I have a ticket to Swan Lake… Personal thoughts on a moral dilemma (Contains Spoiler)

I have a ticket to Swan Lake. Based on the choreography by Petipa and Ivanov, this reworking by Liam Scarlett will be performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House this spring.  I saw Scarlett’s version on television on Christmas Day 2018. I thought it was brilliantly masterful. True to the magnificence of the original, Scarlett brought a freshness and vibrancy to the choreography. The ending where in death Odette regains her human form? Poignantly perfect and stunningly original. I couldn’t wait to see it live. But I am returning my ticket.

At the end of last month news broke that Scarlett faces allegations of sexual misconduct against students at the Royal Ballet School spanning 10 years. There are further allegations of bullying artists at the Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet became aware of this in August 2019 and Scarlett was suspended pending investigation. However, the Royal Ballet School was only informed in January. At the time of writing, four ballet companies, including the internationally renowned San Francisco Ballet, have suspended their professional associations with Scarlett and cancelled forthcoming productions of his work. By contrast, the Royal Opera House confirmed that the production of Swan Lake this spring will go ahead. The response of the Royal Ballet and the delay informing the Royal Ballet School do not sit well with me. 

Everyone, including Scarlett, is innocent until proven guilty: these are allegations not proven facts. But the accusations against him were serious enough to warrant his immediate suspension. San Francisco Ballet and other companies consider them serious enough to cancel forthcoming performances. I believe this to be a proportionate statement of respect for his alleged victims. It sends the clear message that such behaviour is always unacceptable. For these reasons, I believe it is appropriate for the Royal Ballet to cancel Swan Lake. Given the delay before the Royal Ballet School was informed, canceling seems to me like the right message to send now.

If the investigation concludes that he is guilty of sexual misconduct he may never work again. I can understand why. Another question is what would become of his existing work? Scarlett’s guilt would not negate his talent. To say his work would no longer have artistic worth would not be true. But just as abhorrent behaviour does not negate talent, neither does talent minimise wrongdoing. This is where things are grey for me and I am known to fudge. Scratch the surface of many artists, composers, musicians, film directors, actors, singers, performers and you will find something to rightly object to. Wagner, who composed sublimely beautiful music, was a virulent antisemite. But my life is richer for his music. I don’t excuse his beliefs. I have no truck with arguments that ‘things were different back then’. Yes, they were. But the difference is that the victims then had even less of a voice than they do now, not that their abuse was ‘OK’. Whilst it is easy to maintain a position of moral consistency, arguably life would not be as rich. I accept the charge that in this I am inconsistent and self-serving.

The artistic world of ballet would be poorer if Scarlett’s work were never performed again. But there is a moral dimension too, which I think means a necessary period of reflection and open, honest discussion. Safeguarding, transparency and accountability need to be at the forefront. Scarlett’s actions should never be hidden. Above all, the culture of dance needs to ensure such that these things do not happen, much less that they continue for a decade.

So, I am returning my ticket. And I will make it clear why. Would I see Swan Lake in the future? Possibly. It depends on how this all plays out at the Royal Ballet. But now is not the right time. Now I need to make a personal statement that I consider this unacceptable.

Kate Coleman is a member of DanceGrist