Scarlett Fever

Inside the latest American Ballet Theatre premiere

Liam Scarlett uses Hee Seo to demonstrate a lift. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Liam Scarlett defies all the clichés about “genius at work” and “artistic temperament.” Constructing an intimate pas de deux for American Ballet Theatre’s Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes last fall, he conceived quietly attentive lifts and intricate steps with the cool deliberation of a mason laying bricks. The dancers, joined by the second cast’s Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns, repeated each phrase with calm, meticulous efficiency, then waited for the next.

Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo work through a phrase.

At age 28, Scarlett is already The Royal Ballet’s first artist in residence and a choreographer in international demand. In addition to his ABT premiere, during the 2014–15 season Scarlett created a pas de deux for New York City Ballet and a narrative one-act for The Royal, and is now working on a three-act Carmen for Norwegian National Ballet before heading to the Royal New Zealand Ballet to choreograph A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With a Chance of Rain, Scarlett’s first work for ABT, bristled with his characteristic use of soaring Soviet-style overhead lifts and sensational partnered descents unexpected from someone who looks as innocent as a dewy, curly-headed choir boy. He set the dance for four couples to six preludes and an elegy by Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose virtuosic demands have delighted audiences and terrified performers for over a century. Company pianist Emily Wong met these challenges repeatedly.

Cory Stearns and Isabella Boylston hone the dynamics.

Occasionally, some of Scarlett’s instruction threatened to become impenetrably British: “Make this look more dextrous,” he told Gomes about a gesture. Fortunately, he demonstrated the move he meant and the intensity he wanted. Gomes, in practice clothes of clashing colors as boldly designed as a costume, matched the choreographer’s shapes. He and the other dancers worked through each phrase, again and again, as Scarlett repeated and refined every step.

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