Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Theatre Royal, Norwich

Day Three in the Valmont house...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When a ballet opens with no music and no dancing, but an awful lot of words, you begin to wonder if you're in the right theatre. And that unease persists in Northern Ballet Theatre's latest book-to-ballet adaptation, based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Laclos's novel of aristocratic libido run amok.

When a ballet opens with no music and no dancing, but an awful lot of words, you begin to wonder if you're in the right theatre. And that unease persists in Northern Ballet Theatre's latest book-to-ballet adaptation, based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Laclos's novel of aristocratic libido run amok.

When it takes 750 words of synopsis plus two narrators - on and off stage - you also begin to wonder whether choreographer David Nixon isn't barking up the wrong artform. To give due credit, he finds a tidy solution to the plot's dependence on letters. Framing the piece as a flashback in the mind of an aged and sobered Marquise de Merteuil (the actress Patricia Doyle in a mob cap), he has her discuss her past machinations with her own conscience, a device which if not fully explanatory at least reminds us of everyone's names. Alas, with its flat, robotic interrogations, the disembodied voice of conscience carries overtones of Big Brother. Had it announced "Day Three in the Valmont household", no one in the audience would have blinked.

Yet if you can accept the awkward hybridity of this production, there are things to enjoy. The octagonal set cleverly incorporates mirrored swing doors to allow multiple arrivals and exits. Costumes adapt the 18th-century's trailing lace sleeves and panniered skirts to very flattering effect. Even the dancing of NBT's men seems to rise to the challenge of managing coat-tails. Rarely in narrative ballet do dress, gesture, character and vocabulary find themselves in such period accord.

Set to Vivaldi, played live (and with great energy) behind a screen, Nixon's choreography is apt and varied. I enjoyed the Wheel of Letters quintet (a manic exchange of billets-doux in the guise of a formal dance) for being so neatly done. But it's in the duet-writing that Nixon excels with a crescendo of emotionally calibrated encounters between the Vicomte de Valmont (a glowering Jimmy Orante) and his amorous prey. Georgina May as the virginal Cecile puts up a spectacular fight, lashing out as she is thrown in the air and dragged by one foot around the stage. But it's Chiaki Nagao's nun-like Madame de Tourvel whose plight really hits home, thawing from her position of virtuous rejection to blossom in the story's single instance of unguarded, unselfish love. At moments her physical recklessness made the ballet soar.

"This book, if it burns, burns like ice," said Laclos, referring to its trail of destruction. Natalie Leftwich, a beguilingly pretty Marquise, does her darnedest to inject some of that glacial spite, flicking from coquette to jade to all-out Myra Hindley in the time it takes her to bourrée across the room. All the performances are impressive, yet still none of these liaisons seems dangerous enough.

Theatre Royal, Norwich (01803 630 000), 16-20 Nov

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

Comments