The magical world of choreographer Liam Scarlett
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