Liam Scarlett: Dance's hottest property

Liam Scarlett gave up dancing for choreography and won acclaim for works such as Asphodel Meadows. Now, at 26, the wunderkind is the Royal Ballet's first artist-in-residence

At the Royal Ballet, the future's Scarlett. The choreographic whizz kid Liam Scarlett, 26, has just landed the newest job in the company: artist-in-residence, a post created especially for him. He may be young, but it's possible this step comes not a moment too soon.

For several years, the wide-eyed, tousle-haired dancer – he looks a little like Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins – has been increasingly recognised as the "great white hope" of British choreography.

He was nominated for an Olivier Award for Asphodel Meadows (2010), his initial work for Covent Garden's main stage, but the buzz around him is due not least to his bent for narrative dance. Having made a powerful statement of intent this spring with his first one-act story ballet, Sweet Violets, he is planning more. "I've got three – no, five! – on the go," he declares, apparently astonished.

With his new appointment he has decided to give up his performing career as a First Artist of the Royal Ballet to concentrate on choreography: "I was starting to feel that I needed 25 hours in a day." It's a big decision, and has come earlier than many might have expected, but Scarlett remarks with characteristic quiet confidence that for him it is a good moment – and he knew it would happen eventually. "I was happy with the repertoire I was dancing and I knew that if I gave it up I'd miss it," he says. "But it's better to stop while I'm slightly sad to do so, rather than giving a sigh of relief."

The post represents a major vote of confidence from the Royal Ballet's new artistic director, Kevin O'Hare, and it is a secure base from which Scarlett can launch himself in earnest. His inventive strengths leap off the stage: a firm rooting in classical technique meets a fine feeling for encompassing space, the flow and accenting of phrases, the assurance to venture into distinctive territory mingled with the self-confidence not to resort to shock tactics.

It's the balance of geometry, musical response, physicality and an extraordinarily sensitive rendering of emotional states that secured Scarlett his Olivier nomination. Unlike certain other celebrated choreographers, he knows the value of stillness as well as that of motion. Asphodel Meadows was supposedly abstract, but shot through with hints of the Hades of Greek mythology and the fear of loss. Its three pas de deux explore relationships at perhaps a deeper level than words can reach. A sensuous, arching lift can hint at a world of vanishing memories; a simple, motionless gaze between two performers can become as much a part of dance as the finest footwork. It would be sophisticated work for an artist twice Scarlett's age. Music is paramount, even if it isn't always the starting point for his concepts.

"There should always be a connection with the music," he declares. "Even if it's something minimal, there has to be a relationship between what's happening in the pit and what's happening on stage – and it has to be visually acknowledged. That's my stamp that I like to put on a piece: that it somehow translates the music into real life."

For Asphodel Meadows he chose the bittersweet and multifaceted Concerto for Two Pianos by Poulenc, while Viscera – created for Miami City Ballet and staged this autumn by the Royal Ballet – interpreted the Piano Concerto No 1 by the American composer Lowell Liebermann. "It's wonderful to find a composer whose works I like and who is alive, kicking and commissionable," Scarlett enthuses. "I hope we'll work together collaboratively in the future."

Scarlett, born in Ipswich, started dancing at the age of four and showed an early inclination towards stagecraft by "arranging people on stage nicely" for the class nativity play. A flair for art runs in his family – his father is a landscape gardener and his younger brother a theatre lighting designer. Joining the Royal Ballet's junior school, White Lodge, he met with much encouragement for his creative streak, including from the former Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert director Norman Morrice at the annual choreographic competition. "I was 11 and didn't know who he was," says Scarlett. "Then I found out. And I thought, 'Well, if he says I should do more...'"

His eyes glaze over, though, at the words Billy Elliot. "When the film came out, I was right at the age Billy was," he remembers. "There were 16 of us in our year and the number of press interviews we had to do I think has made us resent that film! It had a great impact on the world of ballet, especially in terms of male dancing. But it was hammered in our face a bit." Unlike the movie's youthful hero, he never experienced any problems with being a boy interested in ballet: "Most people didn't even question it."

Influences on his work have been many and varied. He loves Kenneth MacMillan's pas de deux ("just breathtaking"), admires Jiri Kylian and Frederick Ashton for their different yet equally profound musicality, and Jerome Robbins for Afternoon of a Faun, "a brilliant piece that I go back to whenever I'm stuck and look at the simplicity and the humanity of it."

The runaway success of Asphodel Meadows took him by surprise. "It was overwhelming and very humbling," he recalls. "The first night will really stay with me, the response and then the reviews – but most importantly, what the dancers said to me afterwards. It certainly gave me a lot of confidence to try something a little different, or more unsafe. And then Sweet Violets came along."

There was nothing remotely safe about that. Set to Rachmaninov's Trio Elégiaque, it concerns the artist Walter Sickert and his fascination with Jack the Ripper. Scarlett, though, remains proud of it and feels that it was misunderstood. "I wanted it to be episodic and muddled, in a way," he says. "It was a series of stories that didn't necessarily have a linear connection from A to B. I loved creating it. I loved getting into those characters and making steps that were meant to say something. It was like being a film director: you have to engage an audience, take them on a journey and make them feel as if they're in another world."

As if that's not enough, this super-creative young man designed the costumes himself for Viscera – rich purples, velvety textures, scooped-away backs for the women – and plans to repeat the process in future.

Liam Scarlett premieres his first full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet in May 2013

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy