Interview with Liam Scarlett
(Dancer and Choreographer, Royal Ballet)
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Liam Scarlett was born in Ipswich and began dancing at the Royal Ballet Lower School, White Lodge in 1997. He gained 2nd prize for the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Award (2001), joint 3rd and 1st prize for the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award (2003 and 2004 respectively), was jointly awarded with four others the Irene Newton Choreographic Award (2004) and was the winner of the De Valois Trust Fund Choreographers’ Award (2005). (ROH Biography)
Q/ What were your early influences?
A/ I started dancing at Ipswich in Suffolk, when I was four. My teachers encouraged me to audition for the Royal Ballet School. There I spent five years in the Lower School, and three in the Upper School. This is my third season with the Royal Ballet.
A great influence on me was Christine Beckley, in my first year at White Lodge. She got us boys clued in as to what it was all about. Not just that it was an art form, but that it was a job. A tough profession. You did it, or you left. You had to have a sense of a goal. That was tough when you were eleven years old !
Then Christopher Powney, in the Upper School, who had been with Rambert. He instilled the artistry in us, after five years of worrying about fifth position .... !
Q/ How did you start on choreography?
A/ Well, it sounds a bit silly, but when I was a child I liked arranging things ! I had an obsession with arranging things and seeing them in a nice pattern ! In my first year at White Lodge there was a choreographic competition, I won third prize, and Norman Morrice (1931-2008, former Director of the Royal Ballet – editor’s note) came up to me and said “Pursue it!”.
I like to be in the studio and find how to express something. Then it’s not in your hands anymore. It’s very exciting to watch the dancers go with it!
The School realised that I had something to nurture and develop and they gave me every opportunity. It was the combination of doing lots of little pieces of choreography, that led up to it.
Q/ What are you working on at the moment?
A/ A Mozart piano concerto – the full concerto ! And I’m reading Mozart’s letters. I had originally planned to use only the adagio movement, but our Music Director at the ROH, Barry Wordsworth, said “why not use the whole thing?”. It’s roughly twenty-six minutes, which is a huge journey, and a challenge to keep a solid arc, a flow to the choreography. The difficulty being to find something that fits alongside, that juxtaposes the music. Because you know that you are working with music that will be unequalled by any substance that will be placed beside it! But you can meet the composer in the middle, with something that joins seamlessly.
They taught us to read music in the school. I used to play the piano, but then I had to concentrate on my dancing. And I do read an orchestral score. I use a piano score as a living score. You see it as an arc, the crotchets, the quavers can be seen as human beings. That you conduct when you get into the studio !
I did a piece to Prokoviev and Shostakovtich because of the complex rhythms. You can give each person a stave, or a melody. It becomes great fun when you painstakingly break down the score, instrument by instrument, and then start slotting it all back together.
I taught myself to read an orchestral score, to communicate with the conductor. I like to design as well. The music is a language, the design is a language, and the dancing is a language, and of course, you can’t be as good in all three. But there has to be a meeting place, where we can communicate. You have to have that crossover, and break into that other language.
Because the hardest thing is to find the right music, I constantly listen to music. Then I catalogue it. Sometimes I’ll exploit a dancer’s special character, which one might call a Cunningham/Cage approach ! – and add in the music afterwards.
I can see distinct ways of working – sometimes letting the music come first, and other times, using a different approach. That can keep the audience - that may not immediately notice how the various ways fit together - engaged.
In pas de deux, I’ll tend to get into the studio and experiment with the two people like human plasticene. But with thirty dancers on you stage you DO have to take a more planned approach!
I have seen Wayne McGregor’s work. It’s such a particular style. Only a handful of artists here can actually execute the movements. It’s pushing the body to the limits, and it’s dangerous, actually.
For my part, everything will stem from a classical genre, because of my training. I believe in adapting and progressing shapes without destroying the body.
Arabesque and soutenu can often be all that happens in choreography today ! What you need as a choreographer is to take a really good class, where you see a constructive, safe and aesthetically pleasing way to use the body, with that richness of vocabulary.
Sometimes it can be interesting to borrow from styles – Martha Graham, or Isadora Duncan, with its subtle nuances and timing. Also Kylian, when he doesn’t try too hard, can be very classical and musical.
Overall, I think we need to come back to a simple, musical and nuanced place. With a humbling sense of everything being so delicate, and still powerful, but not thrust in your face. The time of throwing the body to its limits is over. We don’t need to turn choreography into a Chinese circus act, those things you see on the Internet ! It’s there in McGregor and Forsythe, those leg extensions – I think that has run its course.
Q/ The linking steps, run-up steps, the in-between steps – what would you say about that? Have you seen how Cecchetti and Bournonville work with them?
A/ What’s happening in-between is essential – it can be more interesting to do the linking step four times, and only then, the lift, which gives it the value. Not just running about any old way, and then somehow struggle into the lift. What comes before must be subtle, and structured. It’s how you get there, it’s what you’ve done beforehand, and also, what happens after the big step.
I’ve little acquaintance with Cecchetti, his advanced enchaînements, and I’d never heard about Bournonville’s Schools being published on DVD at all. So I’m not familiar with it.
Recently, I’ve been doing duet work with some of the top dancers here. That has raised my level considerably, working with people who give back such a lot. I’m interested in the anchor points with two people, how to use counter-points, rather than raw strength. Make it less effort, so you can dance longer ! That flowering effect, when two people dance as one, like sea anemones!
Q/ But do you ever let them to jump? “Move their feet? Get them off the ground”?
A/ Oh yes ! I do occasionally let them jump ! (laughs).
Q/ What about narrative work?
A/ The piece with the Mozart Concerto is for eight dancers, and will be presented at the Linbury Theatre, in three weeks. It’s not a narrative work.
Narrative is very hard. I’m finding my feet right now, experimenting with notions, or a mood, or a feeling. I am looking to investigate depth and meaning, without, as yet, raising the expectations that one would find in a narrative work. Suggestions or emotions are in there. Once I’ve learnt how to generate feelings, not just happy/sad/angry, and explore those different human emotions without miming or even gesturing, then I can think about exploring narrative.
Q/ Bournonville believes that the dance is an expression of joy, and that violent emotion may readily become grotesque, unless conveyed through pantomime gesture. What do you think?
A/ Well, MacMillan does capture you. Although the emotions – like in Mayerling – can sometimes be ugly and grotesque, he will still convey, express it in a beautiful way, in the dancing, and that contrast is what amplifies the meaning of what he’s trying to get across.
At the moment, classical pantomime does not attract me. I think there is a way to do it through movement, once you crack a formula or an expression.
But I’m still working with shorter forms. Once I get down to doing a two or three Act narrative ballet, perhaps I’ll see things differently !