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Choreographer Liam Scarlett, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet whose Midsummer Night’s Dream will soon tour China, seems destined to join the ranks of the all-time greats. “With every premiere you sit back and watch it for what it is. You think I could tweak this or I could tweak that. But I was happy with it, it was such a relief when it was over but it’s probably the thing I’ve done which I felt most proud of.” By Peter Craven.

Choreographer Liam Scarlett

Liam Scarlett.
Credit: Courtesy Royal Ballet

In early October, right at the start of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, audiences are going to see the ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Li Cunxin, the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, co-commissioned with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Li Cunxin was the author of the bestselling book and subsequent Bruce Beresford film Mao’s Last Dancer, and the man he’s made an artistic associate and the choreographer of the Dream is the wunderkind of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Liam Scarlett.

Born in Ipswich, Scarlett has a faint East Anglian tinge to his voice. He is just 32 years old but he’s in the process of doing everything. He’s worked with the Paris Opera Ballet, he’s worked with the New York City Ballet, he’s choreographed a new version of The Nutcracker for Disney. Just a few months ago he did the revamp of Swan Lake, the very quintessence of classical ballet, in a version that is liable to be seen for decades. He’s been compared to Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton. It’s the equivalent in ballet of being compared to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

And as a choreographer Scarlett has moved where he’s wanted, sometimes in dark places. He did a version of Frankenstein and, like the original, his work was informed by a sense of Byron and Shelley, the Romantics who took a walk on the wild side. He did a ballet, Sweet Violets, that concentrated on the obsession the painter and designer Walter Sickert had with Jack the Ripper.

All of which makes me ask him if this ballet of the Dream with the usual lush and bouncing Mendelssohn music is going to be a dark Dream.

“No, I think having read Shakespeare and having a sense of the whimsical nature of the play Shakespeare wrote and, you know, the really complicated, convoluted way these characters fit into the whole thing, it’s actually more of a challenge to do something comedic rather than something on the darker side,” he says.

“The play has every element and Shakespeare weaves all the characters together in a way that’s very clever because he takes you on an emotional journey almost without your realising it. I wanted to capture the Shakespeare and what everyone sees as wonderful about the piece.”

It’s striking how seriously he takes this ballet as a version of Shakespeare as if dance were simply the idiom in which he thinks and the medium into which he can translate anything the writer did with spoken language and dramatic action.

The story goes that Scarlett, who became a member of the Royal Ballet School at the age of 11, decided he was never going to be the greatest dancer but dance would remain supreme for him and he would conjure it up in the most potent way as a choreographer.

“I did eight years dancing at the Royal Ballet, which is one of the best companies in the world,” he says with a faintly underlined emphasis. “I kind of fulfilled everything I wanted to do. When it came to it I had a sense of fulfilment making the decision I did. It was a big one because I was going to miss the dancing by concentrating on my choreography. But my body is very thankful that I stopped.”

He laughs, and you can tell it’s the laughter of a man who is very used to being in control and who has no need to assert anything. He’s quiet with that hardly noticeable authority of someone who calls the shots in a world he’s made his own domain.

He’s inclined to believe that first thoughts tend to be best thoughts and has an effortless sense of why this should be so. “Your initial reaction,” he says, “is usually the strongest one because you spark subconsciously, and then you can work from that.”

At the same time, Scarlett is someone who steps back from what he does and finds an intense satisfaction as well as the highest kind of admiration in contemplating the work of a great concert pianist, and it’s clear from the way he talks about this that it represents a kind of alternative fate for him – even though he plays the piano badly.

“If I wasn’t doing what I am doing that’s what I’d liked to have done,” he says. “For me to be a concert pianist is the transcendental thing. And that’s what I do if I’m having any kind of bad day or some inspiration lag, I try to listen to great piano music.”

I ask him if he thinks the music has primacy in dance rather than serving as a pretext for the balletic fireworks. “It’s what ties everything together in terms of what the audience wants,” he says. “If you can get dance and music together as theatre then you’ve suddenly married two art forms together and it all becomes a living thing that touches you from the stage.”

If this seems a very purist approach to ballet, very much in the Ashton tradition, Scarlett is also utterly enthusiastic about the old MGM musicals and the sense of chutzpah as well as absolute “real” precision of movement in the dance skill they exhibit. “They didn’t have the camera tricks that we have nowadays,” he says. “They are all theatrically done and there’s something about how impressive that is without any gimmicks.”

