Luke Jennings, former dance critic for The Observer newspaper, has delved into the tragic life of the late choreographer, Liam Scarlett

Luke Jennings recently wrote the following in the London Review of Books. It’s a long read but well worth reading, especially for dancers who’ve suffered the struggle of reaching the top. 

When the Royal Ballet returned to Covent Garden earlier this year after fourteen months of cancelled shows and empty auditoriums, its public announcements were upbeat. The new season (which has just opened) would include world premieres by Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Kyle Abraham, alongside classic ballets by Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton. In May and June, ahead of the full reopening, the company streamed an online programme featuring choreographers closely associated with the Royal Ballet. One name was conspicuous by its absence: Liam Scarlett, the former Royal Ballet artist-in-residence. In March 2020, following accusations of inappropriate behaviour over the previous decade, the company had severed ties with him. Other companies followed suit. In April this year it was announced that Scarlett, who was 35, had died. An inquest opened in May and revealed that he had been ‘admitted to Ipswich Hospital on 12 April due to a cardiac arrest following an attempted hanging’. The inquest will conclude in November.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Scarlett were first made public in January 2020 in an article in the Times. Male students at the Royal Ballet School had accused him of inappropriate touching, commenting on students’ genitals in changing rooms, sexual messaging on Facebook and soliciting nude photographs (those who played along, it was claimed, were rewarded with roles in Scarlett’s ballets). The Royal Opera House press office responded with a statement saying ‘an independent disciplinary investigation’ had been opened in August 2019 and that Scarlett had been suspended at the same time. When the investigation closed in March 2020, the Royal Ballet announced that ‘there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School.’

The silence around the investigation and the circumstances of Scarlett’s departure from the company were met with anger in the ballet world. He had been found innocent and guilty at the same time, while the Royal Ballet, by some sleight of hand, had absolved itself of all responsibility. If there were ‘no matters to pursue’, why did it terminate its relationship with Scarlett? Was this a mutual face-saving exercise by which Scarlett agreed to leave in return for the company’s silence? Lucinda Harvey, whose HR consultancy carried out the investigation, declined to comment on whether its conclusions tallied with the Royal Ballet’s statement. And if the allegations spanned a period of ten years, why weren’t they investigated sooner? A former student at the school, Stephen, who was cast in a Scarlett ballet in 2017, told me he and other male students had been warned by a principal dancer of the company: ‘Watch out for Liam.’ He claims that ‘everyone knew’ that Scarlett behaved inappropriately with students at the school. ‘If I knew, I don’t see how Christopher Powney [director of the Royal Ballet School since 2014] didn’t.’

Dancers are often reminded that no individual is bigger than the Royal Ballet. To its admirers, the company represents dedication, rigour, sublimation of self and respect for tradition. There are few more exuberantly beautiful spectacles than its dancers in flight. They describe their sense of comradeship, the joy they take in their work, the ideals they share. But as directors, administrators and board members came and went during the many years I spent writing about ballet, the secretiveness of the company (which is publicly funded) and its excessive reverence for hierarchy and tradition remained unchallenged and unchanged. Ninette de Valois, who founded the Royal Ballet, always insisted on the primacy of the male dancer and the male choreographer. Ballet, she said, ‘has nothing to do with women except in a secondary role’. More than half a century later, choreographers still enjoy a level of autonomy, status and power unmatched in the ballet world, and the vast majority of them are, as they always have been, men.

The company demands absolute loyalty from its dancers, but doesn’t always respond in kind. In 2009, Xander Parish (a graduate, like Scarlett, of the Royal Ballet School) was stuck in the corps de ballet, lacking in confidence and unrewarded with solo roles. Talent-spotted by the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg, he moved to Russia in 2010, and has become one of the company’s stars. Since then, Parish has made overtures to the Royal Ballet, but they refuse to allow him to appear at Covent Garden. The reason, sources told me, is not a matter of scheduling but of petulance, of noses out of joint.

When he was nine, Scarlett attended a Royal Ballet summer school. Two years later he was admitted to its junior school, White Lodge, in Richmond Park. It’s an appropriately fairy-tale setting: deer are often visible from the ballet studio windows. Boys and girls who pass the exacting auditions, as Scarlett did, board at the school from the age of eleven and sleep in dormitories. Those who make it through the annual assessments compete at sixteen with young dancers around the world to attend the Upper School in Covent Garden. On graduation three years later they audition for classical dance companies from around the world: almost all say that their dream is to be accepted by the Royal Ballet.

