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Liam Scarlett: ‘I am a bit of a control freak’

Liam Scarlett. Photo: Bill Cooper Liam Scarlett. Photo: Bill Cooper

On my way up in the Royal Opera House lift to meet Liam Scarlett, I encounter dancer Steven McRae. Currently in rehearsal for Scarlett’s new ballet based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Australian-born dancer is playing the Creature.

“Do you want to see my scar?” he says.

Er, why not?

He pulls out his mobile phone and presses a button. An image pops on to the screen, revealing his half-naked torso apparently slashed in half. It looks like he has been pulled apart and stitched back together.

“Very nice,” I say, lost for words, really. It is an unforgettable image and bodes well for the forthcoming ballet from the choreographic wunderkind.

Steven McRae and Federico Bonelli in rehearsals for the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein. Photo: Andrej Uspenski/Royal Opera House
Steven McRae and Federico Bonelli in rehearsals for the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein. Photo: Andrej Uspenski/Royal Opera House

Frankenstein is one of the most iconic gothic novels ever written, and, although it has inspired many variations in film, literature and theatre, it has rarely been realised as a ballet. As far as I can establish, only Wayne Eagling has ever made a ballet out of it – a one-act piece that premiered in 1985, with music by Vangelis.

Now, Scarlett, the Royal Ballet’s first artist-in-residence, has chosen Shelley’s novel as the source for his first full-length ballet for the Royal Opera House’s main stage. It’s a tall order for a young guy, but Scarlett, at 29, already has a distinguished portfolio of work, and is one of the three resident choreographic artists attached to the Royal Ballet – the other two being Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. The three choreographers are differentiated as resident choreographer (McGregor), artistic associate (Wheeldon) and artist-in-residence (Scarlett).

How much competition is there between the three of them, I ask Scarlett once we have settled down in an office at the top of the Royal Opera House.

“We are hardly ever in the same place at the same time,” he replies cautiously, alert to the fact that I may be trying to lead him into treacherous waters. “We are always rotating. I will be here when Christopher is in America and Wayne is in Europe or something. There are times when we are all in the same building, but it is a rarity. We all know that we do different things. It keeps things… fresh.”

The youngest choreographer ever commissioned by the Royal Ballet, Scarlett has risen rapidly to his current status. “Prodigy”, “genius” and “potentially the greatest British choreographer since Kenneth MacMillan” are some of the terms used to describe him. He trained as a dancer, but he was clearly born to be a dance-maker, having choreographed his first work in his pre-teenage years.

“I was 11 years-old,” he recalls. “My first piece was for eight girls. When I was younger, I was terrified of solos. A pas de deux is easy. But I’ve always liked big groups, always loved patterns. You can make running very interesting. It is all a question of knowing your ability at what age you are.”

If that sounds extraordinarily precocious, it comes across more as quiet confidence. With his mop of curly hair and on-again/off-again facial hair, Scarlett looks younger than his 29 years. He has the slim, lithe frame of a dancer, and combines an intellectual curiosity with a genuine feeling for emotional expression. He says he wants people to respond emotionally to his work, perhaps aware that many choreographers today err on the side of aesthetic aridity. He illustrates this by referring to his great love of watching a classical pianist, something he would like to have been himself.

“I watch pianists as well as listen to them. I find it mesmerising to see someone have an out-of-body experience. You have to let yourself go and allow what’s inside of you to seep out through your veins and on top of your skin. I like a very relaxed environment in the studio. I am very honest. There is nothing worse than superficial, imposed acting. What I am aiming for is, when the curtain goes down, you want to check on them backstage to make sure they’re all right. Every character is important on stage. It is a real world we are creating.”

I worked my butt off at the Royal Ballet School because I knew I wasn’t the best in my class

He has attributed this overall vision to the fact that he spent much of his time as a dancer in the corps de ballet at the back of the stage. From this vantage point, he was not confined to watching the principals, but rather seeing the work as a whole. The interstices of the action and the minor characters are just as interesting to him as the main players. “Everyone on stage has a story,” he says.

Scarlett was born in Ipswich and began dancing at the age of four. He trained at the Linda Shipton School of Dance before going on to the Royal Ballet Lower School at 11. In 2005, after graduating from the Upper School, he joined the Royal Ballet company, and in 2008 was promoted to first artist. His interest in choreography began while at the Royal Ballet School, where he won both the Kenneth MacMillan and Ursula Moreton Choreographic awards, and was the first recipient of the De Valois Trust Fund award.

