Liam Scarlett in rehearsal for The Age of Anxiety in 2014. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy The Royal Ballet.

Why Blaming Liam Scarlett’s Death on Cancel Culture Is Troubling

Earlier this month, the ballet world awoke to reports of the unexpected passing of the British choreographer Liam Scarlett. He had just turned 35; shortly afterward, his family put out a statement confirming "the tragic, untimely death of our beloved Liam," and asking that the public respect their privacy.

Social media didn't tread quite so carefully. For days after, speculation about the circumstances of Scarlett's death abounded, alongside tributes to his gifts. After a charmed decade as a rising star of the ballet world, allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2019, when The Royal Ballet was alerted to concerns related to students at The Royal Ballet School. After an internal investigation, in March 2020, the company declined to pursue legal action but stated that it would no longer employ Scarlett.


A number of other companies followed suit and dropped his work from their repertoire, including Australia's Queensland Ballet, where he had been artistic associate. Shortly before Scarlett's death, the Royal Danish Ballet also announced that his Frankenstein—scheduled for 2022—had been canceled following another investigation, which found evidence of "unacceptable behavior" by Scarlett during rehearsals in Copenhagen in 2018 and 2019.

Suicide is how Scarlett's death is being discussed, although his family has not confirmed it as the cause of death. I'm not going to hazard guesses based on this chain of events, as only those closest to Scarlett can speak to his state of mind over the years. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has sound advice on the matter: "Avoid reporting that a suicide death was 'caused' by a single event, such as a job loss or divorce, since research shows no one takes their life for one single reason, but rather a combination of factors."

In that sense, the idea that "cancel culture is killing," as the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky put it in a widely shared social media post, with dozens of major dance artists weighing in and indicating their approval, is a troubling simplification. First, "canceling" is a vague concept, applied to anything from social media slip-ups to proven assault. While some harmful tropes associated with it, such as essentialism and the lack of forgiveness, have been well analyzed by the vlogger and philosopher Natalie Wynn, among others, it doesn't mean there should be no consequences in the case of allegations that are difficult to prove, as sexual misconduct ones are by nature.

Statements like Ratmansky's also place a burden of guilt on victims who may have come forward during the investigations, at a time when the ballet world is finally reckoning with the way it has normalized abuse over time. Based on its press statement, the Royal Danish Ballet identified clear-cut issues. The Royal Ballet's 2020 statement was carefully worded to say "there were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of the Royal Ballet School," but neither confirmed nor denied the allegations first made public by The Times, some of which involved company members.

Multiple things can be true at once: It is possible for Scarlett to have been a stunningly precocious choreographer and beloved colleague to many, and for him to have been an employee whose behavior led directors to opt for caution. There is no doubt that he was hugely talented. His first main-stage work for The Royal Ballet, 2010's Asphodel Meadows, immediately stood out as an extraordinary debut, full of sculptural light and shade.

In the decade that followed, he made narrative as well as abstract ballets for companies around the world, and tried his hand at several evening-length productions. Frankenstein, a co-production between The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, is the most well-known, but I'd argue his Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Dangerous Liaisons for Queensland Ballet and Texas Ballet Theatre, which I saw in Australia in 2019, were among his finest achievements.

When it came to the misconduct allegations, however, there may have been reasons on all sides to avoid going to court. Parting ways discreetly with an employee without opening a company up to lawsuits is a common corporate strategy, and victims don't owe us their accounts of abuse.

Was it an ideal basis for companies other than The Royal Ballet to drop Scarlett's works? No, and not all of them did: He worked with Munich's Bayerisches Staatsballett in the fall and was due to revive A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Zealand next winter. But if you were an artistic director in 2020, and had probable cause to worry about a guest artist's impact on the dancers in your care, what would you do?

Bruno Bouché, the artistic director of France's Ballet du Rhin, found himself in that situation a few years ago. After initiating talks with one choreographer, he was alerted to the fact that the artist in question had repeatedly harassed female dancers during past engagements. He privately reached out to victims and, after hearing their accounts, declined to hire the choreographer.

"My priority is to protect the dancers and the company," he says. Bouché, a former dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet, adds that he had firsthand experience of sexual harassment as a young corps member. "It paralyzes dancers, especially teenagers who are faced with one of their idols. You lose your bearings and wonder: Did that person like me for my dancing, or for another reason?"

Bouché now worries that reactions blaming cancel culture for Scarlett's death will set back recent efforts to protect dancers and redress power imbalances in the studio. "The end can never justify the means," he says.

Was Scarlett's case handled correctly by The Royal Ballet and other companies? It's impossible to tell without firsthand knowledge of the initial investigation and other testimonies. The lack of institutional transparency here, as in the case of Peter Martins, who left New York City Ballet in 2018 despite the company stating that accusations about him were "not corroborated," ultimately does everyone a disservice. If a mistake or a failing is never even acknowledged, what path is there to rehabilitation? What's left instead is a limbo—much like the Asphodel Meadows, the in-between part of the ancient Greek underworld Scarlett once explored so eloquently.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Resources for friends and family members, survivors and others are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.


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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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