April 24, 2014

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London Calls

By Laura Cappelle
24 Jan 2014

Liam Scarlett
photo by Johan Persson

Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck have a lot in common. Like his New York City Ballet counterpart, at 27, Scarlett is a precocious homegrown talent, nurtured as a choreographer alongside a dancing career with The Royal Ballet.

And just as Peck puts a fresh spin on his heritage in New York, Scarlett’s choreographic voice is recognizably English yet equally personal. In the four short years since Scarlett’s first creation for The Royal Ballet, he has impressed on both sides of the pond, and his new work, which makes its debut on January 31, marks his first collaboration with New York City Ballet.

A native of Suffolk, in the southeast of England, Scarlett joined the Royal Ballet School at 11. He started taking part in the school’s annual choreographic competitions almost immediately, and won several over the course of his training. The School soon encouraged him to create works for end-of-year performances. “I’ve always liked arranging things—I like to be quite neat and tidy,” he jokes when asked what attracted him to choreography. “But music was my main inspiration. I’d listen to a piece of music and want to create to it.”

His talent was spotted by The Royal Ballet’s then-director Monica Mason, who hired him as a dancer in 2005 with the understanding that he would continue to choreograph. Scarlett delivered: after a string of pas de deux and short works for smaller stages, including a fall session with the New York Choreographic Institute in 2009, his first large-scale work for The Royal Ballet, Asphodel Meadows, was hailed as a stupendous debut in 2010. He has since experimented with both plotless and narrative works for The Royal Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and the Norwegian National Ballet, among other companies.

Scarlett’s style is rooted in his Royal Ballet upbringing. He looks up to Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, whose works he grew up with, and cites Jerome Robbins and Jiˇrí Kylián as further influences. His choreography is resolutely classical, unlike his Royal Ballet colleague Wayne McGregor’s hyperphysical exploration of the limits of ballet. (McGregor made Outlier for NYCB in 2010.) Works like Asphodel Meadows imbue academic steps with a sinuous beauty; his lush, distinctive use of the upper body and the emotional resonance of his plotless works set him apart, as well as his sophisticated use of counterpoint on stage. “I like to focus on the fluidity of movement,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in everything being connected and having a kinetic aesthetic and flow.”

Scarlett decided to stop dancing in 2012 to accommodate his increasingly busy schedule, and was appointed artist in residence with The Royal Ballet. “There wasn’t a 25th hour in the day, basically! I was always very realistic as a dancer. I always knew I’d never get to the top, and the soloist roles I did get were a bonus. I finished my career happy, fulfilled.”

He maintains a close relationship with dancers in the studio, however, and spent a week observing New York City Ballet before choosing his cast. “The breadth of movement they generate is not on par with anything else. The speed, the dynamics are breathtaking. It’s such a specific company, with a distinct heritage, not unlike The Royal Ballet. What I find most fascinating about Balanchine is his cross-phrasing. I think working here is bringing out something new in me.”

For his first NYCB creation, Scarlett returns to a familiar composer: Francis Poulenc, whose Double Piano Concerto provided the background for Asphodel Meadows. Poulenc’s organ concerto, Scarlett’s choice for New York City Ballet, was previously used by choreographer Glen Tetley in 1973 for Voluntaries, a tribute to John Cranko. Created for the Stuttgart Ballet, it is still widely performed, including at Covent Garden. “NYCB doesn’t have it in its repertoire,” says Scarlett, “so I thought it would be a perfect excuse to do it. It’s such a monumental piece in its own right—it’s incredibly powerful. There’s a depth there, and it can twist within an instant.”

The work won’t be a sequel to Asphodel Meadows, despite the “similarities” he finds in the scores: “It will be very different, quite bare, with only lighting to create a virtual set.” The costumes will be designed by Scarlett, who is colorblind but draws and paints in his spare time, together with NYCB’s costume department. As with ballet, the young British choreographer often looks back to the past for inspiration, particularly to the Victorian era in London, and collects antiques and old etchings. “I like something with a little bit of mystery and age,” he says with a hint of British self-deprecation. “But maybe that’s just me being a romantic.”

Laura Cappelle is a France-based writer who contributes to the Financial Times and Pointe magazine.




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