Internationally renowned choreographer Liam Scarlett has died unexpectedly at the age of 35. Born in 1986, Scarlett started dancing at the age of 4 in his home town of Ipswich at the Linda Shipton School of Dancing, before joining The Royal Ballet Junior Associates when he was 8. He went on to train at the Royal Ballet School, graduating into the Royal Ballet in 2005. He showed a great deal of promise as a choreographer from an early age and whilst still at White Lodge, won both the Kenneth MacMillan and Ursula Moreton Choreographic Awards as well as being the first recipient of the De Valois Trust Fund Choreographers’ Award.
His speedy career trajectory with the Royal Ballet was driven by his obvious talent as a choreographer but he also danced a number of memorable solo roles. In 2008 he was promoted to First Artist and in 2012, retired as a dancer to focus on his choreography. In that same year he was appointed artist in residence by Director Kevin O’Hare. This was, in part, due to the resounding success of Asphodel Meadows, which he created for the main stage in 2010, at the age of 24 (while Monica Mason was still Director). An abstract work to Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto, it won plaudits from all quarters of the industry, was nominated for South Bank and Olivier Awards and won a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award. His ability to interpret music with such a visceral, emotive sense of understanding gave his dancers a chance to discover the many layers of musical expression. Other Royal Ballet creations most notably include Sweet Violets, The Age of Anxiety, his full-length Frankenstein (a co-production with San Francisco Ballet) and Symphonic Dances which he created especially for Zenaida Yanowsky to mark her retirement in 2017. In 2018 he staged a new Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet, the first for 30 years, receiving acclaim for his contrasting approach, combining a strong sense of classical tradition with more contemporary character and story developments.
As well as creating ballets for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School he was commissioned to choreograph and re-stage works across the world for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet, and K-Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Queensland Ballet, Bayerisches Staatsballett and in the UK, for English National Ballet (his exceptionally moving No Man’s Land for the Lest We Forget programme), BalletBoyz and Ballet Black.
In an outpouring of grief, dancers and colleagues have expressed their deep sadness at his passing as well as an appreciation for the opportunities he offered to explore the depth of each character within his narrative ballets alongside his original, lyrical and innovative style of movement. Most say that it was a collaborative style of working, that he instinctively understood the different qualities of the individual artist and brought this out during the creative process. Right across the board, he has been singled out for his extraordinary and innate musicality which must surely have contributed to the huge success of his choreography. Another of his assets was being able to tell a story, at a period in time when many choreographers have chosen to avoid narrative works. He did not retreat from powerful and explicit scenes, but boldly presented the raw truth.
Following allegations of misconduct and a long investigation which concluded that “there are no matters to pursue in relation to Royal Ballet School students” – his tenure as artist in residence at the Royal Opera House ended in 2020. The very recent cancellation of his Frankenstein for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2022 has led to much speculation as to the cause of his death, which remains unconfirmed. It is a tragic loss of a prodigious talent.
He is survived by his partner Fernando Duarte, his parents and his brother.
Liam Scarlett, born April 8 1986, died April 16 2021
By Deborah Weiss