It has been said that, as a child, he loved organising things into patterns – toys, boxes, whatever came to hand – a tendency to ordered creativity that did not go unnoticed by his parents. So what was his childhood like?

“I have a younger brother who is a lighting designer for rock bands. My dad was a graphic designer who then became a landscape designer. My mum works with computers. I don’t understand what she does at all. I went to White Lodge [the Royal Ballet Lower School] at 11; it was like the holiday of a lifetime for five years. I loved the learning, gathering information and the academic side. There were a couple of bad injuries along the way. It wasn’t sunshine and rainbows all the way, but it was a pretty good childhood.”

He was, he says, driven to work hard due to a realisation that he wasn’t quite as good a dancer as many of his peers. And he heard the call of choreography from an early age. At the age of 26, when most dancers are entering their prime, he hung up his pumps and became a full-time choreographer.

“I made the decision very, very quickly,” he says. “I ended up doing more roles than I ever thought I would. I worked my butt off at school because I knew I wasn’t the best in my class. Dancing is still my passion.”

While still at the school, he was commissioned to create Monochromatic (2004) and Allegro De Jeunesse (2005) for the Royal Ballet School’s annual matinee performances at the Royal Opera House. He continued to develop his interest through ROH2’s DanceLines, led by Kim Brandstrup.

For the Royal Ballet, he created Despite and Vayamos De Diablo (ROH2’s In Good Company, 2006), and has frequently choreographed for the company’s Draft Works programmes. For Ballet Black in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio he created Hinterland (2006) and Indigo Children (2007), both of which have been revived. In 2009, Scarlett took part in the autumn workshops of the New York Choreographic Institute at their invitation, creating Gargoyles with members of New York City Ballet.

More pieces followed, but it was his first main-stage work for the Royal Ballet, Asphodel Meadows, in 2010, that propelled him into the spotlight.

Asphodel Meadows was nominated for a South Bank award and an Olivier award, and was the winner of a Critics’ Circle award. Set to Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos it was a large-scale, ambitious work for 20 dancers and was acclaimed by both critics and ballet-goers. But it might have taken longer for Scarlett to gain an international reputation if Edward Villella, then the director of the Miami City Ballet, hadn’t happened to watch a stage rehearsal just before the premiere. So impressed by what he saw on stage, he immediately commissioned a work for Miami. By the time the piece, entitled Viscera, had its premiere in January 2012, Scarlett was hot property.

Given the extraordinary stroke of luck concerning the presence of Villella, was Scarlett aware of the potential impact of Asphodel Meadows?

“Not really,” he says. “It was just another piece with an incredible cast and the wonderful Poulenc score. I wanted to show everything I could do. I was very lucky that Ed was there, and I’m aware of that.”

Now that he is in demand from companies across the dance world to make pieces for them, from the US to New Zealand, I ask him if he would one day like a company of his own.

“No,” he says emphatically. “I get a kick out of working with different companies, because I don’t plan. I work with the people in front of me. You have to respond differently. You learn different ways of working. I have never really had a problem with walking into new companies. I love the challenge. Which is why I don’t want my own company.”

Frankenstein and Scarlett are a natural fit. This is the man who brought us the grisly tale of Jack the Ripper in Sweet Violets. In it, a topless Tamara Rojo was murdered by the Ripper in a complicated scenario involving, among others, the painter Walter Sickert. Distilled, intense and very creepy, it was a relative carnival compared with his jet-black version of Hansel and Gretel, set in McCarthy-era America, which alluded to child abduction, paedophilia and other real-life horrors.

What is it about the dark stuff that exercises this apparently nice young man’s creative imagination? “When you are talking about the human psyche, it whittles down to about seven elements. If you are doing a psychopathic test – the negatives are five. The brain and understanding of bad things is greater than good things. Stories tell fantasies about things we could never want to experience in real life. It is the controlled aspect of terror. Also, I love exploring period. I liked the Victorian era in Sweet Violets and the McCarthy era in Hansel and Gretel – both are macabre in their way. Every time-period comes with its macabre elements. Memories are made of terrors. In 50 years, today won’t be remembered for serial killers, but terrorists.”

He stops, aware that he is starting to sound like an adolescent goth combined with Alfred Hitchcock. “It isn’t all dark,” he grins. “I do make happy ones occasionally.”

