Name recognition is important for ballet companies: make a ballet of a familiar story, get bums on seats, stay afloat. But that doesn’t mean a known title always makes a good ballet. Northern Ballet’s David Nixon first tackled Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses in the 90s, and he’s not the only choreographer to do so – some thought Liam Scarlett’s version one of his best ballets.
You’d think all that romping and decadence would be a no-brainer, but the convolutions of the plot, especially those involving letters passed from one person to another that we’ll never read, are hard to fathom despite Nixon’s attempts at giving pointers in the voiceover introduction. The prevailing attitude, as exemplified by the Abigail Prudames’ Marquise de Merteuil, is aloof and manipulative, to coolly one-dimensional effect.
With a synopsis at hand, you’ll discover that the Marquise and her ex-lover Vicomte de Valmont (Joseph Taylor) are planning various seductions, merely for sport, involving the virginal Cécile Volanges (Rachael Gillespie), the married Madame de Tourvel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) and Matthew Koon’s Chevalier Danceny; the latter’s naive enthusiasm ruined by the Marquise’s ploys, but Koon’s bright presence and darting jumps always a pleasure for the audience.
The first act’s scene-setting is sedate rather than bodice-ripping, probably what 17th-century aristocratic life was really like (when you want it to be more like Nicholas Hoult’s court in The Great). Vivaldi’s Four Seasons forms the soundtrack, played live. There’s no denying the greatness of the music, but there’s a reason choreographers now tend to favour more cinematic scores that help narrate the action.
Things hot up in the second act when real feelings get involved. Brooks-Daw has the best part as the virtuous, strong yet vulnerable De Tourvel, the only one emotionally invested from the off. Nixon is a good dance-maker, often finding interesting ways to start a phrase, and he sews some motives into the steps, like Taylor’s Valmont demonstrating many different ways to throw a woman in the air, tossing Gillespie aggressively or carefully holding Brooks-Daw aloft like a thing of wonder. But while some moments cut through, there’s not enough real passion or tangible plot to seduce.
At Sadler’s Wells, London, until 10 June. Northern Ballet perform Contemporary Cuts at Sadler’s Wells, 11-12 June.