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Liam Scarlett on dancing, design and choreography

Posted on December 21, 2012


liamscarlettleannecoperickguestIn January’s Dancing Times, now on sale, Zoë Anderson interviews Liam Scarlett (pictured, with Leanne Cope). Here’s more from that interview, in which Scarlett talks about his career as a choreographer and as dancer with The Royal Ballet, ideas on design and his busy schedule.

ZA: Now that you’ve stepped away from dancing, how do you see your performance career?

LS: The main reason I enjoyed my dancing career is that I was realistic about my abilities. I wasn’t the most technical dancer. I certainly knew I’d never get to principal or even soloist, but sometimes hard work in the corps really does pay off. Those little titbits of soloist work were the icing on the cake, which is why I feel quite content.

ZA: Had you a favourite of those roles?

LS: I loved doing Alain in La Fille mal gardée. It’s funny, all the stuff that I love doing is stuff that I possibly would never choreograph. People refer to my stuff as more MacMillanesque, but the roles that I seem to do would always be the Ashton ones! The Neapolitan dances [in Swan Lake], the Alains – mainly animals, actually!  I was usually some form of rodent. I think Alain’s just brilliant to get your teeth into. And hard as hell! You want to die by the time you get off from that solo. It’s a real special role. I think that anyone who’s done it really understands that ballet can be so much more, it’s not necessarily all about the technique. You come off and you’ve achieved something.

ZA: Do you think you might end up doing more character roles as a dancer? Frederick Ashton danced as an Ugly Sister…

LS: Maybe, if it comes up, in the future. I think what I need now is a little bit of distance from it, before I become too much of a wreck! I think it would be good to step away.

 If the opportunity arises, or Kevin says “Do you fancy chucking on another costume?”, I don’t see why not. It’s always something that I’ve enjoyed. In my work, and as a performer as well, I really love building up a character, making something believable, whether it’s something existing or something I’m creating.

I think that’s just another layer to the artistry. It’s all very well executing steps, but to be able to execute them and convey a person with emotions, and tell a story with that person, and convince an audience that you are entirely that, is something very different from coming out of school and being able to do X amount of pirouettes. With a certain maturity and wisdom, those roles develop, progress, eventually get the right people slotted into them.

ZA: How’s work going with the Ballet Boyz?

LS: That’s great. They’re such a fantastic bunch. Michael and Billy saw a little bit the other day, and they said, “You’re actually creating something quite beautiful with them!” I did think, well, you sound surprised! I mean, there they are, they’re very good!

ZA: You’re also working with Miami City Ballet again…

LS: I’m back in Miami in January, that’s going to be finished and premiered, I think on January 11.

ZA: And that’s the ballet you’ve been working on over the summer?

LS: Yes, a lot of American companies seem to have that summer rehearsal period, creating works over the summer. They start their season and then they just dance, and bring the new works up to speed just before they dance them. That’s the way they work, you have to respect that.

I thought I’d hate it, but you have a really intense creation period, where it is solely that, all day every day, and then you have a couple of months to let it settle, sink in. When you go back to it, you have a couple of days to tweak all the things that you’d want to! It was quite a revelation to be able to step back from it and revisit it just before it was gone. Having that distance, the things that didn’t work really stood out. To have some clarity from it, and view it as an audience, as opposed to being heavily involved in it. When you’re standing in the middle, sometimes I think you get blinkered, between what you want to see and what is actually happening in front of you.

ZA: Viscera was your first ballet for an American company…

LS: For a first American piece, it was a good bet to do that kind of thing. From there, I can start really pushing other companies a little bit more into my world, see what I can do out there.

ZA: What do you mean by “that kind of thing”?  Plotless, sleek?

LS: Yes. It was very stark, and I got so worried that it was going to be too simple! I kept stripping it back, because I wanted – well, first of all, I wanted to pay some homage to Balanchine. Ninety per cent of Miami City Ballet’s repertory is Balanchine, a lot of them trained at the School of American Ballet, and have that incredible Balanchine technique. When you watch them do those pieces, it was phenomenal. It was like, wow. So I wanted to have a little homage in there. Obviously, still do my thing. It was quite hard to keep it as slick as possible. We got there, hopefully.

ZA: You’re starting to see your work restaged with different dancers, different companies. How’s that as an experience?

LS: It was a weird one, I must admit. I mean, I always thought it would be the other way round! If I’m going to stage something, surely it will be something I did on The Royal Ballet, then we’ll take it elsewhere.

ZA: Was that harder or easier?

LS: I don’t know. It was nice to bring the piece back home. I think I will really always have a problem letting go of a first cast, an original cast. I don’t know whether that’s because I work so closely with the dancers, especially principals. To create a role, it’s so in communication, there’s such a deep conversation that goes on, even in an abstract ballet.

