Liam Scarlett’s family announced on Friday that the choreographer had died in his UK hometown of Ipswich. He had turned 35 just a week earlier. Scarlett had been for a decade one of the most feted young British choreographers both at home and abroad until allegations of sexual misconduct brought his career to an abrupt end.
His death has brought an outpouring of grief and soul-searching from many in the dance world, including from Alexei Ratmansky, widely considered to be the leading classical choreographer working today. On Sunday he wrote on Facebook: “How is it possible that the whole ballet world, all of us, turned our backs on such an amazing talent, forcing him to die so young?! Shame and sadness … RIP Liam.”
Liam Scarlett on the set on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Zealand. Photograph © Stephen A’Court
Scarlett’s home company had been The Royal Ballet, where he was a dancer for six years before retiring in 2012 to become the RB’s first Artist in Residence. The RB suspended him when allegations of impropriety involving students at the Royal Ballet School were first raised in August 2019. When the allegations became public in January 2020 an independent inquiry had been started but not yet released any findings. Queensland Ballet, where Scarlett held the title of Artistic Associate, rescinded his appointment at that time although it acknowledged it had known about the allegations for some months.
When he became QB’s Artistic Associate Scarlett had been expected to either re-stage one of his older works or create a new one for QB at least once a year. He was a frequent visitor to Brisbane, where there were no concerns aired about his conduct.
On April 19, 2021 Queensland Ballet issued a statement expressing sorrow at Scarlett’s death. Artistic Director Li Cunxin said: “The world has lost a creative light. We will miss our friendship dearly and our thoughts are with those he has left behind.” The statement said media reports that QB had broken ties with Scarlett were incorrect and that it had reconnected with the choreographer to discuss a potential digital relay of one of his works and were “in communication regarding ongoing rights to the beautiful ballets that are adored by our dancers and audiences alike”.
On January 30 last year, QB put out a statement saying it had “suspended all future engagements with Liam Scarlett pending the results of [the Royal Ballet] investigation. This includes the 2020 Melbourne Tour of Dangerous Liaisons.” Scarlett’s biography was removed from the QB website.
The inquiry’s conclusion, which took seven months to reach, was made public in March 2020. It found “there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School”, the RB announced. Nevertheless, the company held to its earlier decision that Scarlett would no longer be welcome on the premises and ended his role with the company. QB did not reinstate Scarlett.
The RB said other works he had made for the RB would not be performed, although the ban did not extend to the revival of Scarlett’s already sold-out production of Swan Lake, which went ahead that month (although the coronavirus pandemic cut the season short). The Royal Ballet said via social media on Saturday it was “deeply saddened” to hear of Scarlett’s death.
Other companies and organisations also excised Scarlett from their schedules, although in December the Staatsoper Ballet in Munich streamed a performance of his 2014 one-act work With a Chance of Rain, originally made for American Ballet Theatre. Royal New Zealand Ballet has programmed a revival of the choreographer’s 2015 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, due to start on October 28. Dream was a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which performed the work in 2016.
But cancellations continued. Shortly before Scarlett’s death it was announced that Royal Danish Ballet would not proceed with a planned staging in 2022 of Scarlett’s full-length Frankenstein. Kaspar Holten, Director of the Royal Danish Theatre of which the ballet is a part, was reported as citing allegations of misconduct towards staff members during rehearsals in 2018 and 2019. “We therefore do not wish to perform the works of the choreographer in question until further notice,” he said.
Scarlett’s talent was identified when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School. He juggled dance-making and performing with the Royal Ballet until becoming a full-time choreographer in 2012. He was quickly taken up by some of the world’s leading companies, including American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.
Scarlett’s prominence as a choreographer came early and he was given some big assignments. When the RB commissioned his Frankenstein he became the youngest choreographer asked to make a new full-length ballet for that company. A narrative work, Frankenstein has its flaws but nevertheless was received well by audiences in London and at co-producer San Francisco Ballet. His Swan Lake was given rapturous reviews on its premiere in London in 2018 and its brief revival last year.
Not everything he made was greeted with unalloyed joy but the consensus from the start was that he was a major talent whose musicality and love for ballet’s traditions augured well. As early as 2010, eminent British critic Clement Crisp wrote in The Financial Times: “Scarlett’s dances are a continuing joy, musically apt, fresh, yet firmly placed in a classic tradition. I admire his happy command of this language, and there are moments that tell of already sure resource in making emotional and dynamic points.”
In a statement from The Royal New Zealand Ballet, Artistic Director Patricia Barker and Executive Director Lester McGrath said: “The Royal New Zealand Ballet sends its deepest sympathy to the family and friends of choreographer Liam Scarlett. Like many in the international dance community, we were shocked and saddened to learn of his untimely death.”
“The company was privileged to work with Liam when he created his beautiful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2015. He was, quite simply, a joy to work with, and inspired everyone to give their very best. We are truly proud to be bringing A Midsummer Night’s Dream back to New Zealand this Christmas, but the performances will be bittersweet, knowing that Liam will not be with us again to share the magic.”
I interviewed Scarlett for The Weekend Australian in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2016, ahead of the premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The designer was distinguished New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord, who described the choreographer as “a complete dream to work with … Man, he’s so good, he’s so good.”
Scarlett was then 29, quite shy and private. He described himself to me as “too honest and too vulnerable”. In light of what happened later, it is poignant to re-read how he saw the next five years unfolding. He talked about his diary and the “little squares” that were mapping out his life. “It terrifies me sometimes,” he said. “I was planning something for 2019 last night. I have no idea what else I’ll be doing in four years but this square says I’ll be doing this. And there’s something in 2020. And there are things I don’t want to say no to. Opportunities come.”
This story was updated on 20 April after Queensland Ballet released its statement