Viscera: An Interview with Liam Scarlet, by Ezra E. Hurwitz
EH: Liam, thank you so much for participating in this interview. While I’ve been lucky to dance many of the masterpieces in Miami City Ballet’s vast and world-class repertoire, the company has commissioned just three original works in the five seasons that I’ve been here. Thus, being a part of Viscera was truly an amazing experience and a privilege I don’t think any of us took for granted. For a dancer, originating choreography is like having clothing designed and tailored especially for you. Thank you for crafting such a gem that fit us all with such perfection. I believe I speak on behalf of all the dancers involved when I say I learned a great deal from you throughout the creative process behind Viscera. I’m equally grateful to have you here today and to gain further insight from the man behind the masterpiece.
So, when did you first meet Edward Villella and how did your first American commission for the Miami City Ballet come about?
LS: I first met Edward Villella in London in 2010. He was in capital and happened to catch the final dress rehearsal of my choreographic main-stage debut for the Royal Ballet. The meeting, which took place in the passing in and out of an elevator, is still much a blur. My head was full of last minute alterations and notes for my piece that was about to debut. However, we were briefly introduced and he had said how much he had enjoyed my work. Then, as the elevator doors were shutting, he shouted through that I had to come and work for him, “create for Miami.” And a year later I was in the studios at the Miami City Ballet.
Viscera came about from seeing the Company in a bill that included Balanchine's Western Symphony, and Tharp's Baker’s Dozen. I had seen these works but never done like this. There was a determination, a sheer physicality to every step coupled with beauty and thought. With one or two exceptional dancers that stood out for me in a way every choreographer hopes for.
EH: At that point did you have music in mind?
LS: I knew I needed to do something that showed off the company's strengths and versatility. I had known of Lowell Liebermann's First Piano Concerto for roughly seven years and it had always been on the back burner as a 'must-do' piece when the correct opportunity arose. Here it was. The music is a tour de force with the perfect eye of the storm in the second movement. The ferocity and sheer attack that is hammered out in the orchestra is not an easy task to compete with on stage. I had no doubt, however, that this company could match it, if not overtake.
EH: As a choreographer, is your inspiration initially drawn from the music, the dancers, or elsewhere?
LS: Initially, in my early work, the main inspiration was always the music, and trying to draw the phrases out and communicate with the audience in a very audible and artistic way. However, the more work I create, the more companies that I work with, and the more I mature as a person and a choreographer, the more I look towards the dancers for complete inspiration. My work is very closely figured out with the dancers present in front of me. Nothing is preconceived or imposed falsely on the technically amazing and, above all, unique bodies in the studio during the creative process.
EH: Viscera was your first American piece and major commission outside of your work with the Royal Ballet. How would you describe the creative process from which Viscera was born? What was it like working with dancers and a company you were unfamiliar with?
LS: The creative process was heaven. From the first rehearsal I felt at complete ease with this group of strangers. And as the days went on we created a world and a language in which everyone felt free with abandon, in which to be inspired and create, and above all to be comfortable. I was very aware to try and push the dancers out of their comfort zones and guide them to a place that I knew they were capable of technically and artistically, furthering myself as well. I found myself creating and thinking in a different way due to the talent that was being presented in front of me. It enriched me, and hopefully the dancers as well.
EH: So how would you say working with the dancers of Miami varied from working with the dancers of Royal Ballet?
LS: The dancers at Royal Ballet I had grown up with and known both inside and outside of the studios. It’s a very comfortable and natural environment, which can only be formed over that period of time. It was because of this fact that it surprised me how quickly and closely I artistically connected with the dancers at MCB. I think back home the dancers had gotten to know my style very well, and it was a huge eye opener for me to try and communicate this and in turn develop it further in Miami. I ended up with the richest creative period I had had in a long time due primarily to new dancers and an entirely new environment.
EH: How long did it take to choreograph the entire ballet?
LS: Everything fell into place within two weeks; the steps, the genre that we created with them, the costumes and the lighting. It was a truly complete piece and one that I would not wish to change if I could, which is rare for me!