Although Asphodel Meadows was suffused with a streak of erotic melancholy, it was an aesthetic delight in the way of MacMillan’s early ballets. So, too, was Hummingbird, the work he created with San Francisco Ballet and its principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan.


Q&A: Liam Scarlett

What was your first job? Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous with the Royal Ballet in 2005. At 19, I was chucked into the corps de ballet at the last second.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To calm down. Although the pace I went was a good thing, in retrospect I think I could have calmed down a bit. I realise that those people who I thought were trying to stop me doing things were just being wise.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, because of the Royal Ballet School. Then Jiri Kylian and Jerome Robbins. I love the MGM musical numbers they don’t do any more. I am fascinated by their showmanship.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself. Be honest with it and don’t try to please someone in front of you. Otherwise, you have to live with that pretence.

If you hadn’t been a dancer and choreographer, what would you have been? I would love to have been a concert pianist. I watch them and love the way it looks. I get very jealous. I play very badly.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions? No. Subconsciously you get into a routine. Everything needs to be in order to calm you down. I like things to be in order but I wouldn’t call that a superstition.

And so to his latest work and his biggest project yet. What is it about Frankenstein that makes it such an enduring story?

“I think the way it was published first, anonymously, propelled the book. Then when it was revealed it was a 19-year-old woman associated with George Byron and Shelley – the ‘bad’ celebrities still intrigues us today. At the time it was very relevant. Galvanism and scientific exploration was taking a huge step. People thought that it could be true. Now, it is Shelley herself. People see more of her in it. The turbulent marriage, her own personal history, so much happened in her life – isolation, abandonment issues and loneliness run through the story. It is about her. Then there are the stereotypes of what has grown out of it. The Creature who has grown out of his own novel – which is very rare.”

I read Frankenstein when I was 13. Scarlett got there a year before me. “I first read it when I was 12. It was a girl’s cry for help. And abandonment by her father. It resonates differently each time you read it. It is layered it with complete human emotion. From that, I have done a lot of reading about Mary Shelley. The writing is paced at a very wonderful rate. Of course, it provides hindrances I can’t play off – the nuances of the prose and the language – but it gives me a way to explore the Creature, who can’t talk, Victor’s isolation and Elizabeth’s longing for him, so when they do come together, they are almost beyond words. It is perfect for dance.”

Scarlett’s work has been compared with that of MacMillan, and he shares something of the psychological probing of character in his dance and the mode of expression that the human body is capable of. Schooled in MacMillan and Frederick Ashton, he has a classicist’s eye for the aesthetic of beauty and line, as well as the innovator’s urge to stretch the boundaries of what is possible as well as acceptable. As such, he makes the perfect foil – the third man – to the neo-classicist Wheeldon and the arch-modernist McGregor. What comes first in the creative process: music, concept or dancer?

“Dancers will spring to mind,” he says without hesitation. “This sounds funny, but it will all pop in at once. I am a big believer in basic instincts. My first thought is usually the best. Everything kind of happens at once.”

Something of a polymath, Scarlett has shown a flair for designing his own works, too. “I like to draw. I am like a little apprentice and follow designers around and watch what they do. I have done six or seven for myself. I am a little bit of a control freak. Each step I take is a challenge to myself. Why give a designer specific instructions when you could do it yourself? I like sketching. I can draw my own designs. And I am learning about materials, fabric and dyeing.”

Would he ever consider composing music for his own ballets?

“Oh no,” he laughs, appalled at the suggestion. “That would be awful. All those great composers – I couldn’t compete with them.” It comes as something of a relief to hear that there are some things he feels he can’t do. As he prepares to go into rehearsal for Frankenstein, I remind him of a quote he gave in an interview in 2008, in which he appeared to criticise new choreographers for pushing dancers to extremes. Mentioning McGregor by name he said: “Only a handful of artists here can actually execute the movements. It’s pushing the body to the limits, and it’s dangerous, actually… I believe in adapting and progressing shapes without destroying the body.”

Does he recall saying that?

“Yes,” he laughs. “That was probably the morning after I danced in Chroma.”

CV: Liam Scarlett

Born: 1986, Ipswich
Training: Linda Shipton School of Dance; Royal Ballet School
Landmark productions: Asphodel Meadows (2010), Viscera (2012), Sweet Violets (2012)
Awards: Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic award (2001), Ursula Moreton Choreographic award (2003 and 2004), De Valois Trust Fund Choreographers’ award (2005)

Frankenstein runs at the Royal Opera House, London, from May 4-27

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