A year ago, Liam Scarlett’s first dance for Miami City Ballet succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. The company’s premiere of the young British choreographer’s Viscera garnered standing ovations and enthusiastic reviews from, among others, The New York Times. The success helped pave the way for Scarlett’s promotion to artist-in-residence at the Royal Ballet and marked him as a talent to watch in the ballet world.
Viscera set a high bar for Scarlett’s new work for MCB, Euphotic, which premieres Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. It will be the finale of Program II, which also includes Balanchine’s brilliant Divertimento No. 15 and Duo Concertant and Petipa’s crowd-pleasing Don Quixote Pas de Deux.
“The pride turns into ‘It needs to be better if not at least as good,’ ” the cherubic-looking 26-year-old said in an interview during a September visit to Miami for rehearsals.
“There’s the angst and anticipation of an entirely new piece, trying to live up to something you’ve done before and create something entirely different. Then you get to that first day in the studio where there’s 30 pairs of eyes looking at you going, ‘It’s going to be better, right?’ ”
So how did he deal with all those longing eyes?
“I didn’t,” Scarlett says with a grin. “I started with the pas de deux so I only had two pairs of eyes looking at me.”
Happily, one of them belonged to Jeanette Delgado, the MCB principal dancer who was the red-hot center of Viscera and has become Scarlett’s Miami muse.
“It’s amazing what she comes up with, how she furthers my work in ways you don’t think is going to happen,” he says.
Delgado says she was buoyed by her excitement at working with Scarlett again and confidence in his talent.
“The fact that it was happening again so soon overrode the emotions of hoping it will be just as good,” Delgado says. “I remember that moment when he said, ‘I don’t know what I’m about to do.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re ridiculous, because you’re a genius.’ He is inspired by the dancers but he also has something magical inside.”
MCB founding artistic director, Edward Villella commissioned Viscera when Scarlett was unknown outside the Royal Ballet, an impulsive decision that turned out to be a prescient one. Villella’s successor, Lourdes Lopez, says that bringing in choreographers to create work on MCB’s dancers remains a priority.
“My ultimate goal is to build the repertory at Miami City Ballet,” Lopez says. “New work is incredibly important to the art form and to audiences and dancers. I want the company to be doing great new work, and to expand the range of this company and our audiences.”
She has been impressed by Scarlett.
“For someone who is very young, he had a natural authority,” she says. “And he was able to get the gist of what makes these dancers great.”
Euphotic is a more ambitious work than Viscera. It’s set to Concerto No.2 for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 36, by Lowell Lieberman, the same cotemporary composer Scarlett used last year, but this score is on a grander scale, with a sweeping symphonic sound and orchestration.
There are 28 dancers, with three lead ballerinas for the four movements — Delgado in the first and last, with soloist Sara Esty and Jeanette Delgado’s sister, Patricia, in the others. There are some grand patterns and spectacular-looking, inventively constructed lifts that were initially a challenge for the dancers.
“Euphotic” is a Greek word meaning well lit. It also describes how light penetrates the upper layer of a body of water to create photosynthesis. As he did with Viscera, Scarlett designed the costumes, with colors ranging from midnight blue to bright yellow to mimic the colors of the sea and sky. He also did the scenic design and, for good measure, taught company class and helped coach Les Patineurs, a Royal Ballet staple.
Scarlett, who chose the title just a few weeks before the premiere, said he was attracted by the image and metaphor of light on the ocean.
“I wanted to capture something transcendent … encompassing the celestial heights and the depths of the oceans,” he wrote in an email. “Something from so high piercing through the firmament into something that has infinite depth … a section of the world that is slightly unknown to us, and slightly magical.”
Scarlett juxtaposes quieter moments against his ambitious ideas. Again, he was inspired by Delgado and that first rehearsal.
“She looked up at me and there was such an expectation and want in her eyes,” he says. “It’s like this world where there’s so much happening, and yet you’re drawn to the most humane and emotional thing on stage, which is just two people standing staring at each other.”
But the Cuban-American ballerina was not Scarlett’s only muse this time.
“Coming back, you can pick up exactly where you left off — it’s like a conversation that never finished,” he says. “The intimacy and dialogue you have with the dancers is already there … and from that you can push further. You sit and think about people, ‘I bet they can do this, I bet they can do that.’ ”
He was particularly interested in Kleber Rebello, the young Brazilian dancer who is Delgado’s partner in Euphotic.
“He’s a cannonball … he’s phenomenal,” Scarlett says. “But I also enjoy it when he’s not doing showy virtuoso stuff. It’s great to watch [Delgado] with him – she draws him out.”
It remains to be seen whether Scarlett will return a third time to work with MCB. The Royal Ballet’s performance of Viscera in November, as well as two other ballets he created for his home company, received mostly rave reviews in London. His new position as artist-in-residence puts him alongside artistic associate and senior choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, one of ballet’s most acclaimed creative talents — and Lopez’s former partner in Morphoses, the troupe where she was executive director before coming to Miami.
“I adore Liam, the dancers love him, I think he’s very talented,” she says. “Is he going to do this annually? I have no idea.”
For now, though, MCB’s dancers and audiences have Euphotic. “I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Delgado says. “There’s a lot to it.”