A surfeit of letters: Northern Ballet in Dangerous Liaisons

Sadler’s Wells, London
June 8, 2021

David Nixon’s choreography is edgy and exciting throughout (what a loss he will be to the company) and the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Daniel Parkinson gave an electric rendering of Vivaldi. The dancers are uniformly terrific. And yet, Northern Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons is a production where the whole is rather less than the sum of the parts.

Somehow, in this cut down version, it just doesn’t work. The set comprises a divan, a chaise longue and a desk and chair. This is perhaps the start of the problem. Although up to five splendid chandeliers are employed throughout, Dangerous Liaisons benefits from an opulent background, all the more to highlight the decadence of the people. Written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos just seven years before the French Revolution, it serves to highlight the moral and practical corruption of the elite that was partly responsible for the uprising and perhaps explains the immediate success of the novels (it covered four volumes).

Antoinette Brooks-Daw as Madame de Tourvel
and Joseph Taylor as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons
Photo Emma Kauldhar

Herein lies the second, major problem. The plot is somewhat convoluted and is dependent on letters. Balanchine may have been wrong in that it is relatively simple to depict a mother-in-law in ballet, but the intent and content of letters can only be hinted at by behaviour and gesture. The meaning of one letter in Onegin can be conveyed, even for anyone not already familiar with the plot, but here, letters fly back and forth and the content is complex.

Rendered at its most simplest, Dangerous Liaisons is bed-hopping galore with lots of sex varying in degrees from definitely non-consensual to ardent, albeit illicit. Whilst Nixon and his cast make each encounter thrilling and varied, enhanced brilliantly by Vivaldi, it ends up being a series of pas de deux on a limited set which requires a fair amount of concentration to remember whom is whom.

The two points of unsatisfactory narration at the beginning and the end do not help either. There is no time to consolidate the characters or recall the plot. Perhaps it is an impossible task. One other point that irked was allowing a dancer to scream. It breaks the fourth wall in an annoying manner and prompts one to think that, if she can scream, perhaps she could have proffered some words to help the plot along.

The cast (including Joseph Taylor as Valmont, Abigail Prudames as the Marquise de Merteuil, Antoinette Brooks-Daw as Madame de Tourvel, Matthew Koon as the Chevalier Danceny and Rachael Gillespie as Cecile Volanges worked their socks off as did the orchestra (hats off to the leader Geoffrey Allan). It was wonderful to be back in live theatre, but this time, Northern didn’t quite pull it off.