I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to look their best. I want to push them to their personal limitations and abilities. When you transfer that onto another dancer, obviously they have different ones. But it was really refreshing to bring it back here. And it helped, because I always try to get at least two casts on in any work. A lot of the time, I will cast differently, in terms of first and second cast, because then, for me, it gives almost two different ballets. With Asphodel Meadows, I had Tamara Rojo and Leanne Cope in the same role, and they were both stunning.

I also try to do it to see if my steps and choreography will stand being done by two different people, staying true to the intention of the choreography. But then, I like to know that it can be interpreted in a different way, without changing the piece entirely. And I think it stops me getting bored in rehearsals, as well!  To know that I can see two different ways of the same thing. It’s not just a replica.

That’s why I love someone like Leanne, because she spends her life here, trying to stay in line and replicate stuff, and when she does have the freedom to do what she wants, she’s stunning with it. Through Asphodel and Sweet Violets, in both the roles she did, she has the ability to tear up the stage. And she’s only this big! I love working with her, there’s going to be a lot more roles for her.

ZA: You designed your own costumes for Viscera. Are you keen to do more of that?

LS: The new piece Miami are doing, I’m doing sets and costumes this time. I think sometimes with a plotless, abstract piece, there’s such a complete vision in my head, about how it should look, that I find it futile to employ a designer and then almost dictate exactly what I want. I love painting at home, I love sketching anyway, so to be able to translate that into another form of art, associated with the piece… sometimes that just makes it more of a unity. Especially with these very short, small, abstract works. To have that compass that all comes from me – I’m a bit of a control freak, it sounds like, the more I say it! – but I like doing that. Obviously for the bigger pieces, something like Sweet Violets, there’s no way I’d attempt that. I’d leave that to people with proper design degrees.

I think I’m very particular about who I work with. I have a very clear aesthetic of what I like, and more so, what I don’t like. John Macfarlane is just, in my eyes, just perfect for my work. What he did for Asphodel and Sweet Violets, and the stuff we have coming up in the future together. It’s so easy to work with him. We get in the studio together, we have a laugh and by the end we have a set.

He really understands my work. I see him in the studio, I see him watching stuff, and at all the right moments, he seems to scribble something down. That really warms me. He’ll make the correct “mm” noise at just the right moment! To know that he appreciates my work just as much as I do his – he’s not just creating a set for a set’s sake, he’s very passionate about who he’s doing it for and why. The dancers love working with him, the costumes he creates are beautiful.

For the new Linbury piece, I can say that I’m working with Jon Bausor, who’s at the completely different end of the spectrum, but equally wonderful to work with. There’s just a definite sense of real passion. Some people were just born artistic, I guess, and he’s definitely another one of those people. There are just ideas spilling out of him.

ZA: You’ve moved Viscera from Miami to Covent Garden. How is it going from one to another? How aware are you, in the studio, of the space you’re working for?

LS: I think you always have to know where you’re going with something. Something like Viscera is quite easily translatable from theatre to theatre, it’s just a conventional black box. For something more site specific, like the Linbury, that has to be in your mind the whole time. I wouldn’t change the way I work because of it. I don’t think you should be a slave to the environment that you’re in, but it needs to be in the back of your head. You need to respect it, as opposed to trying to accommodate it too much. You can do so much with stage space. Sweet Violets was that perfect thing where you can make something tiny. And even Las hermanas, they have the Requiem set already pre-set behind it, so the crew goes on a nice break!

ZA: Going back to Viscera. We’ve talked about going from one cast to another. Did it feel very different on a different stage?

LS: I don’t think so. It felt very different anyway, because I was watching different people. It was only premiered in January, anyway, so I don’t think it had the usual rest time between a revival and a different company. It was still very, very fresh in my mind. I’d done a couple of pieces in between that, but I could remember every single step. For me, it’s always going to be nice to see stuff on this stage – it’s just nice to see my work on the stage that I grew up with. Whatever might come here, I will do my hardest to make it work on this stage.

ZA: You’re resident at The Royal Ballet, but there are only so many slots within a repertory, so do you know when you can have time away? Thinking in terms of five year planning, which you seem to be doing.

LS: The opera house schedules decades in advance, it seems. Which is good. Obviously my sole responsibility is here, everything here takes preference. Then I think it’s in everybody’s interest if I go to other companies, and take this company’s name with me, try and represent it in a good way, and then come back, and use what I’ve learnt in other companies. The more you do, the more you learn, the more people you meet, the richer you become for it.


Picture: Liam Scarlett and Leanne Cope. Photograph: Rick Guest

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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