There wouldn’t be too many 29-year-old men who know exactly where they are going to be in five years. Not in a general sense, as in being pretty sure about being promoted, or settling down with a partner and children, but precisely, literally. As in a date, a place, a specific task. Liam Scarlett does.
We talked about this while sitting in a room at Royal New Zealand Ballet headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand, in the middle of last year. He was there to choreograph a new A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he was pondering his diary or, as he described 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 said, 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” says Scarlett. “Opportunities come.”
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 that 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 totally different person when he’s working. “Because this is my passion, this is what I love.”
Making a ballet might take as little as five or six weeks. Making a career – well, that’s a different matter. With big organisations programming well into the future, he has to look ahead too and juggle an increasingly hectic schedule. The British choreographer is a man wanted simultaneously in two hemispheres. He would have liked to be in Brisbane this week when Queensland Ballet, co-producer with RNZB of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opens its season of the ballet, but another big commitment called. Scarlett popped into Brisbane for a week at the beginning of March to work with the QB dancers and then it was back to his home company, The Royal Ballet, and the forthcoming Frankenstein. Scarlett’s full-length take on the Mary Shelley story, which will be danced to a newly commissioned score by American composer Lowell Liebermann, opens in London on May 4 and in 2017 at San Francisco Ballet, the co-producer.
It’s been only five or six years since Scarlett’s name started to get some buzz and already he has rocketed to the top of ballet companies’ wish lists. New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco, Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and of course the Royal all have works from him. (He was to have participated in Paris Opera Ballet’s new Nutcracker, just coming to the end of its run, as one of five choreographers creating a section each. Eventually there were three, not including Scarlett. One imagines he didn’t mind having less on his plate right now.)
Not everything has been greeted with unalloyed joy but the consensus is that he’s a major talent whose musicality and love for ballet’s traditions augur well. As early as 2010, eminent British critic Clement Crisp wrote in The Financial Times: “Scarlett’s dances are a continuing joy, musically apt, fresh, yet firmly placed in a classic tradition. I admire his happy command of this language, and there are moments that tell of already sure resource in making emotional and dynamic points.”
On a personal level, “He’s a complete dream to work with,” says distinguished New Zealand designer Tracy Grant Lord, part of the all-local New Zealand production team for Dream. “Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”
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 has a Twitter account but has sent only four tweets and the last of those was nearly two years ago.) He could well be forgiven for being a tiny bit pleased with himself but that doesn’t seem to be part of his make-up. When talking about the creative team for Frankenstein, made up of people with whom he collaborates frequently, Scarlett said: “Having worked with them so often there’s a responsibility now. I owe them a good piece and I want to make their work sing. They’re my colleagues but also my friends now. So there’s this thing of you want to make someone proud.”
Even if he says “it just happened”, meaning his choreographic career, and even if to the world at large he looks to have rocketed out of nowhere – nowhere being the lowly rank of first artist as a dancer at the Royal – Scarlett has spent almost all his life preparing for exactly this. In the short version, he was picked up by 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 earliest commissions. That particular little square in the diary was filled in more than three years ago. Once Scarlett had agreed to make the ballet for RNZB, QB artistic director Li Cunxin quickly came on board to share the production.
The longer story starts 25 years ago in Ipswich 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 (he is also in the first cast of Frankenstein) 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 artist in residence at the Royal, a position created for him. Although he was still enjoying being on stage Scarlett decided to concentrate on choreography fully around that time, just after current RB artistic director Kevin O’Hare had commissioned the three-act Frankenstein. “And then I stopped dancing the next day, or something.“
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 laughed and said 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 W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety.
Dark fantasies can come to life in the safety of theatrical performance, he said. “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.”
Scarlett isn’t over-awed by the fact RB founding choreographer Frederick 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, having danced in it as a lowly Rustic (“I would have loved to have done Bottom”). Scarlett felt there was plenty of room for his own ideas. “Shakespeare gives you this magical world where anything is possible. You have a basis, but you have carte blanche as well. And I am in New Zealand, which helps. I’m far away,” he joked. More seriously, he said that “in terms of Ashton I would never go near Chopin after A Month in the Country. It is a perfect ballet.”
When the curtain rises on Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream 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, Oberon and Titania, having a domestic over ownership of a little changeling boy. 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,” said Tracy Grant Lord with a huge smile.
Like Ashton, Scarlett uses Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music written for the play but needed to augment it to fill two acts of dance. Other Mendelssohn pieces were arranged and orchestrated by then RNZB music director Nigel Gaynor, who is now with QB, and woven into a score overflowing with luscious melodies. RNZB’s current artistic director Francesco Ventriglia (he inherited the ballet from Stiefel) commented that while Scarlett’s RB training means he has the Ashton in his DNA, “he’s got a strong enough voice to make it his own”.
Scarlett takes seriously the responsibility of following in the footsteps of Ashton and the RB’s other great choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and 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.” Apparate? “I’m in the fairy world at the moment,” Scarlett said 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. According to Steven McRae, “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.” Li described Scarlett as having a curious, open mind. “He’s also very daring. Not willing to be typecast in one style.” Lucy Green, an Australian who was one of RNZB’s Titanias, said she had never worked with anyone who had 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.”
When about to make a work Scarlett relies first on instinct and the subconscious – to let the ideas percolate. “Once that title is circling in my head you leave it for a little bit and every so often something will pop in and you’ll jot it down, and you’ve got a notepad of key components of looks or ideas and little nuances. Then once that happens you really do have to sit down with a blank piece of paper and go, ‘Right! Let’s start’.
“You’re very aware this has to be made for a ballet company. With any full-length you want to include the whole company and make it for them. Being a dancer myself the wonderful thing is that I got to experience having full-lengths made on the company and it was such a great experience to be part of that. If you’re not made to feel part of that it can be a very difficult time.”
He doesn’t work with a dramaturge. “I have been criticised for that. But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturge and equally [they’ve been criticised]. No, I run things by people. I always run things by my creative team, and it’s also that thing of when I get into a studio I like being able to explore how you can tell a story, so there has to be a certain kind of flexibility within that narrative. There’s that thing of if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 1-16.
A version of this story first appeared in The Weekend Australian in October last year.