EH: Speaking of costumes and lighting, what was your involvement in designing those components of Viscera?
LS: I actually designed the costumes myself. I had previously done designs for my pieces, but not on this scale, so it was a little daunting. However, I had a very clear aesthetic in mind and it was just a matter of realizing that with the production department in Miami.
EH: Would you say that Haydee Morales and her team accurately executed your vision for the costumes?
EH: And as far as the lighting design goes, was that a medium you had previously considered? Were you involved in creating the design? Would you say that the lighting was integral to the impact of the piece?
LS: I knew that piece would be a ‘black box’ work, so the atmosphere had to be created entirely from lighting, costume, and obviously steps, without sets. John Hall, who works so closely with MCB, did a fantastic job at creating an ever-changing landscape with lights. What I was most impressed with was how he really understood every nuance of the piece and illuminated every moment that I felt essential to the arc of the piece.
EH: Much of the piece was cloaked in darkness. I can say firsthand how challenging it was to dance on a stage lit mainly by spotlights. Even the floor we danced on was changed to a black marley. Was that a detail you insisted on?
LS: Yes! Sorry to the dancers, but I wanted to generate a world that seemed endless and formidable and this really achieved what I had envisioned.
EH: How did you select Viscera as the ballet’s title?
LS: Titles are always the hardest part for me. They set up an expectation for the audience even before the curtain goes up. The title, Viscera, really came about because of how the piece made me feel. The word I kept using to describe the movement was ‘visceral.’ I had wanted it to be this gut-wrenching, articulated journey, yet juxtaposed with an internal beauty and with the blood red and dark bruised costumes; ‘Viscera’ seemed to stick.
EH: The central duet marks a contrast to the rest of the ballet’s frenetic yet organized chaos. How would you describe the relationship between the chaos of the first and third movement with the eerie calmness of the duet?
LS: I had always known the pas de deux would be an almost separate entity to the piece, very isolated but still with an intensity that is carried throughout the rest of the piece. I have always described the second movement as the ‘eye of the storm,’ so regardless of its slow and passive nature there is an underlying tremor of aggression.
EH: How would you describe Viscera’s premiere?
LS: The premiere was a true landmark for me, personally and for my career. My first commission for another company besides my home one, and I couldn't have been more proud of the dancers. It assured me that choreography was the thing for me and from that moment I was to pursue it fiercely.
I have said before that the premiere night marks the culmination of everyone's hard work, but for me there is also an emptiness that follows. Knowing you don't get to walk into the studios the next day and continue creating, especially with such an inspiring group such as the Miami City Ballet, is tough.
EH: While you didn’t come into the studio the next day, you are, in fact, coming back to work with the dancers of the Miami City Ballet again! In response to Viscera’s overwhelmingly positive reception, Edward Villella asked you to choreograph a second piece for the company's following season. Did that opportunity come as a surprise to you? What does this invitation to return and continue creating on MCB mean to you?
LS: Knowing that I get to create for this fantastic group of individuals again comes with anticipation and certainly excitement. I am very lucky to be working with such a team of wonderful, inspiring, and more importantly, genuinely lovely people. The great thing about returning is that I can continue to develop the artistic bonds that started during the process for Viscera. The second commission was something that I had secretly hoped for after day one in the studios. For it to actually materialize was incredible.
EH: In addition to being invited back to Miami, Kevin O’Hare, the new artistic director of the Royal Ballet, asked to program Viscera in the Royal Ballet’s 2012/2013 London season. What did it that feel like, coming from your own artistic director, and it being the first opportunity for one of your works to be set a second time on a different company?
LS: I feel hugely honored that Viscera is entering my own company’s repertoire. It is my first time mounting my choreography on a company other than the one it was commissioned for. It will be very strange seeing other dancers in the roles that I so specifically tailored to the dancers who created them, but it’s a challenge that I look forward to and hopefully it won’t be the last time!
EH: Well, who knows? Maybe your second piece for the Miami City Ballet will have legs as well, so to speak.
LS: Fingers crossed.
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