Choreography to make you Scarlett with envy

Leanne Cope and Steven McRae in Hansel and Gretel, Royal Opera House. Photo:Tristram Kenton
Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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The Royal Ballet's Artist in Residence, Liam Scarlett is yet again a hot topic around town. His first full-length narrative ballet received mixed reviews during its four day run at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House.

But one thing is for certain - Liam has turned the process and structure of narrative ballet on its head, concentrating first and foremost on the psychological aspects and characterisation behind the dance.

Forget the (sometimes staid) group folk dances, the (fairly random) divertissements and the (often samey) essential pas de deux. Replace with psychoanalysis and motive, throw in a bit of feeling before form and voila, here is Scarlett’s new style.

Liam actually began the task of choreographing his new work in front of an audience at the Royal Opera House's Big Question evening. He had only heard the music for the first time that morning, but we got to see his modus operandi when creating a narrative work up close – and the very first tentative steps with the lead dancers, Leanne Cope and Paul Kay (who was later replaced by James Hay due to injury).

[pullquote]What’s astonishing with Liam is the way in which it comes so naturally to one so young, and the charisma with which he translates his story, bringing the narrative structure into the 21st century with a bang.[/pullquote]

Beginning at the point at which the children, Hansel and Gretel, realise they are lost in the woods, he guided them through how they would feel, what they would be afraid of and how that would make them react, physically, to their surroundings and to one another. He then tweaked, drew out, strengthened and highlighted the important bits in their movement.

It’s plain that throughout the creative process Liam is in control. He is assured, firm with the dancers, driving and definite – and very good at positive feedback.

It’s a process of drawing out the internal, and presenting it in an external manner. To make a true work of art for Liam, it seems everything stems from the emotions. But does he think about the audience? He said: "With a narrative work it's not so much about steps it's more about generating a story and an emotion that's very accessible. Then you can build up the steps. It's talking about those emotions, it's building up from there and then you can start layering the steps in and making it a dance piece so that it fuses seamlessly into something that someone can really understand and yet show them an art form that they might not be familiar with.”

I remember Ricardo Cervera chatting during a Ballet Society meeting, describing Liam’s command at the front of the studio (which must be no mean feat for one so young) creating work for much older dancers:

Everyone respects him including all the dancers who are much senior than him. He's very clear about what he wants and he's very detailed when showing a movement. He works very quickly. He likes to set the movement before giving any background on it. That way he sees how the dancers develop the work and where they take it from there. And then if it's not going on the direction he had in mind then he will give them much more information and steer them back on track. When it comes to the emotion side of the movement he also allows the dancers to put their personal touch on it, giving them room to express themselves.

And Laura Morera, who plays the evil stepmother in Hansel and Gretel once said she was both impressed and excited about the way he creates:

He often says he comes into the studio without having thought about steps. I think Liam is driven by the music. He puts it on and then it just starts flowing. A lift or a step starts from an image he has in his head and he uses the individuals to develop it. His choreography is all his but he is not selfish with it, he lets the dancers discover it, he guides them so that they eventually embody the movement, the musicality and the dynamic. He can be firm, commanding but when your are in the studio with him, no matter what rank in the company or age you are you feel nothing but respect and admiration for him.

It’s not new, in fairytale ballets to be driven by internalised emotions, but what’s astonishing with Liam is the way in which it comes so naturally to one so young, and the charisma with which he is able to translate his story, bringing the narrative structure into the 21st century with a bang.