Last Updated on June 9, 2021
Seduction on Stage with Dangerous Liaisons
My introduction to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses came from Stephen Frears’ terrific 1988 film. Based on Christopher Hampton’s play and with a stellar cast that included Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves, the movie told the story of aristocrats Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont who both took a delight in seducing and manipulating more innocent and less cynical members of the French court. It was a vicious romp that became a smash hit and spawned a slew of copycat movies. So how would this complex story transfer to the dance stage?
Northern Ballet is well-known for making narrative ballet, taking big stories such as 1984, Beauty and the Beast and The Boy in Striped Pajamas to make ballet more accessible. Artistic director and choreographer David Nixon has created a world that will be familiar to classical ballet fans with the baroque intrigue playing out in a more traditional way than the Grand Guignol of Adam Cooper’s 2005 production.
The show opens with a slightly unconvincing voiceover that is meant to set the scene. It seemed to be a hangover from an earlier production and would be better left out. The stage set is simple; five chandeliers, a period chaise longue, sofa and a dressing table provide the locations where compromising letters and a symbolic golden key are passed around by the protagonists allowing the tragedy to unwind.
Music Director Jonathan Lo has constructed a score played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia that is cleverly constructed out of segments of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The relentless thematic unfolding of the music is used here to provide narrative shape and dramatic momentum for the endless cycle of plotting, seduction and recrimination.
The Marquise de Merteuil, played with aristocratic hauteur by Yorkshire lass Abigail Prudames, is the puppet mistress at the centre of the drama, at one point literally pulling imagined strings to control the other protagonists in a jerky marionette dance. She is seeking revenge on Gercourt, an ex-lover, by sending the rake Valmont to seduce Gercourt’s fiancée Cécile de Volanges in return for a night of passion with the Marquise herself. The action unfolds with a series of pas de deux that build in intensity leading up to the tragic climax. Joseph Taylor shines technically as the Vicomte de Valmont but he needs a little of John Malkovich’s cruel narcissism to fully round off the character.
The other male lead is Matthew Koon’s Chevalier Danceny, a less nuanced role in which he dances with athleticism and some style. Antoinette Brooks-Daw is a convincing Madame de Tourvel, the married woman seduced and then dumped by Valmont on the Marquise de Merteuil’s order. Her pas de deux with Joseph Taylor is a highlight of both dramatic and dance brilliance. Also worthy of mention is Rachael Gillespie as Cecile Volanges whose petite frame and agile grace make her the perfect ingénue, seduced by all and growing in sophistication as her performance develops.
In the end, the tragedy must play out and a piercing scream marks the Marquise de Merteuil’s realisation that her true love and equal, Valmont, is no more. If you enjoy classical ballet and are looking for a great night out or are new to the form and are looking for a gentle introduction then Northern Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons is for you. It was such a pleasure to be back at Sadler’s Wells watching live dance and in some ways, the lack of so many bodies in the house make for a more enjoyable experience. Catch this production whilst it’s on. It runs until June 10th and tickets can be bought here.