Dangerous Liaisons review – ballet never looked so much like a strip club

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Heart-stopping scenes and delectable period costumes lift this exploration of sexual appetite, but the titillation and characterisation are over the top

Oral sex on stage? In a ballet? Never! And yet that is exactly what happens in the world premiere of Dangerous Liaisons where, in an orgy scene of writhing dancers, a man goes down – lustily and with enthusiasm – on his female counterpart.

Promotions warn: “Not recommended for children.” Indeed, the program’s coy plot summary does not do Dangerous Liaisons justice. In the opening scene of the co-production between Texas Ballet Theatre and Queensland Ballet, held at the funeral of the Marquise de Merteuil’s husband, she is, we are told, “comforted” by the Comte de Gercourt. For most that might mean he passed her a hanky. Here it’s sex on top of the coffin.

Set in a world of cruelty, wealth and privilege in pre-Revolution France – where bedroom games become a way to combat boredom – Dangerous Liaisons is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The story revolves around the pitiless and impervious Marquise de Merteuil (Yanela Pinera) who creates a bet with her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, to squander the virtue and innocence of two women. Needless to say, chaos, heartbreak and destruction ensue.

At its helm is British choreographer Liam Scarlett, a former Royal Ballet dancer, who handles the source material with a certain vigorous confidence. Ballet, so the thinking might go, is a celebration of athleticism, art and the human body: why not weave intercourse into that as well, creating dance that explores sexual appetite?

Choreographer Liam Scarlett, a former Royal Ballet dancer, handles the source material with vigorous confidence.
‘As more and more characters get down and dirty – albeit with aristocratic flourish – it is worth asking how best to represent eroticism.’ Photograph: David Kelly/Queensland Ballet

Of course, this isn’t new. Graeme Murphy explored lust in 2005’s The Silver Rose, about an actor who attempts to combat angst over her fading looks in the arms of her much younger lover. It’s a tender exploration of the distraction sex can provide, all the while showing nuanced characters torn between abandonment and fear.

Here, despite some wonderful pas de deux, the characters often feel pantomimish. Embodying “evil” and “good”, their movements (all jerky heads and knowing looks) seem to draw on commedia dell’arte, the heightened Italian comedic form propagated in the 16th to 18th century. The ultimate prize for the scheming Marquise and Valmont is the virginal Cécile (Lina Kim) and the seemingly incorruptible Madame de Tourvel (Tonia Looker). But here, both seem pinched and unhappy, making their final fall less tragic.

Part of the issue is the challenge of converting an epistolary novel – a novel made up entirely of letters – into a ballet. How, for one, do you translate a book that is as much about the power of words as the betrayal of bodies, into dance? And how do you distil the complexity of such a plot into a narrative that people can follow, without the use of dialogue? Simplification of characters into caricatures is one answer. But there are simply too many letters passed around in scenes, too many subplots, and too many roles to follow.

How do you translate a book that is so much about the power of words into dance?
How do you translate a book that is so much about the power of words into dance? Photograph: David Kelly/Queensland Ballet

That said, Dangerous Liaisons is luscious in other ways. The period costumes – all frilly, full skirts, corseted tops and red velvet jackets – are delectable. The score, a collage of works by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns arranged by Martin Yates, is suitably dramatic, adding real power and pulse to the dance. Added to this, the cast gives it their all, led when I saw it by the wonderful Rian Thompson as Valmont, who has a palpable presence, and corporeal power, on stage.

Some brilliant scenes, too, provide bite: the opening at the funeral – where the figures are shrouded in darkness, their faces unseen – is heart-stopping. A pas de deux around the piano between the music teacher (Jack Lister) and Cécile, in which they declare their love, is particularly touching. Both play keys on the piano, cautiously and enraptured in each other, before the full orchestra erupts behind them.

And yet, as more and more characters get down and dirty – albeit with aristocratic flourish – it is worth asking how best to represent eroticism. In the orgy scene, Valmont’s most beloved courtesan Émilie (Tamara Hanton) tries to titillate by spreading her legs, opening and closing them to the music, as a gaggle of men watch. Then there’s the thrusting, the grasping, the clutching of groins. In the book, as in the 1988 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, sex is both an art form to be cultivated and a power to be manipulated. Here, it looks like a strip club.

Dangerous Liaisons is at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, until 6 April


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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