White Lodge alumni recount stories of midnight feasts and inspiring teachers and the excitement of being a mouse in the Christmas production of The Nutcracker. Francesca Hayward, one of the finest dancers to have come through the school in recent years, has described a visit to White Lodge by Prince Charles while she was a pupil there, during which security dogs, nosing around in advance of the royal party, sniffed out her stash of forbidden chocolate. But there are other stories. Classical dance is fixated on youth, on yet to be fulfilled promise; it celebrates naivety. Its heroines – Clara in The Nutcracker, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet – are often poised between childhood and adulthood. In the early days of the company, which received its royal charter in 1956, Sleeping Beauty was its signature production. The prologue is a metaphor for the fashioning of a dancer. Fairies bestow gifts on the infant Aurora. These gifts, represented by a series of solo dances, are the qualities she will require as a princess: purity, grace, generosity, eloquence and authority. But the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of the fairy Carabosse, furious because she hasn’t been invited. Carabosse curses Aurora, and with her, every fledgling dancer. Enjoy your beauty and your status while they last, because one day they will be taken from you.

Every spring some of the children at White Lodge are ‘assessed out’, which is Royal Ballet-speak for asked to leave. ‘At assessment time everyone’s so stressed,’ Sarah, a former student there told me. ‘Everyone stops eating.’ (This isn’t just nerves. As the school’s guidance on eating disorders puts it, ballet dancers are ‘aesthetic athletes’ whose appearance ‘is a part of their performance’.) In any cohort, only a minority progress into the Upper School, and fewer still into the Royal Ballet itself. One mother, Fiona, kept a record of all the girls who started at White Lodge with her daughter in 2011. Of 21 pupils, a third were assessed out before the age of sixteen, and of the remaining fourteen only four continued to the Upper School. Three of the original group still dance professionally, with just one under contract to the Royal Ballet. At every step pupils are looking over their shoulder for Carabosse.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Ballet schools have always driven their pupils hard: they are preparing them for an unforgiving and fiercely competitive profession. But there’s a line between tough love and bullying. Former students and parents of children who attended the school during the past five years have described to me their experiences of harsh criticism, belittlement, name-calling, intimidation and body-shaming. Not all of the ballet staff act in this way, of course (the veteran teacher and former company dancer Anita Young is often singled out as ‘inspiring’ and ‘lovely’), but some are cited again and again as humiliating the children in their care.

‘When I started in Year Seven, I was very excited,’ Maria told me:

It was a beautiful place, so magical. Everyone there was in love with dance. But they crushed us. We were eleven years old and there was no kindness. They drew attention to us only to belittle us. I lost all confidence, and by the first term of Year Eleven, I knew I didn’t want to go on. One teacher in particular, when I left she gave me a letter saying that she thought I was special, and the harsh way she treated me was for my own good, but … she was just cruel.

Another former student, Susie, was considered one of the most promising dancers in her year according to various sources, until she hit puberty. The school ‘loves the skinnies’, her mother told me, ‘and she was the only girl in her class menstruating, for which they made no allowance at all. The teachers shouted at her for not smiling and called her fat. Eventually she told me: “Mum, I can’t bear it here anymore.” My daughter went from being a happy child to one who was almost suicidal.’ Emma, an experienced ballet teacher, works at a dance school unconnected to the Royal Ballet, but which regularly takes ex-White Lodge students. ‘We get the ones who’ve been assessed out, and when they come to us they’re trembling messes. The last three we took were all receiving psychiatric care. No art is worth that cost in children’s suffering.’

Maria, Susie, Emma, Fiona, Sarah and Stephen are pseudonyms. All of the many people interviewed for this piece asked to remain anonymous. In the dance world, they say, the Royal Ballet has a long reach. Susie’s mother made her feelings clear. ‘When the shit hits the fan about this organisation, and it will, very soon, I’ll stand up with everybody else. Until then, I’ve got a daughter to protect.’ The boys at White Lodge face their own challenges, as Stephen, now a 21-year-old professional dancer, described to me:

It’s drilled into you from day one. Don’t question anything. If someone’s older than you, they know better. If someone comes in and says it’s normal to send a picture to get a role, you believe them. At the same time you know deep down that the place is wrong on so many levels, with girls cutting themselves and stuff.

A former student who spoke to the Times claimed that Scarlett convinced him to send an intimate photograph. ‘As a dancer you are trained to say “yes” to everything … you can’t lose an opportunity, so when someone with a lot of power asks you to do something you are pre-programmed to do it.’ During Stephen’s time at the school, sexual contact between boys went unchecked. ‘There was a lot of rapey behaviour, but nothing was ever said, and no one was ever punished. It was not OK for boys and girls to get together sexually, but boy on boy happened all the time. Everything sexual had to be a secret. You were taught that you never, ever talked about it. In the school or in the company. Once you’ve joined the web, you can’t leave.’

In a 2008 interview for the Ballet Association, Scarlett told David Bain that he enjoyed his time at White Lodge ‘perhaps more than he should have’. He didn’t elaborate on what he meant by this. Scarlett won all the school’s choreographic prizes, and it was almost certainly this skill that gained him a place in the company in 2005. He was an engaging young man and a proficient performer, but he wasn’t principal dancer material and he knew it. The practice of taking promising male choreographers from the school into the company, even if they are less impressive dancers, is a long-standing one; I can find no record of the same privilege being extended to a female graduate, although they figure prominently on the school’s choreography prize boards.

