Les Liaisons dangereuses, Sadler's Wells, London

Take another little piece of my heart
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The Independent Culture

Conceived and co-directed by the choreographer and dancer Adam Cooper and the designer Lez Brotherston, the production is an eyeful from the start. Vast voile curtains open; black-garbed, masked figures bearing torches pace ominously about a palatial room of mirrored ceiling and walls, apparently inspired by Versailles. In this simple but spectacular setting the aristocratic characters weave their web of liaisons and revenge. Obedient to strict etiquette in public, they form graceful Watteauesque social clusters; unbridled by their desires in private, they move with the brutal disorder of primitives.

Against this background, Sarah Wildor as Madame de Tourvel, makes a beautifully orchestrated entrance, her austere black dress an emblem of her virtuous soul. She is a prize prey for Adam Cooper's caddish, but ultimately vulnerable Valmont. Their final encounter is the climax of the ballet, a tormented realisation of mutual love, eliciting some of Cooper's most abandoned choreography and wonderfully impassioned performances. Cooper has charisma to spare, Wildor, his wife, delicacy and charm. But this production has bigger ambitions than being a mere vehicle for the Posh and Becks of dance.

How do you make a ballet out of Laclos' novel? Do you go for the selective approach adopted in 1968 by Antony Tudor with Knight Errant? Or do you go for full-blown narrative fidelity? Cooper has opted for the second way - mistakenly, since this means a great many significant looks and flourished letters in aid of narrative exposition. It also results in a numbing succession of erotic duets: Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, Madame de Merteuil and the Comte de Gercourt, and so on and so on.

The miracle, though, is that despite the tangle of intrigues and identities, Cooper still manages to tell the story clearly most of the time. It is no mean feat to deploy eight prominent characters in a ballet of two hours and not leave us confused. The depraved Madame de Merteuil, Valmont's powerful accomplice, is as much a central character as Valmont and Madame de Tourvel, and Sarah Barron plays her with all the right relentless viciousness. Helen Dixon as the naïve Cécile Volanges is blonde and pert and the only dancer to wear point shoes.

The costumes are magnificent, especially Valmont's black-leather frock coat and thigh boots. Philip Feeney's score (played by the London Musici) provides an effective dramatic backdrop, like film music, adroitly combining 18th-century sonorities with post-modern deconstructions and "found" sound. In the same way, Cooper's choreography juxtaposes old and new, using 18th-century social dances as a springboard for group numbers and raw - sometimes brutal - expressive vernacular movement for the duets.

But this production is more about spectacle and story-telling than choreography. It comes across as musical theatre without words (although there are actually a few snatches of singing), which is hardly surprising, given Cooper's recent move into musicals. Perhaps we are witnessing the rise of a new genre, one that includes Matthew Bourne's male Swan Lake. Perhaps we could call it "the dancicle".

To 14 August, 0870 737 7737

Jenny Gilbert is away