The news of Liam Scarlett’s alleged abuse of students of the Royal Ballet School is making global headlines. The Royal Opera House had suspended him in August, the Royal Ballet School were allegedly made aware only yesterday.
First let us point out that at this stage this is all just an allegation. It may transpire that he is innocent.
It is easy to find out what has reportedly happened. I am not going to repeat anything here. The things that Scarlett is alleged to have coerced students into doing makes seriously uncomfortable reading. My heart goes out to his victims, and I feel deeply for their families. They have all been seriously let down by a system that they trusted.
Coercion, bullying and sexual harassment is insidious and vile. I do not underestimate its long-term effects; victims need decades to recover – if recovery is at all a possibility. And when this betrayal of trust involves minors, the actions of these adults is pure evil.
Like many parents, I am angered by this revelation, and like many parents I am regrettably not surprised.
Let’s look at some of the environments in which sexual abuse seems to thrive most effortlessly: the Catholic church; the Church of England; Saville, King and others at the BBC; football clubs; gymnastic clubs. They all have one thing in common an ingrained reverence for hierarchy. Challenge at your peril those above you in the food chain – exclusion or ‘excommunication’ is the price too great to risk.
This is precisely how vocational ballet schools work. Pupils are reminded daily that they are lucky to be there, but that their places are precarious. And as we found out, if you challenge authority – no matter how politely or legitimately – the response is insults and rebukes. You are the one at fault if you dare to question. Ballet culture takes ‘victim blaming’ to a whole new level.
Both at the Royal Opera House and at the Royal Ballet School, Scarlett was revered as a god incarnate. He could do no wrong. Staff often reminded pupils that he had once been a pupil like them, and how lucky they all were that he still maintained his contact with the school. A piece that he had choreographed when he was still technically a child was revived for an end of year performances. If the Royal Ballet staff were to be believed, such a precocious and prestigious talent had not been encountered since Mozart, or, dare I blaspheme, since Jesus preaching to his elders at the temple. And while against this backdrop we can understand why children are reluctant to speak out, but we cannot understand why adults are willing to turn a blind eye.
If safeguarding measures had been in place an adult man would never have been able to patrol the changing rooms (allegedly), or (allegedly) befriend children on Facebook. Where were the chaperones? Where was the most basic of safeguarding training or induction? Why was no one making it clear to both adults and children that social media contact is a serious breach of professional contract, and will result in termination of the contract. Scarlett was revered in the ballet micro-culture, and as such he was clearly above any wider reaching laws.
A few years ago, I challenged a vocational school. A thirteen year old girl had been called “sexy” in class by a middle-aged man. The written response from the school was that he was a non-native speaker of English and didn’t understand the context of using the word – even though he had lived in the UK longer than he had lived in his native country. I also challenged the school about the children having to twerk in class. The response, again in writing, was that this was a legitimate physio-therapeutic exercise. The Local Authority Designated Officer expressed her frustration that she was unable to act as she had no authority over a ‘private’ institution. I was treated as an outcast; other parents refused to campaign with me as they did not want to jeopardise their children’s place at the school. I remain unaffected by the online abuse I’ve experienced for telling my story. I’m old enough to take it.
Our own son was assaulted by a member of staff – physically, but not sexually. The governors assured me that this would be investigated. When I withdrew our child from the school, the investigation ended as they have no obligation to investigate if the child is no longer a pupil.
Over the last few years, I have been contacted almost monthly by parents whose children have experienced abuse at British vocational ballet schools. I am sometimes the only person who will believe the stories from parents desperate to be heard. My latest conversation was only last week. My advice is startling: Get your child out, help their recovery, help them to love dance again but most of all look after yourselves – you owe it to the child. Do not seek revenge. Do not try and change the culture. You won’t succeed.
I tried to change the culture several years ago, and apart from making sure our story was heard, I achieved nothing. The price I had to pay for my struggle was almost too much. And yet I endured little compared to the significant long reaching price to be paid by the alleged victims of Scarlett.
Here are some the ballet institutions currently dealing with claims of sexual abuse:
New York City Ballet
School of American Ballet
American Ballet Theatre
These are shadowy places where predators feel able to lurk unnoticed. The corridors of the ROH and Royal Ballet School can now be added to the list. The reputational damage will far outlive their association with Scarlett.
For the sake of the victims, their families and future students. This is an opportunity to change a culture at a systemic level. Will Ballet become a safer place for our children as a result of this? I doubt it.
Once again, I feel very angry and very sorry. No surprise.