About Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird

Liam Scarlet’s Hummingbird will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be part of Program 02, Classical (Re)Visions, onstage Feb 11, 12, 14, 16, 20, and 22.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

In today’s contemporary-ballet–minded world, it’s not often that you find a choreographer who unabashedly defends classicism. Enter Liam Scarlett, artist-in residence at The Royal Ballet since 2012. “The classical tradition is embedded in me,” says the choreographer, who trained at The Royal Ballet School. “I love working from where I’ve come from, using all the technique I’ve been taught and then trying to put a twist on it.”

In Hummingbird, the first work he created for SF Ballet, Scarlett shows his roots (the tradition) and perspective (the twist). Clearly built on classicism, and set to music by Philip Glass, Hummingbird is three-dimensional not only in terms of space but in Scarlett’s approach to movement. On a macro scale, there’s depth in how he uses levels and fills the space, complexity in his groupings and movement on and off the stage—a sense of fullness that’s also there on a micro scale, in the body. When he demonstrates a tiny twisting movement, you’d swear you could see his intercostal muscles engage. This is an artist who knows, with minute specificity, what he wants.

And what Scarlett wants is movement that comes from deep in the body. When he makes a miniscule adjustment in how a dancer originates a movement, the nature of the movement changes completely. It’s like altering one pixel and having the effect go widescreen. What he’s seeking is “something that’s breathing, from the lungs and from the heart, from the back,” Scarlett says. “Like an earthquake epicenter, it ripples out. It’s using your breath; it’s using your natural body rhythm. It has a human quality because it’s using everything you have.”

Dores André and Liam Scarlett rehearse Scarlett's Hummingbird in 2014 // © Erik Tomasson


Despite Scarlett’s attention to nuance, he works quickly, so much so that Soloist Sasha De Sola, who dances principal and soloist roles in the piece, says keeping up with him wasn’t easy. It was as if the choreography was “escaping from him,” she says, “and we were trying to catch it. He has a really good sense of dynamic and syncopation and things that make what could be simple steps much more interesting.”

For this commission, Scarlett chose what seems like, on casual listening, simple music, Philip Glass’ 2000 Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (so called because it was partially supported by the Tirol Tourist Board). However, when you listen to Tirol Concerto with a choreographer’s ear, it’s far from simple. “I think every choreographer should tackle a piece of Glass at some point,” Scarlett says. “It’s a complex, methodical, layered piece [with] different counterpoint melodies from what you’d expect.”

What drew Scarlett most was the second movement, which he describes as “beautiful and touching,” he says. “It has kind of a Ravel’s Bolero-style building and layering. De Sola calls the choreography for that movement “mesmerizing. I love how just the girls come out,” she says, “and we do very simple [steps], not really dancing, but hands and weight changes, wrist flicks and things we don’t often do in ballets.”

De Sola is talking about what Scarlett calls “heightened senses,” an elevation of the ordinary to something less tangible and attainable.  In part of the second movement, “the dancers are just walking,” he says, “but somehow it’s transcended into something more; it’s gone past ballet technique. It’s the subtleties of the simplistic stuff that I find fun to hone in on. I can spend hours on a look, or how you can get there. In essence, it’s trying to make it as real as possible, so that you do have moments of forgetting it’s a dance piece you’re watching, because it’s so human.”

Hear Scenic & Costume Designer John Macfarlane and Lighting Designer David Finn discuss the creation of Hummingbird, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, on the eve of its premiere in 2014.

Header image: Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Scarlett’s Hummingbird // © Erik Tomasson

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