Liam Scarlett went to the Royal Ballet junior school, where I first spotted him at the annual choreographic events. It wasn’t that he blazed out as a major talent, but while the others would use music from “The Lion King” or “The Four Seasons”, he picked scores by Bernstein and Gershwin, and he was audacious about working with large casts. This led to his creating pieces for two school matinees at Covent Garden, with a remit to give everyone a go.
After joining the Royal Ballet aged 19 in 2005, Scarlett, with his gypsy curls and cherubic dimples, was easy to spot on stage. He has an inner glow and contagious joy that transfixes the eye. Now promoted to First Artist, he can be the lowest of the low one night (a rat pulling Carabosse’s carriage in “The Sleeping Beauty”), a soloist the next (intensifying the wattage of Wayne McGregor’s radiant “Chroma”). But the company really chose him for his choreography. After honing his skills on duets and workshop pieces at the Linbury Studio, he created “Asphodel Meadows”, a one-act ballet, for the main stage in 2010. It was the making of him.
After a silent, static opening, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto begins, and the music takes human form. Its shifting moods – languorous, ethereal, valedictory, dynamic – turn into movement which one couple triggers in another and the ensemble synthesises. It’s quirky not mannered, traditional yet modern, and as with “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”, the masterpiece of Scarlett’s idol Mark Morris, you are left wanting to see it all over again.
In the audience one night was Edward Villella, the director of Miami City Ballet and Balanchine’s prodigal son. “I thought, whoah, this is something,” Villella says. “Rhythm, form, logic, structure, musicality: it’s all here.” He invited Scarlett to choreograph a new piece for his company, known for its Balanchinian attack and South Beach pizzazz. He spent three weeks in Miami observing their natural rhythm and giving them a sense of his own fluid style, with its more English qualities of lyrical port de bras, speedy footwork and lush eloquence – “movement that dissipates from the central back”. The result was “Viscera”, set to a driving, contemporary piano concerto by Lowell Liebermann, and staged in January to an effusive reception. Villella had already decided to ask Scarlett back. “He’s not a one-ballet wonder. He has a maturity beyond his years, and my dancers love working with him.”
At home, Scarlett’s dual role is more of a challenge. How does a star ballerina take being told off by a corps de ballet kid for chatting in rehearsal? But he insists that it’s not a problem. “I’ve always been quite a reserved person, not a joker. People know when I’m pissed off.” His next Royal Ballet commission is a semi-narrative work based on Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Murder paintings. Again he will choreograph to the piano, “the most human instrument there is”, with just three musicians in the pit playing Rachmaninov’s Trio No 2. A career as a pianist has always been his other dream, but he can’t escape his vocation. “It’s something of a curse, but I can never listen to music without seeing steps.” ~ JuliE Kavanagh
New Scarlett/Polyphonia/New McGregor, Royal Opera House, London, April 5th-23rd