Q&A: Liam Scarlett talks about his New York City Ballet debut

Liam Scarlett discusses his new commission at New York City Ballet

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What was it?
There’s an ease to her dancing. There are some people that are just born to do it. Everything makes sense, and it looks effortless, but you know it’s not. [Laughs] And just the presence she has. You see her and even in rehearsal, she is giving 110 percent.

Aren’t you also working with Janie Taylor?
Yes. Wonderful. It’s such a shame that she’s retiring this season, but going on to bigger, different ventures. I’m really happy that I’m getting the chance to work with her. And totally different than Sara, which is what I get a kick out of: putting two people together that have a passion—it’s so deep-rooted within themselves. No one else is going to have that quality. And then it’s finding a way to highlight it onstage and, then, at certain points make it coherent with the other. But Janie is, again, effortless; she comes into the studio, and you can see that there’s an intelligence behind her dancing as well as the aesthetic beauty.

Those two dancers have such drama.
Yes. [Laughs] Which is what I love. I think especially coming from London, where I’ve grown up with [Kenneth] MacMillan, which is probably the most dramatic you’re going to get. Seeing a ballerina or a guy who has that drama behind anything that they’re doing is important: They can make the simplest step or just a hand gesture become so much more. That’s what I always look for.

Are you working with Ashley Bouder?
Yes. I’ve known Ashley for quite a while from various galas. Again, the ballet world is so small. I think I’ve probably picked the three most different principal women. Ashley is a firecracker-tour de force from the moment she steps into the studio to the moment she leaves. I don’t know where she gets her energy, but it’s phenomenal: the speed and the precision in which she can move is breathtaking. I’d say, “Can you do this? Can you do this?” There was nothing she said no to or failed at. It was remarkable.

The men you’re working with are Amar Ramasar, Tyler Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Why did you choose them?
Amar, I know, works a lot with Ashley and seeing them in the studio together—the rapport they have is hysterical, yet completely liberating. There’s a trust there that you just don’t get with every couple. There were moments where they were nearly on their heads or they were on their heads and everyone got up and laughed about it; there is an immense trust. It’s almost like one person dancing when you see those two together. Tyler, I’ve seen dance a lot before—even in Morphoses with Chris [Wheeldon]. You can tell when a dancer’s musical by watching him onstage, but actually from being with him in rehearsals, Tyler hears the music almost exactly the same as I do. He’s incredibly intelligent, musical and the most phenomenal partner.

I agree. Watching him take care of a dancer is incredible—you almost don’t look at the woman. Who is he dancing with?
He’s with Janie, but she spends most of the time above his head so you still get to see both. [Laughs] Adrian is a beautiful dancer and actually complements Sara so well physically. There’s that kind of aesthetic beauty that both of them have when you put them side by side.

It’s neat because we don’t see them together so much.
I know. It’s funny how choreographers come into a company and do that. I remember when I was a dancer, people would put people together who never danced together before, and then you see them and think, Why has that never been done before? Or sometimes it went the other way. I usually walk into a company and pairing people up is quite simple for me, and most of the time it works. And if it doesn’t, we rectify it quickly. [Laughs]
 
Can you talk about your ideas for the piece?
I kind of went down the same road that I did with the last Poulenc piece, because musically, the more you get into it, the more you feel that there is so much cross-referencing between the two pieces. I wanted to make a reference to Asphodel, even if it was just for myself. There are a few inside jokes, or moments that recall what I felt when I approached something. There are some subtle references, especially with having three principal couples and playing them off one another. So I’m using that as a focal point, and then it’s just been going into the studio, listening to the music, seeing how the dancers are responding to it and then finding a language that works for both of us. It’s been a true collaboration.

Coming into a company with such a Balanchine and Robbins legacy, are those choreographers in the back of your mind?
I think it’s hard for them to not be. I love the heritage and history of any company I go to being trained and dancing with a company that has such a rich history in London; I’m looking at it now—I have a shelf full of Balanchine and Robbins books among MacMillan and Ashton, so I love the history and the development and the evolution and who inspired whom. Everyone inspires everyone and learns from them, and I think it’s really important to somehow pay homage, and when you have a company that is primarily trained at SAB and has that very distinct Balanchine training, it would seem silly not to utilize it in some way, to then put my stamp on and further it. But not to disregard it. It seems almost disrespectful to do that.

Are you working with speed because you’re at NYCB?
I work with speed wherever I go. [Laughs] I was very much one of those speedy dancers in London. I think with all that Ashton footwork that we do, I was always the speedy one. It’s finding the intricacies and those little complex counterpoints or ostinatos that are in the music and really challenging them, so that you’re not just going on the beat all the time, but can really find the delicacies within that, which means moving fast. Luckily, this company can move at the speed of light.

You are designing costumes, which you’ve done in other ballets. Why do you design the costumes?
I think it’s the whole package. When I listen to a piece of music, I see colors or shapes or cuts as well as steps. The music is so huge, but it has this decadent, decayed beauty to it. It’s not the happiest piece, but there’s a dimension to it; you can see crumbling buildings or maybe a life that was lived and is now on the way out. Having worked with a few designers since I’ve been choreographing and luckily some of the best, I’ve learned a lot in terms of cuttings, fabrics. It’s almost like a side job that I’ve picked up on the way. And it’s something I really enjoy doing; it hopefully ties the piece together. [Laughs] If they’re bad, everyone can just blame me.


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