Dangerous Liaisons

Choreography David Nixon, music Antonio Vivaldi
Northern Ballet
Sadler's Wells

Kyungka Kwak as Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont Credit: Riku Ito
Kyungka Kwak as Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont Credit: Riku Ito
Kyungka Kwak as Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont Credit: Riku Ito
Lorenzo Torsello as Danceny and Minju Kang as the Marquise Credit: Riku Ito
Lorenzo Torsello as Danceny and Minju Kang as the Marquise Credit: Riku Ito
Lorenzo Torsello as Danceny and Minju Kang as the Marquise Credit: Riku Ito

Dangerous Liaisons, a ninety-minute narrative ballet (narrative dance a speciality of David Nixon) honed from a four-hundred-page epistolary novel, or perhaps from a hundred-page play text and film script, how can dance possibly deliver the subtly incremental, ambiguous word game, its power play, sexual trade-off, between the protagonists and their victims, collateral in their manoeuvres?

Narcissism, vanity, arrogance, a manipulative Marquise de Merteuil and rampant sexual addict Vicomte de Valmont, young girls as disposable commodities—Richardson’s Clarissa is referred to in the text. And social hypocrisy at the end of 18thcentury with its corrupt, entitled aristocracy for whom the guillotine awaits. Deceits, charm, artifice, indolent self-indulgence—it passes the time—must have been a challenge to pare down to its essence in movement? Vivaldi’s familiar music, The Four Seasons, played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia (music director Jonathan Lo), carries much of the emotion and drama.

It’s not a new work—premièred in 2004, revised and revisited now for our fractured times—but I wonder how many different reading there will be of it in the audience. Body language can take a lot of the emotional and sexual brunt, but words are still called for in the opening scene: “What are you looking for? There are letters and people playing games.” That’s your clue. Many have probably seen the film and will be using that as an aid in this elaborate chess game between the two leading characters Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil. A scream and words end the production.

Merteuil, a bit of a tease with legs like sabres, runs rings round Valmont, traps him with her wiles and controlling reasoning, dangles a reward before him, and then reneges on it, and they both betray the ones they coerce into sex and faux love. The cost of their game is huge, not least to themselves. Valmont corrupts the straight out of convent Cecile Volanges on Merteuil’s instructions, though he’s not keen at first.

His challenge to himself is to win the love of religious, pure, incorruptible Madame de Tourvel, which he does eventually, wearing her down by many protestations… then he drops her on Merteuil’s command. But the joke is on him. He betrays his own heart. He has fallen in love though he can’t admit it. His duets with Tourvel are warm and gentle and true. Body language does give us away.

Cecile Volanges is loved by Chevalier Danceny, and returns it, but he is taken on as a toy boy by Merteuil, though he truly loves Cecile. Merteuil pulls all the puppet strings (yes there is a scene where they all act as Petrushkas with her at the centre of the ring), seems invincible, but gets caught out when Danceny kills Valmont in a duel and Valmont hands him a pack of letters, which end up in Valmont’s aunt’s, Madame de Rosemonde’s (Harriet Marden), hands.

She is the old lady searching for them in her desk at the beginning. It’s more complicated than that but this will have to suffice, as will the dance—in two halves of about forty minutes each. And at times with split screen effect—two pas de deux taking place in tandem—duplicity in action.

The first half is Watteau-esque pretty—set a chaise-longue, sofa, writing table, chair and five glittering chandeliers—dancers in period costumes (design David Nixon), but slow to reveal, as is the novel, which doesn't take off till halfway through and then keeps one’s attention to the end as the scenario unravels.

So it is here, the second act more agitated with its erotic pas de deux, spatch-cocked legs in the air, him on top then her on top, angry emotions, and a bit of humorous light relief from the silly Madame de Volanges (Helen Bogatch charmingly dotty), who hasn't a clue and is pushed about by Merteuil.

I’m seeing the second night cast and they are all lovely dancers and fair actors. Mlindi Kulashe is a languidly dashing Vicomte de Valmont (great leaps), Minju Kang chills as the Marquise de Merteuil, but best of all for me is Dominique Larose’s Madame de Tourvel—her characterisation is perfect. Clutching at Valmont’s feet as he pushes her away, a sudden volte-face she doesn't understand. Strangely, I think I hear Gluck not Vivaldi here.

Lorenzo Trosello’s Chevalier Danceny has less to do, but does it well, as does Aerys Merrill with Cecile Volanges. And I’m so glad Nixon has kept the scene with courtesan Emillie (cheeky Kyungka Kwak), in which Valmont uses her body, her back, as a writing desk, writing a letter full of double entendres. (No, I didn't get that from the ballet.)

Enjoyable though it is, the production does not hit me in the solar plexus. The complexity and the twists and turns of the novel are not easy to plot coherently. I wonder what Liam Scarlett’s “dangerously sexy”, “not recommended for children” 2019 version for Queensland Ballet was like. Will we ever get to see that?

11 and 12 June, Northern Ballet brings a contrasting mixed bill, Contemporary Cuts 2021, to Sadler’s Wells. It’s always good to see them. And, sad to say, David Nixon will be stepping down as AD in December 2021 after twenty years in the saddle.

Reviewer: Vera Liber