Graham Watts

What lessons are there from the tragic death of Liam Scarlett?

Liam Scarlett accepts the 'Best Classical Choreography' award during the 11th Annual National Dance Awards, picture credit: Getty

The death of Liam Scarlett was confirmed in a brief message from his family on 17 April. On the previous day, the Royal Danish Theatre had announced the withdrawal of the 35 year-old English choreographer’s Frankenstein from their coming season due to allegations of inappropriate behaviour dating back to 2018/19. It was the last of many such cancellations that had constituted Scarlett’s annus horribilis following the termination of his position as artist-in-residence at The Royal Ballet in March 2020.

John Macfarlane was Scarlett’s designer on Frankenstein and many other ballets and when I interviewed him just a few weeks’ ago, Macfarlane expressed the hope that these upcoming Copenhagen performances of Frankenstein would lead to a renaissance in Scarlett’s work being performed again. Linking the Danes’ axing of Frankenstein and the young choreographer’s death seems unavoidable.

Scarlett lived most of his short life within the institution of The Royal Ballet, entering the Lower School at the age of eight and graduating into the company in 2005. After a comparatively brief dancing career, he surrendered to the urge of choreographing full-time in 2012. His work garnered early acclaim with nominations for South Bank, Olivier and National Dance Awards (the latter won by his Asphodel Meadows in 2010) and his creativity was often tinged with darkness, obviously in Hansel and Gretel and Frankenstein but also in the paranoia that hallmarked The Age of Anxiety; and in the short-lived Sweet Violets, which linked the artist, Walter Sickert with Jack the Ripper.

After his stratospheric rise, Scarlett’s fall began in August 2019 when The Royal Ballet received allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards student dancers and he was suspended pending an independent disciplinary investigation. The news of Scarlett’s suspension was not made public until the following January and it was to be seven months after the inquiry was instigated that the Royal Ballet released a brief statement (23 March 2020) concluding that ‘there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School’.

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Written by
Graham Watts
Graham Watts is Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council; chair of the Industry’s Competence Steering Group; and co-lead of the Construction Leadership Council’s Building Safety workstream. He is also Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics’ Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards. He was appointed OBE in 2008.

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