Liam Scarlett has been putting other dancers in motion for almost as long as he has been dancing. He choreographed his first ballet when he was 11, the same year he entered the Royal Ballet School in London.
“I liked organizing people,” the 25-year-old Briton says.
And while he is a member of the Royal Ballet, he is inspired more by the vision of other people dancing than by dancing himself.
“I liked patterns,” Scarlett says. “Like a massive chess game, or a flock of birds when you see them change direction and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re in perfect formation.’ ”
The latest flock of dancers Scarlett has set into flight is the Miami City Ballet troupe, which presents the world premiere of his newest work, Viscera, Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. South Florida audiences will be the first in the nation to glimpse one of ballet’s hottest new choreographic talents in his first full U.S. production – a potential coup for MCB.
Scarlett’s dances for the Royal Ballet have earned raves since the company’s school began presenting his student works in 2004. His first piece for the company’s main stage, Asphodel Meadows, in 2010, was hailed for an assurance, sophistication and power that critics found astonishing in a 24-year-old.
The Royal is pushing his work to the forefront this season, bringing back Asphodel Meadows, presenting a new ballet, and tapping him as one of seven choreographers to create a program marking the retirement of company director Dame Monica Mason. (Incoming director Kevin O’Hare plans to be in Miami for Scarlett’s premiere.)
Scarlett’s Viscera is the first of two commissions the Miami company will present this season. The other is Symphonic Dances by Alexei Ratmansky, resident choreographer at American Ballet Theater, which MCB will dance in a special fundraising performance with the Cleveland Orchestra March 1.
Commissioning a new ballet is risky business, as MCB learned in 2008 when Twyla Tharp’s Nightspot proved to be a costly dud. The Scarlett and Ratmansky pieces are the company’s first premieres by an outside choreographer since then.
MCB artistic director Edward Villella is thrilled that he and his troupe are playing a part in the rise of Scarlett, whom he believes could be an important new talent.
“He’s one of the quickest minds and the brightest talents I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in the presence of,” Villella says. “It seems like, ‘Wow, we’ve come upon something.’ We’ve got the possibility of finding the next Ratmansky. It’s very exciting.”
Villella discovered Scarlett two years ago when Royal Ballet managers invited him to watch a rehearsal of Asphodel Meadows. He immediately invited him to come to Miami. “I said hello, I am, you are, I would like to offer, and shortly after came yes,” Villella says.
For Scarlett, who spent three weeks in August creating Viscera with MCB’s dancers, it was a big step to work with a major U.S. company that has a very different style and personality than his home troupe.
“There’s such a vibrant energy buzzing through this company,” Scarlett said in August as he was finishing final rehearsals for Viscera. Rosy-cheeked and tousle-haired, he spoke eagerly and with confidence.
He first visited Miami last January to observe MCB’s dancers, and then, inspired by their “drive, athletic qualities, intense passion,” based the new piece on contemporary American composer Lowell Lieberman,’s Piano Concerto No. 1, an edgy composition he’d been listening to for five years.
“One of the most important things to me is to use dancers well,” Scarlett says. “The first thing I did when I got here [in August] was I played them the entire piece and said, ‘This is for you and because of you.’ ”
For the dancers, it was a rare thrill to have a work choreographed especially for them.
“Getting to create something new with someone new is really fulfilling, because you feel like you’re part of it,” says second-year corps dancer Emily Bromberg.
Principal dancer Jeanette Delgado formed a strong bond with Scarlett, who calls her “the kind of dancer choreographers choreograph for … who translate the work into something you never thought possible.”
For her part, Delgado said working with Scarlett gave her a taste of what it must have been like for an earlier generation of dancers on whom George Balanchine set many of the ballets MCB performs.
“None of us were around with Balanchine, and we never got the process of how it all came together,” Delgado says. “I want it to be done, to know ‘How is it going to end?’ But it’s also like a really good book — you don’t want it to end.”
In rehearsal in August, Scarlett, who is younger than many of the dancers, banters and jokes. “I might screw up, but watch my legs,” he tells them as he demonstrates a new sequence. They laugh, but watch intently. The movement —arms slashing in counterpoint, sudden, subtle changes in balance and direction ending at an unexpected place in the music — is demanding.
Unlike older choreographers or coaches, Scarlett often does the steps himself, moving in to show Ezra Hurwitz how to wind Bromberg into spiraling curves around his body.
“He treated us like a peer; he was so friendly and warm,” Delgado says.
But he also pushed them to the top of their game, finishing Viscera in just two weeks.
“You forget how young he is, because he’s so professional, and just spitting out choreography,” Delgado says. “Your brain is in a whirlwind.”
Dancing and choreographing have come easily for Scarlett. He started lessons at age 4 in his small hometown of Ipswich, “mostly to give my mum a bit of peace and quiet.” When he was accepted into the Royal Ballet’s boarding school to train fulltime, the place seemed like “a big summer camp that never ended.”
Choreographing also seemed like a game at first, romping with and ordering around his fellow students. Even now, he works instinctively, in the studio with the dancers. “I don’t premeditate or work anything out at home,” he says. “I found it to be such a waste of time. For me it’s important to use what’s in front of you.”
But he analyzes the score closely, his insight and ideas growing as he brings the music to physical life.
“The more you lose yourself in it the more you find different aspects and hidden melodies,” he says. “For me, looking at ascore is basically like looking at lots of little dancers jumping around.”
Mason, the Royal Ballet’s outgoing director, says Scarlett’s potential was apparent from his first student pieces.
“He clearly had a natural gift for making something that was unusually personal and very particular to him,” she said from London. “Every piece he made had developed from the previous piece, and it was only a matter of time before I would find a suitable place for him on the main stage.”
His talent and focus were both exceptional, Mason said.
“That type of unique voice is rare. He knows what he wants. Like lots of young people, he’s capable of having lots of fun. But when he needs to be serious, he’s deeply serious.”
Scarlett is the latest in a promising new generation of choreographers that includes Christopher Wheeldon, also from the Royal, and Ratmansky. And while Scarlett has his own vision, he is very much a believer in the traditional aesthetics and values of classical ballet.
“For me ballet is beauty,” he says. “It can come in many forms. But it’s seeing the body as a piece of architecture or sculpture. … It’s encompassing the whole thing and using the ballet technique we trained in. It’s a waste if you don’t use what you’ve trained in for years. It’s in your body anyways. So explore it and develop it. Don’t go away from it, but push it further.”