In ballet, choreographic voices typically develop slowly, often following a dancing career. Not so with Liam Scarlett, whose rise was prodigious. At 24 his first Royal Ballet success, Asphodel Meadows, propelled him to international attention. “I’m trying to be the youngest choreographer to do everything,” he said in a 2012 interview, “before it runs out and I’m just – normal.”
He has died aged 35 of undisclosed causes, following the Royal Danish Ballet’s announcement that it had cancelled plans to stage his work on grounds of offensive behaviour. In August 2019 he was suspended by the Royal Ballet following allegations of sexual misconduct with his students, though without any specific circumstances being disclosed, and in March last year the company said that it would no longer work with him.
Born in Ipswich, Suffolk, Liam was the son of Laurence, a landscape gardener, and Deborah (nee Knipe), to whom he credited his love of music. He first took dance classes at four, and an early nativity play, he recalled, revealed a knack for “arranging people on stage nicely”. The Linda Shipton School of Dancing led, at 11, to the Royal Ballet school, where his choreography won several prizes.
In 2005 he joined the Royal Ballet as a dancer, but stopped seven years later, as commissions piled up. Having done time in the corps, he was generous in creating material for ensembles, sometimes using pennies on a cafe table to work out floor patterns. He played the piano and his striking musicality – “that’s my stamp that I like to put on a piece: that it somehow translates the music into real life” – and heightened lyricism gleamed in plotless works.
The early pieces Consolations and Liebestraum, and On Mozart were both nominated for National Dance awards, while Asphodel Meadows (2010) won a Critics’ Circle award. Set to Poulenc, its title refers to the classical Greek underworld and loss quivers through its pas de deux and ensembles. “The Royal may have found the real deal,” declared the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell. As the company’s first artist-in-residence, he produced works including the dynamic Symphonic Dances, marking the retirement of the ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky in 2017.
Immediately after the triumphant premiere of Asphodel Meadows, Scarlett crafted solos for young dancers in the Royal Academy of Dance’s Genée international ballet competition (he had competed himself, seven years earlier). Projecting confidence, he told an interviewer that he liked to put dancers at their ease and he seemed undaunted by challenges such as choreographing for his ballet school peers – “I loved shouting! I still do it now” – or for Royal Ballet principals .
Within months, the New York Times described him as “the new choreographic wonder boy of British ballet” when Miami City Ballet premiered the ferocious Viscera. Miami’s artistic director Edward Villella had caught a rehearsal of Asphodel Meadows and immediately commissioned its maker. Scarlett went on to make work for New York City and San Francisco Ballets and American Ballet Theatre, and in 2018 choreographed the ABT star Misty Copeland in the Disney film The Nutcracker and The Four Realms.
Scarlett’s regular colleagues included the composer Lowell Liebermann, designers John Macfarlane and Jon Bausor, and Royal Ballet dancers Steven McRae and Laura Morera. He told Dance Gazette: “Laura Morera is the reason that I choreograph,” while Morera compared their collaboration to “walking into a shop where everything feels tailor made for you; it fits perfectly and just suits you.”
Scarlett’s narrative ballets, always arrestingly designed, were flawed but fascinating, not least when delving into dark material. His seamy studio version of Hansel and Gretel (2013) placed the children in real peril from slatternly parents and more-than-sinister oddballs. Sweet Violets (2012) developed the theory that the artist Walter Sickert may have committed Jack the Ripper’s crimes, portraying rapacious misogyny running like a virus through Victorian manhood.
Every lift or spin was a toxic power move and Macfarlane’s designs drew on Sickert’s palette of sickly greys slashed by scarlet. A slaughterhouse red also dominated The Age of Anxiety (2014) – based on WH Auden’s poem of alienation in wartime Manhattan – which led its central quartet from a night on the tiles into bleary introspection.
For Queensland Ballet, who appointed him an artistic associate, Scarlett created a playful Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016, co-produced with Royal New Zealand Ballet), and an opulent Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2019) whose erotic power play began with a marquise having sex on her husband’s coffin. He and Bausor gave The Firebird (Norwegian Royal Ballet, 2013) what the Financial Times called “a Game of Thrones makeover” and in 2018 his Queen of Spades came up trumps for the Royal Danish Ballet. For English National Ballet’s 2014 programme marking the first world war, Scarlett’s No Man’s Land explored the aching gulf between troops in combat and the women left behind.
At the Royal Ballet, Frankenstein (2016) had a strong strain of loss: “isolation, abandonment issues and loneliness run through the story,” Scarlett said; it received mixed reviews. Perhaps his most ravishing collaboration with Macfarlane was their richly imagined Swan Lake (2018). A prologue showed power-hungry Von Rothbart snatching Odette’s crown and turning her into a swan, echoing contemporary stories of women silenced by masculine power.
Soon after Swan Lake’s first, warmly received revival in 2019, allegations emerged about Scarlett’s conduct over the previous decade, including inappropriate sexual behaviour and bullying at the Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School. Leading classical companies and vocational schools are coming under greater pressure on questions around safeguarding and accountability, either those coming forward or those accused. An independent investigation by the employment consultant Lucinda Harvey Associates found “there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School”, but neither discounted nor described the allegations. Scarlett made no public response and the ROH ended its relationship with him.
He is survived by his partner, the dancer Fernando Duarte, his parents and his brother.