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After a Choreographer’s Suicide, Ballet Confronts Tough Questions

MUNICH — The choreographer Liam Scarlett’s “With a Chance of Rain,” a lush, expansive ballet set to a melodic Rachmaninoff piano score, would hardly seem a risky piece of programming. But it was still notable when the Bayerisches Staatsballett performed it last weekend at the Cuvilliés Theater in Munich.

The company is one of the few to continue to present work by Scarlett, who was a precociously successful choreographer when he committed suicide in April, at 35, after several prominent institutions cut ties with him in the wake of accusations of misconduct.

His death shocked and divided the dance world, even though many details remain unknown. The Royal Ballet in London, which suspended him and began an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct involving students at its school, said last year that it had found “no matters to pursue” but that Scarlett would “no longer work with, or for, the Royal Ballet.” Other companies, too, parted ways with him: His death was announced the same day that the Royal Danish Ballet said it was canceling his full-length ballet “Frankenstein,” citing other allegations of misconduct.

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.

Scarlett’s rise to choreographic prominence was as fast as his fall from grace. A former Royal Ballet dancer, he won acclaim early with his debut work, “Asphodel Meadows,” in 2010 for the Royal Ballet, and became its artist-in-residence in 2012. While still in his 20s he was attracting commissions from major companies all over the world.

Then came the allegations and, later, the jolting news of his death, in April. Although no cause of death was given at the time, a coroner’s report in May confirmed widespread speculation that it was a suicide. And while it can be difficult to say why someone commits suicide — experts agree that suicide is not occasioned by a single event, but by complex accumulations of elements — the dance world teemed with opinions and theories.

Reactions were complicated by the ambiguity of the Royal Ballet’s statement, which, as Luke Jennings wrote in a recent essay in The London Review of Books, found Scarlett “innocent and guilty at the same time,” declaring that there was nothing untoward to pursue while cutting ties with him.

On Saturday, the Royal Ballet reiterated that the investigation had “found that there were no matters to pursue in relation to students at the Royal Ballet School” but added that “this was only part of the matters under investigation.” The company said that it would be “inappropriate for us to comment further on the specifics of the investigation.”

There’s still much that we don’t know: why the Royal Ballet ended its relationship with Scarlett, or the particulars of the allegations regarding the students. Scarlett never spoke publicly about those allegations, the Royal Ballet has refused to comment further, and none of the students have come forward. Nor do we know the specifics of what happened at the Royal Danish Ballet, although Kasper Holten, the director of the Royal Danish Theater, spoke in general terms of Scarlett’s “unacceptable behavior” and of prioritizing “the well-being and safety of our employees.”

In an interview, Igor Zelensky, the director of the Bayerisches Staatsballett, said he had been talking to Scarlett about staging a piece in Munich for years. They agreed on “With a Chance of Rain” early last year, with the prospect of Scarlett later creating a full-length work for the company.

“Then after the whole thing happened with him, the agreement with me stayed,” Zelensky said. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really follow it. I wasn’t into the details, although Liam told me the Royal Ballet didn’t want to work with him. He said, ‘I am going through difficulties emotionally.’”

The dance critic Graham Watts, writing in the Spectator magazine, said: “Scarlett’s career was effectively ended without a trial or any transparent due process. A duty of care to students should be at the highest level of secure robustness, but a duty of care to the accused is also required.”

Others were more impassioned. The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, expressing his shock at the news on social media, blamed Scarlett’s death directly on cancel culture. “I did hear one director saying: ‘I can’t program his ballets, I’ll be eaten alive,’” Ratmansky wrote. “Liam knew he has no future as a choreographer. That killed him. It should not have happened. This cancel culture is killing.”

Others argued that this was too simple, effectively blaming the victims of abuse — and the company directors who were trying to protect them — as they attempted to speak out about long-buried but persistent issues. “My thoughts are with the few ballet leaders who have the courage to reverse centuries of ballet tradition, who are working hard to prioritize the dancers over the dances, the artists over the art, the workers over the work,” Chloe Angyal, the author of “Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself,” wrote in an online essay.

In his article, Jennings suggests that Scarlett was replicating his own experiences of abuse, quoting an unnamed Royal Ballet dancer who describes Scarlett’s actions as “learned behavior.” The implications in these arguments are of systemic dysfunctional power dynamics in the ballet world that go beyond any single case.

Those dynamics aren’t new in ballet — or in any field where, as Jennings puts it, “isolation from the outside world and a highly competitive atmosphere create conditions in which the powerful can behave toward the young with impunity.”

What has changed — in ballet and elsewhere — is the power of social media to transmit news at lightning speed, to amplify voices and acquire the power to condemn. Despite the Royal Ballet’s silence about the reasons for Scarlett’s departure, chatter on social media was enough to establish widespread judgment and rumor about his actions.

Zelensky, who seems impervious to such judgments — he hired the star dancer Sergei Polunin when other companies wouldn’t after Polunin abruptly left the Royal Ballet and made provocative statements about liking drugs — said that he hadn’t asked his dancers how they felt about working with Scarlett or performing his ballet, and that the company hadn’t encountered any negative media or public reactions.

And some of his dancers expressed their support for staging Scarlett’s work. “I feel, who are you to judge someone else, especially when you have no knowledge?” said Laurretta Summerscales, a principal dancer, who added that she had “a really good time” working with Scarlett when she was a member of English National Ballet, and had been happy to work with him again, when he came to stage the ballet last year.

Madeleine Dowdeny, a corps de ballet member, who had worked with Scarlett at the Royal Ballet School, said that the dancers “tried to keep it very professional.” They knew “there might be talk” about working with him, she said. “But that was out of our control.”

Both dancers talked about Scarlett’s musicality and the pleasure of dancing “With a Chance of Rain,” an elegiac work for eight dancers set to six Rachmaninoff Preludes and an Elegy for piano. The piece, first created for American Ballet Theater in 2014, has no discernible narrative, but a bare-chested man (Emilio Pavan), who first moves amid the scattered ensemble on a darkly lit stage, is an enigmatic central figure around whom the action seems to crystallize and dissolve.

Scarlett’s skill in creating complex, ever-changing groupings with seamless fluency is notable, as is the inventiveness of the partnering work. The final sections are more melancholy; a double pas de deux mutates into a duo that ends on a note of uncertainty — on a darkening stage, Pavan stretches his hand forward beseechingly with a woman at his feet.

A ballet can be many things and have many meanings: personal, public, symbolic, unconscious. There will doubtless be more dance world conversations about the appropriateness of performing Scarlett’s work in the future. Has the Bayerisches Staatsballett led the way? Will the choreographer’s death soften public perceptions? Who gets a second chance? Time and programming will tell.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.


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