Liam Scarlett, acclaimed British choreographer, dies at 35

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Liam Scarlett, acclaimed British choreographer, dies at 35
The choreographer Liam Scarlett works with members of the New York City Ballet in New York, Jan. 8, 2014. Scarlett, a British choreographer who won early acclaim both at home and internationally for his ballets, died on Friday at his home in Ipswich, England. He was 35. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Liam Scarlett, a British choreographer who won early acclaim both at home and internationally for his ballets, died Friday at his home in Ipswich, England. He was 35.

His death was confirmed in a statement from his family that did not specify a cause.

Scarlett, who was a dancer with the Royal Ballet in London before becoming its artist-in-residence in 2012, was suspended by the company in August 2019 in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct involving students at the Royal Ballet School. An independent seven-month investigation had found “no matters to pursue,” but Scarlett left his position in March 2020.

On Friday, the Royal Danish Ballet canceled a production of Scarlett’s ballet “Frankenstein,” due to be performed in spring 2022, following allegations of misconduct on his part toward members of the Royal Danish Ballet staff in 2018 and 2019.

Scarlett’s sudden downfall — in early 2020 he also lost a position as artistic associate at the Queensland Ballet in Australia — was as abrupt as his rise to choreographic fame. He created his first work for the Royal Ballet, “Asphodel Meadows,” in 2010, when he was 24 and still a member of the corps de ballet. It was immediately acclaimed as evidence of a major new talent.

“This is a work of astonishing maturity, and the skill and confidence with which Scarlett deploys his large cast promise great things,” Luke Jennings wrote in The Observer.

Scarlett’s command of the ballet vocabulary, together with his fresh, idiosyncratic use of gesture and partnering, made his work intensely appealing to ballet company directors in search of new pieces that fit a conventionally classical mold.

“The thing that is wonderful for a British audience is that Scarlett is steeped in the holy trinity: the 19th-century classical tradition, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan,” Debra Craine, the chief dance critic of The Times of London, said in a 2011 interview with The New York Times.

He was soon receiving commissions from companies all over the world, beginning with Miami City Ballet, after its director at the time, Edward Villella, saw a dress rehearsal of “Asphodel Meadows” while in London. His immediate response, he said in a 2011 interview, was “Wow.”

Reviewing “Viscera,” the piece that Scarlett subsequently created for Miami City Ballet, Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times in 2012 that its “images, constructions and textures” showed why Scarlett had “achieved the status of an important classical-ballet choreographer.”

Speaking of Villella to the Times in 2014, Scarlett said: “I owe Eddy a lot, because I was very aware that the American company directors would all be watching to see what the outcome would be. After that piece, everyone called.”

Scarlett ended his dancing career in 2012 and became the Royal Ballet’s first artist-in-residence the same year. Over the next seven years, in addition to creating numerous pieces for his home company, he choreographed works for the Norwegian National Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, English National Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Queensland Ballet, BalletBoyz and Texas Ballet Theater.

Although he tended to make abstract works when invited as a guest choreographer, his pieces for the Royal Ballet showed his predilection for narrative. With works like “Sweet Violets” (2012), a tale of Jack the Ripper and murder in Victorian England, “Hansel and Gretel” (2013) and “The Age of Anxiety,” a war-themed ballet based on the W.H. Auden poem of the same title and set to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Scarlett showed that he was part of a long tradition of dance drama at the Royal Ballet.

In 2016 he created his first full-length work, “Frankenstein,” a retelling of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel to a commissioned score by Lowell Liebermann. It garnered lukewarm reviews, both in London and when it was performed in 2018 by the San Francisco Ballet. His new version of “Swan Lake,” staged for the Royal Ballet in 2018, was received with more warmth.

“It is far from a radical reinvention — the setting and choreography stay close to the 19th-century original — yet it stands out from so many other Swan Lakes in its attention to dramatic detail,” Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian.

That same year, he choreographed the dance sequences in the Disney film “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” working with Sergei Polunin and Misty Copeland.

Liam Scarlett was born in Ipswich on April 8, 1986, the elder of two sons. “Dad is a graphic designer and a good painter, mum loves music, but no one worked professionally in the arts,” Scarlett said in a 2011 New York Times interview.

He started dance classes at a local church when he was 4, and his teacher encouraged him to audition for the Royal Ballet School associate program. At 11, he joined the Royal Ballet School’s junior division at White Lodge in Richmond Park.

After he participated in the school’s annual choreographic competition in his first year, Norman Morrice, a former Royal Ballet director who was the head of the school’s choreographic course, approached him and urged him to continue. Scarlett went on to win a prize for choreography every year at the school.

In his final years at the school, he created two works for its annual opera house performances, and after joining the Royal Ballet in 2004 he began to choreograph for the company’s annual Draft Works showcase. But he was still largely unknown when Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet’s director at the time, asked him to create a work for the company.

“I kept looking at his work and it kept bearing out the promise he had shown,” Mason said in a 2011 interview with The New York Times. “You want to give someone with particular talent the opportunity to see what they can do when they’ve really got a big chance.”

Scarlett’s survivors include his parents and his brother. Complete information on other survivors was not immediately available.

After the allegations of sexual misconduct became public in January 2020, the Queensland Ballet and other companies cut off ties with Scarlett. Two months later, the Royal Ballet said it had “no plans” to work with him in the future, although his “Swan Lake” remained on the schedule before the pandemic forced the Royal Opera House to shut down.

“We are deeply saddened to hear the news of Liam Scarlett’s death,” the Royal Opera House said on social media.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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