Dangerous Liaisons is well known to most of us, whether from the original Laclos book, the award-winning play by Christopher Hampton or the numerous film adaptations (some more faithful to the original than others). David Nixon’s version for Northern Ballet is, in fact, remarkably faithful with its exquisite eighteenth-century costumes (also designed by the multi-talented Nixon), simple sets dominated by a quartet of gilded chandeliers and the multitude of letters that are passed from hand to hand, reflecting the epistolary nature of the book itself.
He takes the music of Vivaldi (some of The Four Seasons plus a few of his other works) which, although not quite of the period, sets a perfect tone that combines an underlying passion, fury and sensuality with a façade of order and harmony. This fits the bill nicely. This is a tale of venality and the corruption of innocence, simply for the pleasure of it.
At the very centre is the Marquise de Merteuil, danced with icy precision by Abigail Prudames. She is the manipulator in chief – and does appear at moments quite literally as a puppet master – who decides to make a wager with her old lover, Valmont (Joseph Taylor, a commanding figure onstage). If he manages to seduce the famously virtuous (and happily married) Madame de Tourvel (a sensitive and emotional performance from Antoinette Brooks-Daw), he will be rewarded with a night of pleasure with the Marquise herself.
In the meantime, just for the fun of it, he seduces (rape would probably be a better description) the virginal Cecile Volanges (exquisitely danced by Rachael Gillespie) – another plan of the Marquise as her own new lover had left her, planning to marry the young Cecile. She has also thrown a young suitor for Cecile, Chevalier Danceny (bravura dancing from Matthew Koon) into the mix but his feelings are, of course, not worthy of notice. So, a pretty depraved pair of protagonists – rich, idle and playing cruel games on the eve of the French Revolution.
Taking on such a complex and nuanced plot is pretty audacious if you’re planning on turning it into a ballet that lasts just an hour and a quarter. And, frankly, you’d be hard pressed to follow its twists and turns and to know who the characters were and how they inter-related if you hadn’t prior knowledge of the story. There’s a bit of voice-over to help (it doesn’t hugely) and there are some story-lines in the original book that don’t follow through to their ends. But this doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that David Nixon has created a ballet that is quite ravishing to behold. There is classical precision, raw emotion and sensuality, several truly exquisite duets and beautiful dancing. Recommended.
Dangerous Liaisons runs at Sadler’s Wells until 10 June. For more information and to book tickets, please visit www.sadlerswells.com.
Photos by Emma Kauldhar