Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 23.
Dangerous Liaisons is not suitable for children, advises Queensland Ballet. Too true. Sex is the currency in this world and there’s a lot of it. In the first few minutes of Liam Scarlett’s new ballet a couple copulates on a coffin, setting the tone for what’s to come.
When Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses was first translated into English a frothy-mouthed commentator called it diabolical and disgusting. It remains a lust-driven immorality tale but that’s the least of a dance adaptation’s challenges today.
This is a gorgeous-looking production (Tracy Grant Lord designed) and the beautiful bodies at QB are fully up to the task of conveying louche behaviour. Less easy is teasing out the twists and turns of a complicated set of intertwining goals, even in this slightly simplified version of Choderlos de Laclos’s merry-go-round.
Scarlett handles the broad outlines stylishly in the first new ballet he’s made for QB since becoming artistic associate in 2017. Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, decadent, destructive aristos with far too much time on their hands, put their heads (and other body parts) together to amuse themselves and deliver retribution for perceived slights.
Merteuil wants revenge on the Comte de Gercourt, the man with whom she had eye-popping congress at the funeral which opens the ballet: she has sex over her dead husband’s body, if you will. But Gercourt quickly moves on, soon becoming engaged to sweet young thing Cécile Volanges. Merteuil is not pleased. What would please her is for Valmont to make a fool of Gercourt by bedding Cécile. If he does that, Merteuil has a little something for him.
The attraction between Cécile and the Chevalier Raphael de Danceny gives Valmont and Merteuil even more opportunity for meddling. At the same time busy Valmont has his eye on Madame de Tourvel, who is staying with his aunt and presents an irresistible opportunity for seduction. Tourvel’s reluctance only makes her more attractive.
For her part, Merteuil has a sheaf of sexual partners or prospects. How she feels about them depends on desire, whim or advantage in the game she and Valmont play so enthusiastically.
Staying true to Laclos’s structure, Scarlett weaves the writing, sending, intercepting and receiving of letters into the fabric of the dance. Whispered confidences and lurking figures in the background add to the texture of a hot-house society that can’t get enough of intrigue and secrets.
Not everything is made clear enough, particularly in the plot-heavy first act. There was more than one confused soul in the audience wondering who was doing what to whom and why. As the synopsis is at pains to point out, Valmont’s prize for deflowering Cécile is one more night with Merteuil, with whom he was once intimate. How does one convey that kind of specificity in dance? And the scene in which Valmont gains entrance to Cécile’s bedroom needs major rethinking. Cécile is required to be surprised, reluctant, ravished swiftly and wanting more within far too few minutes. And was her mother preparing virginal Cécile for pre-nuptial dalliance? Surely not, but it definitely looked like it.
There are, however, juicy parts for a large number of dancers, even though the production itself is relatively small – there are 11 named characters and eight minor, unnamed ones. The thought occurs that Scarlett could have with profit put a few more household servants on stage (the reverse is true for his over-busy Frankenstein). Dangerous Liaisons is a work where watching, overhearing, lurking and gossiping have meaning.
As Dangerous Liaisons is a co-production with Texas Ballet Theater – there are no performance dates announced at this stage – the choreographer will have a chance to take another look.
Scarlett appears to have been much influenced by Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon but he also creates splendidly individual movement languages for his protagonists. Merteuil and Valmont, who is the very definition of a fox in the hen house, grapple lasciviously, slink and prowl. Tourvel is the picture of radiant openness; Valmont’s valet Azolan a lively accomplice to his master; Cécile shy and innocent; Danceny youthful and ardent.
Valmont is also a generous patron of prostitutes, for whom Scarlett has fashioned a steamy, over-long scene. It gives the women who play servants something else to do in the ballet but the writhing does rather go on at the expense of better story-telling elsewhere. That aside Valmont is a marvellous role. Even more so is that of the ultimately destroyed Merteuil. She gets to wear the most ravishing frocks in jewel tones too (a particularly glamorous gown featured an underlay of acid green – just the right colour for this hardened schemer).
I saw Dangerous Liaisons at its first matinee, which featured principal artists Lucy Green as Merteuil and Victor Estévez as Valmont. There are no images available of them because they were third cast, which gives some idea of the depth in the senior QB ranks. I have no doubt Green and Estévez were the equal of the first two pairings. At the matinee principal Camilo Ramos was the gleeful Azolan and senior soloist Kohei Iwamoto romantic Danceny but they, like other leading dancers, take on more than one role during the run. QB artistic director Li Cunxin requires his dancers to take on big workloads and to be strong and adaptable actors.
The score was arranged by British composer and conductor Martin Yates from a large number of works by Camille Saint-Saëns and does its job splendidly, although “arranged” seems too weak a word for the achievement. As Yates writes in the program, he has created a new symphonic score from this material.
Queensland chamber orchestra Camerata is in the pit with QB’s music director Nigel Gaynor at the helm, although the ensemble could perhaps be better described as a small symphony orchestra for this season given there are more than 40 players. It sounded wonderful.
Dangerous Liaisons ends in Brisbane on April 6. Gold Coast, Cairns, Toowoomba and Mackay, June 14-July 6. The regional tour will be performed to recorded music.
A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on March 25.