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Sprucing Up Swan Lake: Liam Scarlett Balances the Old and the New at The Royal Ballet

Choreographer Liam Scarlett is digging into Siegfried's character for his new Swan Lake. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH

A new production of Swan Lake is no small undertaking—especially at The Royal Ballet, where the last one, staged by Sir Anthony Dowell, lasted 30 years. When it came to replacing it, director Kevin O'Hare opted for a British choreographer who grew up with Dowell's version: Liam Scarlett, a former first artist with and current artist in residence at The Royal Ballet, took up the challenge in tandem with designer John Macfarlane.


Set to debut this month in London, Scarlett's first staging of a 19th-century ballet aims to strike a balance between tradition and narrative coherence, with a renewed attention to character detail. "Kevin and I were both keen to keep it vey classical, to honor what Petipa and Ivanov did and then pay homage to the history of Swan Lake within The Royal Ballet," the 31-year-old says.

It's an illustrious legacy: The Royal's first production was the work of Nikolai Sergeyev, the ballet master who smuggled notations of numerous Petipa ballets out of Russia. Sir Frederick Ashton later choreographed some numbers, one of which, the Neapolitan Dance, has endured—and will live on in Scarlett's production. "I danced it a lot, and it's such a great piece—ridiculously hard," Scarlett says with a laugh.

Iconic scenes, including the white act, the Act I pas de trois and the Black Swan pas de deux, will remain more or less untouched, although Scarlett says Alexei Ratmansky's recent reconstruction of the 1895 original (for Zurich Ballet and La Scala, based on Sergeyev's notation) provided food for thought. Scarlett will choreograph the rest, including the Act I corps numbers and most of the national dances.

"I'm in essence trying to ghostwrite someone else's work," Liam Scarlett says of helming The Royal Ballet's new production of Swan Lake. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH

In order to keep the story fresh, Scarlett homed in on Siegfried's character. "He's the one who takes us through the entire ballet," he says. "I tried to crack his side of the story. He's a mortal man chasing some immortal being or idea: Is Odette real? Does she represent something that's missing in his life?" Von Rothbart will be another pivotal, albeit non-dancing, role, onstage from Act I as the Queen's advisor. "There's a backstory as to why he's changed Odette, who used to be a princess—maybe he's destroyed her kingdom, and he now has the ambition to try and ruin the palace."

Six different casts will take the stage for the first run this month. For Scarlett, working with them on Swan Lake has been a welcome change of pace from making his own choreography: "I'm in essence trying to ghostwrite someone else's work, without creating something that is selfish."

The June 12 performance will be broadcast live to select cinemas in the U.S., U.K. and Europe. Visit roh.org.uk/cinemas for details.

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