The Atlanta Ballet closes out its 89th season with the driving momentum of “Catch,” a world premiere by English choreographer Liam Scarlett, a rising star on the international ballet scene.
Created in less than three weeks, the new ballet promises a flurry of dancers moving through swinging lifts and spinning counterbalances punctuated by crisp balletic lines to the driving pulse of Philip Glass’ music performed live.
“It is a fast-paced piece in every aspect,” said Scarlett, four days into rehearsals.
“Catch” shares a bill with Gemma Bond’s “Denouement” and Kiyon Ross’ “Sum Stravinsky” for a program titled “Director’s Choice,” running May 10-12 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
A prodigy now seven years into his career as a full-time dance-maker, Scarlett, 33, is one of the ballet world’s busiest choreographers. In addition to working freelance for top-tier ballet companies, he is artist in residence at England’s Royal Ballet and as artistic associate of Australia’s Queensland Ballet.
“Catch” comes at the end of a long stint of premieres, most of them narrative ballets with literary inspirations ranging from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ “Dangerous Liaisons.” To sustain a narrative arc, such works require intense concentration.
For his final spring project, Scarlett decided to let loose and make “Catch” a plotless ballet, focusing on pure movement and music, highlighting the brilliance of ballet’s athleticism. It’s a freeing choice that opens up worlds of possibilities and allows him to draw more inspiration from the music and dancers’ individual talents and personalities.
Dressed in black athletic wear and black ballet shoes, and sporting a short-cropped beard and tight curls, Scarlett conducted a recent rehearsal with a mix of youthful joy and seasoned wisdom. Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 provided rolling momentum as dancers Jackie Nash and Jacob Bush moved through a pas de deux, with Scarlett stopping them periodically to revise and refine.
“Be braver in terms of letting it fall,” Scarlett advised Nash on getting into a lift. Nash arched upward and threw herself backwards. As Bush caught her, the impetus sent the two spinning together through space like a pair of skaters, centrifugal force pulling Nash’s legs outward, her toes skimming the floor.
The genesis of “Catch” can be found in “Hummingbird,” another high energy, non-narrative thematic work that Scarlett created in 2014 for the San Francisco Ballet, where Atlanta Ballet artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin was then principal dancer and originated one of the roles. Upon Nedvigin’s appointment to the Atlanta Ballet, he hoped to bring “Hummingbird” into the company repertoire, but the San Francisco Ballet had exclusive rights to it. So Scarlett offered to make another piece in a similar vein for the Atlanta Ballet, also to music by Philip Glass.
With any new commission, Scarlett aims to draw out dancers’ individual personalities, ideas and unique talents, but until his arrival last month, he hadn’t seen the new young dancers brought on to replace the majority of senior company members who departed the Atlanta Ballet when Nedvigin took the helm.
But Scarlett has turned the company’s general youthfulness, and the naivete that comes with youth, to an advantage. “You have more of a blank canvas to be able to just try anything without any kind of preconceived notions,” he said. “There’s a vulnerability and honesty, which works both ways, from my side and from their side.”
When casting “Catch,” Scarlett sought dancers with distinct personalities an audience can relate to. “I don’t want (them) to just be factory carbon copies of one another,” Scarlett said. “That’s incredibly dull for me.”
Scarlett started the three-week process by throwing a lot of material at the dancers “just to see how they would react, and what they came up with,” he said. “It’s like saying a sentence very quickly and then asking someone to repeat it. It’s strange what people grasp onto, and I think that’s where the piece was starting to come from.”
Sometimes, Scarlett would explain a movement to the younger dancers, and because of their inexperience, they would do something completely different, and “usually better,” Scarlett said, with a modest laugh. “They throw themselves into it a little bit more.”
At one point, Scarlett demonstrated a lift with a young female dancer. She lost control and in one heart-racing moment, swung downward, her head passing just inches from the floor, before he saved the lift and the two of them landed gracefully. Scarlett liked what he saw in the mirror and incorporated elements of the lift into the dance.
Back in rehearsal, a free-flowing stream of ideas seemed to intertwine both Scarlett’s and the dancers’ impulses. Glimpses of a European contemporary style and flashes of Bob Fosse jazz flowed together with risky lifts and classical poses pulled off-balance.
“It’s quite liberating after doing intense narrative works to just completely ‘let rip’” Scarlett said. “It’s nice to kind of feel that abandonment, and once we do that, all I’m going to be saying to them is more, more, more.”
Presented by Atlanta Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 10-11; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, May 11-12. $25-$130. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, atlantaballet.com.
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