ac­cents and play­ing with the mu­sic a lot,” she says.

She knows this be­cause QB bal­let mistress Mary Li asked Scar­lett if he wanted to teach class, so he did. “That was a whole dif­fer­ent way of cast­ing,” he says. “I might try that more of­ten!” It was nerve-rack­ing for the dancers but, says Crilly, “you take it like a sponge — who knows how many more times you’ll have this amaz­ing chore­og­ra­pher in front of you? We can’t wait to have him back.”

In Scar­lett’s Dream the mor­tals never man­age to cap­ture fairies, those en­tic­ing supernatural be­ings whose pres­ence is known and felt but re­mains in­vis­i­ble. As dawn ap­proaches Her­mia, Lysander, He­lena and Demetrius go home with their nets empty but their hearts full. That’s not a bad metaphor for the elu­sive art of chore­og­ra­phy: Scar­lett’s for­mi­da­ble gifts are easy to be­lieve but hard to pin down.

At the end, af­ter lovers have paired off satis- fac­to­rily, rus­tics bum­bled around fetch­ingly, Bot­tom and Ti­ta­nia have had a play­ful, strangely af­fect­ing in­ter­lude and Oberon and his queen en­twined them­selves in a make-up pas de deux of ex­tra­or­di­nary sen­su­al­ity, an au­di­ence can only won­der — as Puck would put it — at how these vi­sions did ap­pear.

Queens­land Bal­let will per­form Liam Scar­lett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Bris­bane from April 1 to 16 next year.

EV­ERY­THING COMES WITH A PUFF OF SMOKE OR A BURST OF GLIT­TER LIAM SCAR­LETT

Scar­lett with RNZB dancer Lucy Green, above; Steven McRae and Laura Mor­era in Scar­lett’s The Age of Anx­i­ety, be­low

Liam Scar­lett wanted a fairy play­ground for a

mag­i­cal story

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