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

Liam Scarlett discusses his new commission at New York City Ballet

Liam Scarlett rehearses with New York City Ballet

Liam Scarlett rehearses with New York City Ballet Photograph: Paul Kolnik

When New York City Ballet returns, its winter program includes a new work by the Royal Ballet's current artist in residence, the 27-year-old Liam Scarlett. The piece—set to Poulenc's Organ Concerto in G minor—stars Sara Mearns, Janie Taylor, Ashley Bouder, Amar Ramasar, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Anthony Huxley. In anticipation of the premiere, Scarlett talks about his choreographic process, inspirations and ambitions.

Just 27, Liam Scarlett is in a tricky, albeit, enviable place as the ballet world’s hot, young choreographer. You know the type: A dancer—usually a man­—rises from within a major company to produce a breakout hit and suddenly his dances are ubiquitous. For Scarlett, the artist in residence at the Royal Ballet, the hit was Asphodel Meadows. Yet even before he created that 2010 ballet, he was part of New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute. This season, NYCB commissions his first major work, set to Poulenc. Mark your calendar: It premieres January 31.

How did this commission come your way? Did you want to make a dance for NYCB?
I’ve always wanted to, but I didn’t actually annoy or pester Peter [Martins, NYCB’s ballet master in chief]. I did the Choreographic Institute in 2009, and I got to know a few of the dancers then and obviously got to know Peter. He saw my work, and it was really after I had my main-stage break with the Royal Ballet that Peter called me and asked if I would I like to do a piece for the company. It was amazing.

What did you make at the Choreographic Institute? 
I made a short piece for eight dancers. Some of them were only apprentices or had newly joined the company and are now in the piece I’m doing—it’s nice to revisit some old faces and work with them again in a bigger, more creative way. I was talking to Peter about the Choreographic Institute and saying what a good platform it is for everyone involved. So I created an eight-minute piece, and it turned into something a little bit bigger for Miami City Ballet, so it was kind of like a jumping-off platform. 

Who were those apprentices or younger members from that time?
Kristen Segin, Lydia Wellington, Peter Walker. It’s so funny to see everyone a few years on and where they’ve gotten to in their careers. Kristen and Lydia had just joined the company so they were young corps de ballet, and now seeing them starting to get more [roles] and progress through the ranks is really nice. We’re still doing what we were doing in 2009, but just more and better.
Why did you choose Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor?
It’s always been one of my absolute favorite pieces. It’s just sublime, just as a piece of music by itself. The first piece I did for the Royal Ballet was to Poulenc as well, so I’ve always had this kind of admiration and affiliation with his music; sadly, he hasn’t done that much in terms of the big orchestra pieces, but what he has done is incredible. I used the Double Piano Concerto for Asphodel Meadows, which I did for the Royal Ballet. Glen Tetley used the Organ Concerto for Voluntaries, which is such a successful piece around the world. I think NYCB is probably one of the only companies that doesn’t have it within its repertoire, and I know that ABT hasn’t done it for quite some time, so I thought it would be perfect to do for NYCB in that New York maybe hasn’t heard the music that much. I thought I could put my mark on it, and I enjoyed working with the other Poulenc so much; there’s such a richness. The vocabulary he uses is so juxtaposing, yet it fulfills a whole arc. There’s so much in it. It’s a playground.

Why do you have such an affinity with his music?
I don’t know. I’m always been drawn to piano works. I’ve always thought there’s something really human about the instrument. You can do so much with it. Especially watching all the Robbins work to Chopin, where it’s all that solo piano, but you go from The Concert and Dances at a Gathering, which is the same composer and same essence of music, to In the Night. You have three completely different things, and it’s really that inspiration from the piano that drives that versatility. I think it’s a very inspiring instrument. I guess the organ is the next step up. [Laughs] And there aren’t that many works composed for the organ out of the choral or more secular music, so this piece is really a tour de force for the solo instrument. Once the organ starts, it doesn’t stop; it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

It’s insane. I can’t wait to hear it in that theater.
I know. [Laughs] It’s going to be incredible.
Where did you start in terms of casting?
Obviously, with a company like NYCB, there are quite a few dancers that spring to mind. When Peter gave me the commission, I thought, Oh yes—I get to work with so-and-so, and so-and-so—all these principals that you see. Whenever I’m in New York, I try to watch City Ballet and in today’s world with all the social media, you see so much—the ballet world is smaller than ever in terms of everyone knowing everyone else, which is wonderful. So there were a few people I desperately wanted to work with and then a few people whom I sat down and saw after I watched class. I watched a Serenade call and a little bit of Rubies, and there were some people who really jumped out at me. I always like to make a cast that I want to create for. It’s not that I went in there and said, “I need five couples and a principal pas de deux…” I didn’t dictate it. It was purely, “I like this person and this person,” and you look at the paper, and that’s the cast you have at the end. It’s seeing what you can do with those people that inspired you in the first place.

I read that you said choreographing is a personal experience. How difficult is it to come into a company cold? 
It’s difficult, but it’s also exhilarating. Working with the dancers at the Royal is so easy, and I feel at home. You go into the studio, and you basically start where you left off with the last piece. But to go into a new company and work with dancers that I hadn’t touched before—I always get a buzz on the first day. It’s almost like going on a first date. You have that nervous butterfly thing, but you know everyone is in the room because they want to be there. I end up finding out a lot about myself and learning about my work as I create for new people and see what they do with my stuff. 

Did you see Sara Mearns in Serenade?
Yes. She was doing the “waltz girl.” I’d never seen Sara dance live. I think the year that I was in New York, she had her back injury. I had heard so much and seen so many clips on the Internet, but as any dancer knows, it’s nothing until you see them live really. She completely blew me away.

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