Culture Trips

Liam Scarlett: the British choreographer who has died aged 35 | Dance

For a decade Liam Scarlett, who has died aged 35, was a major figure in British and international ballet, in demand by companies around the world. He created a full-length Frankenstein production for the Royal Ballet and was given the great responsibility of mounting its new version of Swan Lake. After allegations of sexual misconduct at the Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School, the company severed ties with him; an independent investigation found there were “no matters to pursue” in relation to students.

Liam Scarlett dancing in La Fille Mal Gardée at the Royal Ballet.
Liam Scarlett dancing in La Fille Mal Gardée at the Royal Ballet. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images

Scarlett began his career as a dancer, but his precocious choreographic talent was clear even as a student at the Royal Ballet School, winning the Kenneth MacMillan and Ursula Moreton Choreographic awards. While a member of the Royal Ballet company, that potential was recognised and nurtured by then artistic director Monica Mason (and later her successor Kevin O’Hare).

With the one-act work Asphodel Meadows in 2010, Scarlett arrived seemingly fully formed on the Royal Opera House’s main stage at the age of 24. It was a piece of abstract neoclassicism, elegant, lyrical, romantic and sensitively in tune with Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. What made Scarlett’s work stand out was the great craftsmanship in his choreography, not only in the individual detail of steps, but in his ability to handle large ensembles with symphonic skill, to step back and see the patterns of the whole stage. The qualities seen in Asphodel Meadows were to set the tone for Scarlett’s future creations, and it was also the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with designer John Macfarlane, who created atmospheric, painterly backdrops and detailed sets for a number of Scarlett’s works.

In 2012, aged 26, Scarlett retired as a dancer to concentrate on choreography and became artist in residence at the Royal. Mason had already recruited the radical contemporary choreographer Wayne McGregor, but Scarlett provided a worthy contrast, picking up the thread of classicism in a way that delighted audiences seeking beautiful lines and rich 20th-century scores.

Scarlett’s ability was quickly noted elsewhere and he accepted commissions from San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and Queensland Ballet. In the UK he made the moving and very well received No Man’s Land for English National Ballet’s first world war centenary programme, and the luscious Serpent for BalletBoyz, inching into contemporary dance territory.

Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House in 2018.
Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The young choreographer made a huge number of works in a short space of time. He worked quickly and he knew what he wanted; he was very certain in his creative vision, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of more involved narrative works, which could have benefited from an outside eye. But Scarlett’s ambition to investigate psychological as well as choreographic complexity was clear, first in 2012’s Sweet Violets, inspired by painter Walter Sickert’s Jack the Ripper obsession, and then a nightmarish Hansel and Gretel (2013), before his Frankenstein in 2016. There he took on the challenging task of evoking the romance, horror and suspense of Mary Shelley’s novel while seeking to find empathy with each of the leading characters, with mixed results.

You could not question Scarlett’s seriousness of intention – he was unafraid of a difficult text or score, even if he was sometimes caught up too much in his admiration for it to be able to find a way to re-envisage it for the stage. The Age of Anxiety (2014) was based on WH Auden’s long, difficult poem of the same name and set to Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony; it again showcased his craft, and drew fine performances from its leading dancers, especially Bennet Gartside as Quant. In 2017 he made Symphonic Dances, tackling Rachmaninoff, to showcase principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky in her farewell performances. Without drastically changing the original template of Swan Lake, Scarlett made sound dramatic interventions in his version, including a confident reworking of the ballet’s ending, suggesting a developing directorial maturity.

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