Scarlett didn’t have an easy time at first. The technical standard of the company is sky-high and he found himself at full stretch. One corps de ballet colleague remembers him ‘really struggling, really suffering’ in Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous and told me he was picked on in rehearsals by a senior member of the company, a man with an established reputation for bullying younger dancers. Still worse, according to the corps de ballet member, Scarlett was ‘passed around like Manon’. ‘Everyone knew about it. Everything Liam was later accused of was done to him. It was learned behaviour.’

Scarlett was 24 when his first work appeared on the main stage at Covent Garden. Asphodel Meadows was an abstract work set to Poulenc’s double piano concerto. Its surface configuration was elegant, but it had a strong emotional undertow and paid homage to past choreographers, particularly Kenneth MacMillan and Antony Tudor; the way ahead, it seemed to suggest, didn’t have to entail a rupture with the past. Prestigious international commissions followed, and in 2012 Scarlett was appointed artist-in-residence at the Royal Ballet by Kevin O’Hare, who had just taken over as artistic director. Scarlett retired from dancing to devote himself to choreography, and O’Hare, in an affirmation of the company’s narrative tradition, announced his intention to commission a new three-act ballet every year.

Scarlett was an inspired creator of abstract dance, but he wasn’t a storyteller. His first major narrative work, Sweet Violets (2012), was a Grand Guignol ballet about Jack the Ripper and his victims. There were too many ill-defined characters and the plot was chaotic. Hansel and Gretel (2013) and The Age of Anxiety (2014) had similar problems. Meanwhile, the pure dance pieces he created for other companies, such as Viscera (for Miami City Ballet) and Hummingbird (for San Francisco Ballet), received admiring reviews. In London, the critics were less enthusiastic, and the collective unease came to a head in 2016 with his lavishly designed Frankenstein. Mark Monahan wrote in the Telegraph that ‘Frankenstein is the least enjoyable full-evening work I have ever seen the Royal Ballet perform. Given Scarlett’s repeated misfires with shorter narratives … it is beyond comprehension that … O’Hare then decided to entrust him with the Herculean challenge of a three-acter.’

O’Hare may have been keen to resurrect the Royal Ballet’s narrative tradition, but Scarlett wasn’t the only choreographer at the company’s disposal and at the very least he should have been encouraged to take outside advice: the choreographers both men most admired, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, sought help throughout their careers. Scarlett seems to have been encouraged to think of himself as a choreographic auteur. Frankenstein was followed, in 2017, by Symphonic Dances, an abstract work set to Rachmaninov. Lyrical and tender, shot through with melancholy, it was everything that Asphodel Meadows had promised. (These pieces, among the finest ballets created so far this century, have been removed from the company’s repertoire.) Despite his struggles with narrative works, it was announced that Scarlett was to choreograph and direct the Royal Ballet’s long-awaited new production of Swan Lake. The result, which premiered in 2018, was handsome but empty, demonstrating by now familiar deficiencies of plotting and character. The final act, in which Scarlett replaced the exquisite original choreography by Lev Ivanov with his own, was particularly dismaying. Unlike his abstract ballets, Scarlett’s Swan Lake remains in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Perhaps it was just too expensive to sacrifice.

The experiences described to me by dancers and former students echo those of young people at other artistic and sporting institutions, where isolation from the outside world and a highly competitive atmosphere create conditions in which the powerful can behave towards the young with impunity. Stephen told me it was clear to him as a boy at White Lodge that ‘avoiding scandal’ was more important than children’s well-being. ‘There’s a feeling that they can say what they like because it was said to them, and they’re OK. But they’re not OK.’ These problems are long-standing and widely known: Richmond social services investigated the school in 1995 and concluded that its methods ‘would not be tolerated anywhere else’.

To date, there have been no resignations, either at the company or the school, in light of the Scarlett affair. When asked for comment, the Royal Opera House said that they were ‘made aware of concerns about Liam Scarlett in August 2019’ and he was ‘immediately suspended’. Although the investigation into his conduct found ‘no matters to pursue in relation to students at the Royal Ballet School … this was only part of the matters under investigation and Mr Scarlett left the Royal Ballet in March 2020.’ They also stated that they ‘do not recognise the other claims you have put to us’ and that ‘the Royal Ballet has a code of conduct and other policies in place to ensure staff and visiting artists are always supported. We encourage anyone with concerns about behaviour to raise them immediately.’ The school did not provide a response for publication. It is unclear whether either institution is examining its practices in the light of the allegations against Scarlett or his death. His behaviour appears to have been egregious and exploitative, but his is not an isolated case. It is symptomatic of a culture that I have seen up close over many years, a culture that shaped and enabled him, that allowed for his own exploitation as a young man. It isn’t enough for the Royal Ballet merely to go through the motions of change in the hope that everything can stay the same.

photo: Richard Saker/The Observer

 

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