It is telling that in a recent press release from The Royal Opera House, the names of the choreographers of the cinema streaming programme are listed, except for one – that of Liam Scarlett.
There’s ‘Peter Wright’s spectacular production of The Nutcracker‘ and ‘Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet‘ but it states that Swan Lake is a ‘critically acclaimed production’ that features ‘spectacular designs by John Macfarlane’. Odd, no?
Liam Scarlett’s position with The Royal Ballet ended in March 2020 after he was accused of sexual misconduct. An independent investigation concluded there “were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of The Royal Ballet School”. Other companies also severed ties with him in a seemingly #MeToo pre-emptive strike, and, maybe unrelated to this, in April this year he was ‘admitted to Ipswich Hospital on 12 April due to a cardiac arrest following an attempted hanging’. He was 35. An ongoing inquest will conclude in November.
The lack of clarity around the incident – why sever ties when there were “no matters to pursue”? – has led to much supposition. Maybe The Royal Opera House will explain the details and all will be made clear, but currently conspiracy theorists have free rein.
Roslyn Sulcas, in an article for the New York Times written after this blog post first appeared, wrote:
Some in the ballet world saw these moves as a sign that dance companies were at last taking allegations of sexual misconduct seriously. Others saw them as evidence of cancel culture run amok.
Luke Jennings, former dance critic for The Observer newspaper, has interviewed parents, former students, and young dancers for an article for the authoritative London Review of Books. His fair considerations state that dancers were told to ‘watch out for Liam’ and he writes that Scarlett was ‘an inspired creator of abstract dance, but he wasn’t a storyteller’. But he also points out cause and effect, and exposes some dry rot in the basement of the institution. Jennings writes,
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.
He points out that this behaviour is by no means universal. A 21-year-old professional dancer who studied at White Lodge, the home of The Royal Ballet Lower School, told him:
There was a lot of rapey behaviour, but nothing was ever said, and no one was ever punished.
Yet a former Royal Ballet School student who attended the school for seven years told me,
I didn’t have any of these experiences. Don’t get me wrong – it was tough. Very. But “rapey”? No. Sex or sexual abuse was never used in the way [this article] suggests. The humiliation discussion is perhaps more complicated… but the developments in the school’s safeguarding awareness in the last 30 years is off the scale.
The Liam Scarlett situation was a disaster. It’s impossible to separate the individual from the institution and vice-versa, but many – 99%? – of the people who had the same education as Scarlett don’t behave the way he did. So is it all down to learned behaviour, or perhaps individual, adult choice is also a factor…
The 21-year-old professional dancer also told Jennings,
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 [nude] picture to get a role, you believe them.
Scarlett’s first contact with the Royal Ballet was at a summer school when he was nine, and two years later he arrived at White Lodge.
In one tragic quote, a corps de ballet member tells Jennings that when Scarlett entered The Royal Ballet he was ‘passed around like Manon. Everyone knew about it. Everything Liam was later accused of was done to him. It was learned behaviour’.
Behaviour that needs urgent addressing.
Read Luke Jennings’ article here:
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.