Q & A w/ choreographer Liam Scarlett

San Francisco Ballet danced Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird,” this season for the second year running, the piece having been set on the company last season. The following is an interview with Scarlett, conducted via email in April, 2015.

Toba Singer: In working on “Hummingbird” with the San Francisco Ballet dancers, you mentioned that they are, as a group, experienced, from varied backgrounds, intelligent and forthcoming. How did each of those qualities and characteristics express themselves in the setting of the work, especially the underlying themes that you refer to that possibly correspond to the layers you mention in Glass’s music?

Liam Scarlett: San Francisco Ballet is without a doubt one of the leading companies in the world, with a roster of dancers to justify this. In fact, upon graduating The Royal Ballet School, this was the other company that I had wanted to dance in, if I hadn’t received my contract with The Royal. Working with a company for the first time, is both daunting and
exhilarating. The wonderful thing about SFB is the diversity of characters and abilities there, all on a par with excellence but yet uniquely different. “Hummingbird,” was relatively simple in its structure, but more complex in terms of what it tried to draw out of and exploit from the dancers. I would say that each duet was tailored to those creating it, and with the freedom for a second cast to have a slightly different interpretation. I don’t believe any piece is abstract, and I think “Hummingbird” lets an audience project its own sentiments about what is carrying the undercurrent of the piece. I have my personal connections and ideas, but none of these was ever imposed on the dancers, just merely suggested to create something honest and non-superficial, but above all, suited to the dancer dancing it as a human being and not just an aesthetic athlete.

TS: About “Sweet Violets,” you mention that a painting inspired you, the specter of Whitechapel, and the gritty nether world of London. You say that you don’t want your audience to grasp what it’s seeing as you have the dancers cross every barrier, a kind of OMG-in-a- matchbox. Could you speak about how you saw the mirror prop contributing to conveying that sensibility? Do you see it as a third party in the room, as both reflector and deflector? Whose property is it—the dancers, or does it belong to the audience, and how did the dancers feel about working with it?

LS: “Sweet Violets” was a very special piece to me, that drew inspiration from everywhere, mainly from the “Camden Town Murders” series by Walter Sickert. The mirror features a lot, in all of Sickert’s work, as a skewed perspective tool. Everything is focused through or reflected from a mirror somehow. There is never really a painting of his that doesn’t somehow play with the idea of framing. It played a big part in some scenes but not in others. This was a rehearsal, [and] I believe it’s important for dancers to have as much to work with as possible in the studio, so things don’t become superfluous or neglected on stage.

TS: You do such a magnificent job of collaborating with your dancers. When you have a concept that you see is not working, do you tend to discard it immediately and go for something different, or “massage” it into something that still conforms to your original idea? In other words, which dominates, your eye or your head?

LS: I don’t come into the studio with anything premeditating or set in stone, that for me is not creating or collaborating. As a choreographer it’s my job to gain the dancers’ trust, and then be able to give them something to translate to an audience. It has to be a very selfless act that relies on trust, honesty and a certain amount of vulnerability from my end. When I see an idea or a step that isn’t working, and I can see that will never work, I change it. The journey and challenge of trying to find a different route to an idea is sometimes more fruitful than the original idea anyway. I think it’s very important to be able to let go of things when creating, and not create an attachment to something that clearly will never materialize. There will always be new things to learn from. I guess the same goes for life. What decides it has to be what you feel inside from your heart when you watch something. It is always very clear when something is wrong, but when something is right, you can’t always tell why; you just know.

TS: Given your fascination with the bohemian life in urban settings, have you ever been inspired by Kurt Weill’s music and score do a full-length ballet of “Threepenny Opera”?

LS: I haven’t thought of it yet.

TS: In the Royal’s “Hansel and Gretel,” you speak about casting against type (Lara Moreira as the Stepmother and Bennet Gartside as the Husband, for example). What are the theatrical advantages? What physical challenges are posed, and how do you work with them? You say that setting work for a 7-year-old boy takes you back to your childhood. What about your childhood do you use in this piece?

LS: “Hansel and Gretel” had very delicate subject matter, and I wanted a cast that would understand the subtle, yet harrowing ideas I had. Laura and Bennet are two very close colleagues, friends, and muses of mine. It’s always good to push yourself with each piece, and not re-create the same thing time and time again. I try to use more of a human approach, as opposed to technical. You have to remember that most of the audience doesn’t know what a “temps-levé” or “chaîné” is, but they do know what it is to laugh, or feel someone kiss you for the first time, or to be hurt. So, it’s trying to tap into pedestrian things, and then amplify them with dancing.

TS: In the case of having Melissa Hough dance the title role in “Carmen” at Norske, clearly you weren’t casting against type, so how did you avoid the character taking too predictable a direction?

LS: “Carmen” was the third piece that I created for Melissa, the first being “The Firebird,” in which she excelled. However, with “Carmen,” there was no doubt about her when it came to casting. I don’t think it was an easy process for her though, my Carmen wasn’t the stereotypical Gypsy that everyone assumes her to be, and Melissa developed a truly complex character that I hope the audience empathized with at the end. She is a very skilled actress and technician, but I was very clear to her about where I wanted this woman to be driven from, and we worked her out together. I was very proud of what we achieved in the end.



Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.