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’s your plan of attack?
I like to make a big foundation for the piece. So I try and get it all done, even if it’s not rehearsed or if there are going to be bits that I change. But in order for it to make sense visually, I need to get it from start to finish so that I have a rough idea of everything. When you watch it like that, the bits that don’t work really stand out. You’re watching a conscious flow and then suddenly there’s a big red light, which, in isolation, you might not be able to see. Now that we have that rough foundation of everything, it’s really going into it and putting in all the punctuation and chiseling away.

Do you go to the studio with material?

No. It’s funny. Any kind of stuff that I premeditated the night before just goes out the window within the first five seconds. I think it’s because I love working with who’s in front of me. And most of the days, I actually just turn up—I know what time I start, I know what time I finish, but I have no idea who’s going to turn up so it’s seeing who comes into the studio. My ballet mistress will happily tell you this; I’m always like, “Who do we have now?” That’s fun because you see what they’re like on that day. Or maybe you’re playing through it and you see them spark up to a little bit of music, so you’re like, Okay, let’s work on this bit today because it’s caught their interest. Or you see them doing something when they’re warming up at the side and it’s, Okay, let’s take that, let’s develop that. That’s the beauty of creating: That it’s not imposed, and if something’s not working, it’s my challenge to change it and develop it so it does work.

Who are the choreographers that most inspire you?
There are three—for me obviously, MacMillan. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without him. Unfortunately, I never met him, and I wasn’t around when he was alive; I was at the school. His work just speaks volumes to me and having danced so much as well and seeing those rehearsals—he is incredibly inspiring, as is Robbins for me. One of my favorite pieces is Afternoon of a Faun, and if I ever get stuck during a piece I will go back and listen to it, watch it and just remember that simplicity is golden and what he does in that piece is just perfection. With two people in ten minutes, it’s a masterpiece. The other person I love is Jiri Kylian. His pas de deux are the most fluid works of beauty I think I’ve ever seen, and his musicality is incomparable. You think you know a piece of music and then you watch his dance to it, and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It just comes alive. They are the three main, but there’s so much in everyone’s work that you can appreciate and learn from.

When you talk about MacMillan, what exactly are you drawn to? The drama, the pas de deux?
The drama, the way he can create a character and make you follow it from beginning to end. And the same with Ashton, actually. It’s the female heroines that really get you. Manon, I can’t remember how many times I have watched it, performed it and yet still in act three when we’d all finished and were watching the final pas de deux, I was in tears every night, and that’s something amazing. With Ashton, in A Month in the Country, that final moment when Natalia—it’s haunting and breathtaking. It’s just amazing to know that you can be taken on a journey and told a story. And those roles exhaust the people doing them. It’s wonderful to watch them come off and see that they’re physically and emotionally drained. That’s why I love it.

Your favorites would make a nice combination.
I don’t think anyone’s done a bill yet with those three. Maybe if anyone’s stupid enough to give me a directorship, that would be the first thing I do.

Are you interested in something like that?
I think eventually. I have always said that the Royal Ballet is my home. It’s where I grew up. Everything that I learned was because of them in those early stages, so I would love to direct that. I hope at one point, fingers crossed maybe. [Laughs]

You became so popular so quickly. When that happens with choreographers, I always feel a little nervous.

I get a little nervous too. I know exactly what you mean. It’s weird, because you always get asked about pressure or you get comparisons, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of interviews or anything like that. I’m not someone who sends out my DVDs, so I know I’m incredibly lucky in where I’ve gotten. I’m so thankful to be doing what I enjoy; I get the opportunity to work with so many great companies. So I think it’s just carrying on doing what I do and using all the mistakes that I’m going to make because you have to make them, you will make them, everyone made them. And getting back up and fixing the problems and learning from them and maybe not just re-creating a successful formula time and time again. That doesn’t really interest me. Some critics have said from piece to piece, “He’s not finding his own voice, he’s not making his own language,” but for me I am. It’s very much what I want to do at that particular moment and this is the same with all the great choreographers. If you look at someone like William Forsythe, where you see what he’s doing now compared to when he was doing Steptext or Herman Schmerman—these people go on a journey, and they change with their experiences and their lives. I’m doing what I want to do. Hopefully audiences and dancers will still like that. There are going to be mistakes, and that’s okay.

You have to be free to make them.

Yes. It’s such a vulnerable art form, ballet and choreography. It was funny. At Fall for Dance, I was actually with Sara; we hadn’t started working, but we were doing a preperformance talk, and I was talking about the vulnerability of being a choreographer, where you pass it to different people and suddenly on opening night it’s completely out of your hands. So the trust has gone from the director to choreographer and from me to all the designers, to the dancers, and then it’s up to the dancer to relay that to the audience and suddenly you’re on a third hand of your baby in essence. It’s getting the dancers to believe and on that level of trust where they know they can deliver what you want, and then it’s not as vulnerable and scary as it sounds. When you’re a painter or an author, it’s very much you just putting out your product. Aside from all the branding, they’re your works, they’re your brushstrokes. But to sit on opening night in the audience is terrifying in the best and worst way possible. The curtain goes up, and you know these people are experts at what they do; you’ve seen them in rehearsal, and you know they can deliver beyond anything you thought was possible to begin with and yet, you’re terrified.

This may be premature, but you said that working with dancers you don’t know teaches you things about yourself as an artist. Do you have any idea with this piece what you might glean from it?

I’m not sure. There are definitely some musical things that I’ve learned throughout this piece. Also, especially from the guys, some of the partnering stuff they were able to do pushed me in terms of what I thought was possible. Maybe it’s a bit too premature; those little epiphanies almost always happen on opening night, or just before and that’s the beauty that drives you to do the next piece.

What have you shown in New York before this?

Nothing really. I did a small piece for the Fall for Dance with Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather from the Royal, but apart from that? It’ll be my first one in New York. It’s huge. I’m trying not to think about it.
New York City Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Jan 21–Mar 2.

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