Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel Program Notes

By Caitlin Sims

Liam Scarlett’s premiere for San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 Season has a similar dark beauty as his 2016 Frankenstein, an epic retelling of Mary Shelley’s macabre novel. And similarly, this new ballet draws inspiration from another artist’s work: in this case Rachmaninoff’s brooding and hypnotic symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, itself based upon a painting of the same name. (Die Toteninsel is the German name of these works.) Scarlett uses the music and its history as a jumping off point for a more abstract work exploring the deep-rooted questions about what lies beyond this life. If Scarlett’s Frankenstein was a choreographic novel, his new ballet is more a short story—in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations.

Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett's Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

Rachmaninoff’sThe Isle of the Dead was itself inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting of the same name. In Böcklin’s work, a solitary boat bearing an oarsman, a shrouded figure, and a coffin traverses whisper-still water toward an island of rocky cliffs and rectangular portals encircling a grove of tall cypresses. A commission from a German widow, who asked Böcklin to repaint an unfinished painting of an island and add the figures in a boat, The Isle of the Dead was such an immediate success that he painted several additional versions.

Böcklin’s illumination of a mysterious island that seems not entirely of this world resonated powerfully and, with the advent of mass-produced lithography, reproductions were pervasive by the early 20th century. Russian novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote that The Isle of the Dead could be found “in every Berlin home” in his novel Despair. Freud had one in his office, Lenin had one above his bed, and (decades after Böcklin’s death) Hitler paid a high sum for one of the originals.

Böcklin's Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

“I’m always first drawn to the music,” says Scarlett, who has a deep appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s works. The music opens quietly with a slow build, all low strings and apprehension. There’s a 5/8 time signature, an uneven tempo that contributes to a feeling of restlessness and foreboding. “Like waves lapping,” says Scarlett, “or breathing in and out, or a heartbeat. There’s a definite and then a faltering step. By putting that second beat on different accents, time shifts and is not as we know it.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “If you’re making a journey to somewhere that’s not in this life, then who’s to say what time is?”

The tempo colors Scarlett’s choreography as well, as it’s not a common time signature for ballet. “Finding steps to go into five counts switches on a different way of thinking,” says Scarlett. “But once you get that rhythm, it sets [the choreographic process] up from the beginning.” Scarlett draws upon the music’s repetitiveness in creating movement that grows and builds, then unexpectedly echoes itself. As a central couple emerges, surging forward and sweeping back in great arcs, their movements are reflected by groups that form and dissipate as easily as waves, giving the ephemeral “a sense of weight, and passing through one another,” says Scarlett.

In rehearsal, Scarlett moves through the room, encouraging dancers to think about how to shape and extend movement phrases. “When you move bigger and slower, you see everything,” he explains. “When you make sure that you enable every fiber of your body, it’s much more visceral and beautiful. It’s a matter of accentuating everything that you do just a tiny bit more.”

Liam Scarlett rehearsing his Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

There’s a softness to Scarlett’s movement that heightens the ballet’s otherworldly feel. “It’s like water and how you move underwater,” he explains. “When gravity is diminished and time is warped into something else, then you don’t need to adhere to the same rules. You twist them a bit, so it’s clear we’re somewhere else.” Exactly where that is will also be up for interpretation. “Everyone has wondered, “What’s the next thing after this life?’” says Scarlett. “Thinking about it raised a lot of questions for me, and I put those questions in the piece.” He smiles enigmatically. “But I haven’t necessarily answered them.”

Header image: Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

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