If a ballet needs a voiceover to make sense of the plot, isn't it telling the wrong story?
If a ballet needs a voiceover to make sense of the plot, isn't it telling the wrong story? Northern Ballet Theatre's Dangerous Liaisons, with choreography by the company's director, David Nixon, uses a spoken flashback narration to keep the action moving. It's all talk, so busy explaining who the characters are that it can't give them much substance.
Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel of aristocratic seductions and cruelty was a huge success in the 1980s, first as a play, then as a film. The Marquise de Merteuil plots revenge on her ex-lover Gercourt by arranging the seduction of his virgin bride, Cécile. Her first choice of seducer is the Vicomte de Valmont, a rake in pursuit of the prudish Madame de Tourvel. Lives are destroyed as events unfold, and the Marquise is rejected by society.
The actress Patricia Doyle, now NBT's drama consultant, plays the older Merteuil. A robot voiceover keeps interrogating her, demanding more details or reducing the action to trite summaries. Doyle is blandly genteel, describing cruelty without evoking it. It's hard to see any kinship with Natalie Leftwich's danced, kittenish version of the character.
The speeches are a loss of nerve, more so because Nixon does have a gift for shaping a complex plot into graspable narrative. This production, created for BalletMet in America, is fluently staged. Nixon's set, with its revolving doors and delicate gauze panels, allows characters to slip in and out of the action. His costumes are light but detailed, suggesting 18th-century opulence through patterned fabrics and trailing lace sleeves.
Too many of the dances are just decoration, dancers scampering through John Longstaff's selection of Vivaldi numbers. It's period music, but not period dancing. The embraces and jumps do little to suggest a formal society. The seduction duets are clearer. Most follow the same pattern: slither, straddle, lift. Valmont and Tourvel have higher lifts to show true love. Valmont's seduction of Cécile is a rape. She is chased around the stage, tugged and thrown, dragged by an ankle. The violence of that scene makes it hard to take Cécile's enthusiasm in her later scenes with Valmont. She goes from rape victim to sensualist without any transition. Georgina May flings herself into both with considerable energy but can't make it a logical development.
Jim Orrante, as Valmont, stalks coolly and partners well. As Madame de Tourvel, Chiaki Nagao clings and droops but can't animate her underdrawn character. The wittiest performance is from Ginnie Ray as Cécile's mother. She preens and dithers, torn between bossing her daughter and patting her own hair.
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