Brilliant British choreographer Liam Scarlett has a winning way with the fairies in a sparkling interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream

Brilliant young English choreographer Liam Scarlett, 29, is keenly sought after on international stages and already seen as classical ballet's great hope for the future.

Scarlett has previously showed a penchant for dark and dirty drama. His first works for the Royal Ballet included Asphodel Meadows, a melancholic piece on mortality referencing a mythological underworld place peopled by the lost souls of the dead. Sweet Violets was an equally grim study of Jack the Ripper, seen through the obsessive eyes of artist Walter Sickert.

But in his latest work, a full-length production and a distinct coup for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Scarlett shows he also has a winning way with the fairies. His A Midsummer Night's Dream promises all the magic, mayhem and wit of Shakespeare's play, sumptuously set in a fabulous fairyland.

"Fairies were not at the top of my list when Ethan Stiefel [then artistic director of the company] first approached me," he says. "The Frederick Ashton production came to the forefront of my mind. I was definitely sceptical."


But on further consideration he decided it would be "a good challenge to do something not chosen by myself". And he is very pleased with that decision. "It has been the most fun," he declares. "We have laughed every day and I have been coming out with things that are so new for me, so different."

On opening night, in Wellington's St James Theatre, the curtains went up on a spectacular fairy glade with overhead canopy, its deepest green and midnight blue woodland awash in moonlight, with acorn-shaped nooks and crannies providing secret fairy beds. A subtle swathe of tall stemmed flower buds are already closed for the night - apart from one special bloom which ultimately provides the spell so vital to Puck's error, the lovers' confusions, Titania's ultimate humiliation and Bottom's beautiful, if donkey-shaped, dream.

The set and costumes come courtesy of master designer Tracy Grant Lord. The all-important lighting, catching every dewdrop and tinsel-tipped wing, is by Kendall Smith. Scarlett has maintained Mendelssohn's dramatically articulate score, written in 1824 as an overture to the play, with other works by Mendelssohn added to cover a full-length ballet.

Grant Lord began her collaboration with Scarlett in May 2014, meeting him twice in London at that time and continuing the design dialogue by Skype and email.

"Liam has a very fine aesthetic," she says, "which made it easy. He knew what he wanted, the world he wanted to create - which was a forest dell. He wanted Oberon to be able to oversee everything going on in his kingdom; he wanted the fairies to be able to appear from everywhere and to look as if they really might fly."

In response, Grant Lord has created gloriously ethereal tutus, sparkling with myriad crystals and with wings long enough to play with proportion, making the dancers appear even smaller and slighter than they already are. The four lovers, on safari in the forest, bring a far more down to earth flavour, the mechanicals, termed "rustics" in this production, are even more obviously of the land.

Scarlett has dispensed with Shakespeare's courtly opening scene and goes straight to the fairyland action, undaunted by the complexities of four interweaving plot lines in the original play. Neither is he daunted by working the classic comedy in a medium with no words.

"Body language is universal," he says. "And the meaning of a whole sentence by Shakespeare might be said with a single nod. Body language has to come from deep within the dancer, so something even deeper than what the spoken word conveys might be expressed."


He also emphasises that the work, "a masterpiece of literature and of theatre", has always been a play, not a book, and was always meant to be "played out for an audience".

His version certainly captures the pace of the original, building up to the frenzy in which Puck's mistake and the subsequent panic to resolve it are made, and without the momentum skipping over any of the "magical, fantastical and curious" aspects of the tale - or its humour.

Seven weeks is a very brief period to create a full-length ballet. It was down to solid work from day one. Casting was completed by Scarlett after sitting in on just one class and taking "about one hour in the studio, to do a few things". Who should be what was decided in about five minutes, he says. He works on instinct.

He similarly arrived with nothing - apart from the sort of magical world he wanted to create - premeditated or planned.

"What a shame to come in and impose things when all the tools, the dancers, are right there in front of you," he says. "Collaboration and drawing out what each dancer has to give is far more fruitful than some sort of 'show and tell'."

Tonia Looker dances the Titania role in the first cast and describes her character as multi-layered, not quite human but regal and stroppy enough to stand up to Oberon in their argument over the changeling boy in the first act. Then she has to portray a Fairy Queen totally in love with Bottom-as-donkey - and totally horrified when she wakes up, spell-free, the next morning to find a bumpkin in her bed.

Scarlett has been an inspiration, Looker says, and "everyone has loved working with him". She is not alone at being in awe of his intelligence, musicality, motivation and 100 per cent presence in the studio, and of his ability to demonstrate each and every role perfectly and then be able to draw that out of each dancer.

"He makes a section of choreography, doesn't take any notes, but remembers it perfectly forever," she says.

"It's an instinct thing," Scarlett confirms. "If it is right it comes from a very deep, primal place. Plus I do have a very strange, photographic memory. I only need to see a credit card number once, for example, and I remember it immediately."



A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the Royal NZ Ballet

Where and when:

Aotea Centre, Auckland, September 2-6; Civic Theatre, Rotorua, September 7; Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, September 16; Napier Municipal Theatre, September 19-20