It shows breadth of mind, this eclecticism and doffing his cap to the populaire, coming from someone who’s said to combine MacMillan’s sense of drama with Ashton’s total pyrotechnical mastery of technique. So, is he essentially a dramatic choreographer or a classicist’s classicist?

This makes him pensive. “Well, um…” And then he starts again with a sidestep. “To be compared to these two is the highest honour for me, training at the school and going into the company, growing up with the repertoire of those two, for as long as I can remember. And they are very, very similar and very, very different at the same time.”

In fact, he sees them as aspects of the same thing, but he makes it clear that all the Jerome Robbinsry in the world – which he reveres – would never make him repudiate the classical technique of the ballet.

“Even when I get away from that I want a classical foundation to my choreography. To stimulate with the narrative is so, so important.”

In May, Scarlett’s command of narrative and of the classical underwent the most severe test when he was charged with a new – as new as you can get – production of the most beloved and central of all ballets, Swan Lake.

“It was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my career,” he says. “It was doing this kind of iconic jewel in the company’s repertoire which is really the backbone of the ballet as we know it. The classical Tchaikovsky score is one of the most incredible ballet scores ever written, or probably ever will be written, and then there’s the fact of Ivanov’s choreography. To have the confidence to be doing it with the Royal Ballet...”

You hear the glow in his voice and you can also hear – almost purringly – the absolute confidence that he did Swan Lake as well as it could be done and that the production is already on its way to a kind of proximate immortality.

“A lot of it was my version of the truth of the original Ivanov choreography,” he says, “I mean, shadowing someone else in such a way that you couldn’t even see where it was me and where it was Ivanov. It was really interesting, great work. The crazy thing is that you know it’ll have some longevity because everyone who comes to see Swan Lake will be seeing this for some time.”

It’s always interesting, this calm self-confidence at the edge of euphoria in a creative master and it’s manifestly there in the understated Scarlett.

“Yes, I was incredibly happy,” he says of Swan Lake. “With every premiere you sit back and watch it for what it is. You think I could tweak this or I could tweak that. But I was happy with it, it was such a relief when it was over but it’s probably the thing I’ve done which I felt most proud of.”

He’s had his sleepless nights, though, wondering what on earth he’ll do with a piece, but he says there’s always something “on the backburner” that allows him to distract himself, to use a new creative problem as a way of distancing himself from a present bout of nightmare.

“I get overloaded very quickly. There’s always something in my mind, though – if I need to shut it off I can.”

I ask him if he’s tweaked the Queensland version of the Dream that’s coming to Melbourne and then going to Shanghai and Beijing. “I found that it’s in a state where I’m happy with what it is. And I think I made all the changes that I’d like to, so it’s sitting in a really good place right now for me.”

He says of getting things right in choreography: “There’s an incredible degree of satisfaction when it’s presented.” He’s odd to talk to partly because he’s very calm and quietly intense. Nothing about him seems – as it perhaps often does with performers – a portal of discovery in the process of the interview.

He giggles at the idea that despite the fact he’s so young, he’s been doing ballet for decades now. Could he conceive of doing anything else? “Yep,” he says, quite self-possessed if not quite believable. “There are so many art forms that cross.”

He says he spent so long as a boy panting for the ballet and in the vicinity of the ballet that he can’t even remember the moment of epiphany and decision.

“I don’t think I can pinpoint the actual moment,” he says. “It kind of happens before you know it. I don’t think there was any one moment when I went, ‘I want this.’ ”

His mother, who worked in IT, sounds like a near presence. “She didn’t do ballet herself,” he says, “but she probably knows more about it than I do.” His brother does lighting for rock bands.

But you get the strong sense that in 20 years or less, short of an act of God, Scarlett will be running the Royal Ballet and putting his signature on a hundred great ballets that somehow look as glowing as they always have because – like his Swan Lake – they have shifted and modulated, the princess taken out of the water has suffered change.

Meanwhile, there’s his Midsummer Night’s Dream, likely to upstage some fraction of the Melbourne festival. It will be fascinating to see this wonderboy, who sounds both very young and very mature, making what he can of the fairy king and queen. All that “ill-met by moonlight” stuff together with the wonderment of Puck setting a girdle round the Earth, the lovers going haywire, two young men intent on the one bewildered girl. Not to mention that ham actor Bottom changed into an ass who is also the lover of the fairy queen, Titania. You have no doubt though with Scarlett that he sees Shakespeare’s vision as an aspect of his own soul that he can simply turn into the language of the body by rendering it balletic because it’s a language he reads with his mind’s eye.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Sweet dream". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.