Les Liaisons Dangereuses
26th July 2005
First I saw the play, then the film and last night I saw the ballet too – all based on a book I haven’t got around to reading yet. Setting ‘Liaisons’ to dance isn’t a new idea as Antony Tudor produced a version called “Knight Errant” back in the ‘60’s and it wasn’t generally considered a success, so far as I can remember it has never been revived. Is this version a success? On the whole I think it was, though I’m not sure how someone without knowledge of the story would be able to follow the convoluted scheming of the two central characters.
Adam Coopers ballet “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is all about sex, lots of it: as we watch the degenerate aristos Valmont and Merteuil plan their seductions with total disregard for their victims. The story roughly concerns the on/off lovers the Vicomte de Valmont (Adam Cooper) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Sarah Barron) setting each other sexual challenges. Merteuil’s former lover, Gercourt, who foolishly dumped her before she could dump him, is to marry a pure young girl called Cecile, daughter of Madame Volanges, a former conquest of Valmont’s. Merteuil wants Valmont to ensure that Cecile is no longer a virgin on her wedding night to thwart Gercourt’s hopes of an innocent bride. At the same time Valmont is hoping to seduce the beautiful but moral Madame de Tourvel (Sarah Wildor).
How all this is achieved with tragic results all round isn’t easy to put across in terms of dance, what exactly is in those notes that get passed around from hand to hand for example? If the nuances get lost, the thrust (pun intended) of the story doesn’t as elaborate clothing is discarded and a good deal of simulated sex occurs throughout. The choreography is hampered by the heavy 18th century costumes though and the ballet gets off to a slow start until the forcible deflowering of Cecile, a scene that seemed to owe something to Petit’s “Clavigo”, with Valmont looming over his victim from the canopy of her bed. This rape scene is powerful: even MacMillan himself, so attracted to such things that he returned to sexual coercion again and again, never created anything this graphic.
There is a nod to Macmillan in the second act too, where the assembled guests are entertained by a singer while engaging in meaningful gestures suggestive of their state of mind, a device Macmillan used in “Mayerling”. In fact Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, who entertains them, sings almost her entire role in French, something that takes a while to get used to. At least it’s original.
The story moves from unpleasant to tragic with Valmont’s seduction of Madame de Tourvel, whose virtue is illustrated by her sitting conversing with a priest. This proves one liaison too many for Valmont who falls hopelessly in love with his prey, to the fury of Merteuil. He forces himself to cast her off (after all he does have a reputation to maintain) and his cruelty towards Tourvel results in her death.
Meanwhile the young Chevalier Danceny, current plaything of Merteuil and prospective lover of Cecile, discovers Valmont’s evil conduct and the pair fight it out, in this version with Valmont choosing not to put up much of a fight. After Valmont’s death the details of his seductions and Meteuil’s part in them become common knowledge causing society’s former favourite, Merteuil to become an outcast pariah.
In the final moments of the ballet the back wall is revealed with the word ‘Liberté’ scrawled across in blood. The revolution has started.
This is well danced with Cooper in particular portraying the malevolent Valmont as a thoroughly nasty piece of work for whom the expression of human love has become a sign of weakness. As his female counterpart, Sarah Barron just wasn’t able to suggest the pure evil that Merteuil should emit. Sarah Wildor on the other hand does goodness rather well and the role of Madame de Touvel suited her perfectly.
Mr Cooper has some very original ideas that auger well for future productions he might stage in his choreographic career, but in this work he encounters considerable difficulties in attempting to translate an extremely complex storyline into dance terms; frankly if I wasn’t already familiar with the story, I wouldn’t have understood what was going on. His choice of collaborators though is spot on with splendid sets by Lez Brotherston, though some of the costumes I felt didn’t quite work and I wondered why some of the male characters wore trousers in an era when knee breeches were the norm. I loved Phillip Feeney’s score so much that I was extremely annoyed to discover there were no CD’s of the music on sale in the foyer, they’ve missed a lucrative marketing ploy there I would say, but good on you Adam Cooper for commissioning an original score and such a thrilling one at that.