Ballet enthusiasts in New York have been hearing about the wonders of Liam Scarlett, the 27-year-old homebred choreographer for the Royal Ballet in London. But with this New York City Ballet commission, we finally got a good look.
Sharing the annual New Combinations bill with Italian Mauro Bigonzetti’s dumb, portentous 2002 Vespro and Frenchman Angelin Preljocaj’s gratifyingly witchy, innocently avant-garde Spectral Evidence from last year, the Briton’s Acheron was the sole premiere and the only piece to exploit ballet’s penchant for grand scale.
The 17-person work harmonised corps with principals to evoke the crepuscular near-underworld of its title: according to the ancient Greeks, the river Acheron separated the land of the living from the home of the dead. Scarlett’s corps lay down like so much flotsam and wafted their arms like reeds swayed by the current. They flitted onstage from opposite wings, their bodies interlacing in patterns of dark and light, mass and negative space. In another variation on “shadow”, the corps played the principals’ less substantial doubles.
In conjuring a liminal world, Scarlett also invented an apt movement language for it – a study in organic decay. Straight legs inevitably retracted; overhead arms remained soft as hanging vines; the principal couples – wearing Scarlett-designed costumes, which bleed dark purple until it becomes lilac – pulled away from each other as prelude to swirling together.
But Scarlett’s talent for smoothing over the edges turns out to be a weakness too. Of the three major couples, Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar may have specialised in razzle-dazzle, Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in dynamic range, and Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle in the meltingly erotic, but what stood out was their interchangeability. Likewise, Scarlett’s treatment of Poulenc’s compelling hodgepodge of an organ concerto. He used the 1938 music’s odd alternations between churchy blasts and movie caper melodies as mere cues for transitions.
In short, Acheron lacked drama, suggesting a choreographic sensibility both singular and bland. On the other hand, the ballet does take place on the threshold of endless death: not a state known for its thrills. So we impatient New Yorkers may have to wait for Scarlett’s next creation – set above ground this time, I hope – before taking his measure.