Following the trend of classical companies “sexing up” their seasons, Alberta Ballet’s remount of Jean Grand-Maître’s Dangerous Liaisons took on the steamy (quite frankly, rape-y) scenes and convoluted plot of the famed eighteenth-century novel, emphasizing its uber-sexiness with a coy program note encouraging use of the hashtag #risqueballet. The interpretation of the complex plot and staging resulted in a frenetic viewing experience.
Originally commissioned by the Norwegian National Ballet for Grand-Maître’s treatment in 2000, and later mounted by Alberta Ballet in 2008, Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary exchange of manipulation, betrayal, greed and threats of public shaming: the story is fraught with ugly intentions and lurid schemes, told mostly in letters between two ex-lovers attempting to humiliate each other. The scenes have been popularly remounted in film, stage and other formats over the years, as testament to the thematic endurance of sexual power dynamics.
In Grand-Maître’s production, there are two versions of the story happening throughout: upstage is the Theatre, decked with full period costume and set regalia, exaggerated pantomime and dramatic lighting schema, all behind a scrim that, when front-lit, obscures its world altogether. Downstage is the Ballet, with two corps of “Angels” — dark and light, male and female respectively — that score the emotional tumult among the dancing characters. The dancers mirror their upstage counterparts at times but also depart in segments of pure abstraction. The separate convention of the worlds frees the Dance realm from the overt pantomime of the Theatre, allowing the movement to speak in less literal hues.
The story is complicated even before the action begins: Recently ditched by her lover, Gercourt, for the young and virginal Cécile, the furious Marquise de Merteuil (played with delicious gravitas on the Theatre stage by Taryn Nowels challenges her long-past fling Valmont to seduce Cécile. Valmont refuses at first, as he’s infatuated with the very pious and very beautiful Presidente de Tourvel and has grandiose plans to seduce her instead. This does not impress Merteuil, and she commences to thicken the plot by encouraging Cécile to fall for her music teacher, Danceny. Cécile’s mother, somewhat inexplicably, writes to Tourvel to warn the pious woman about the lecherous Valmont, which eventually angers him enough to take his frustration out on Cecile, spoiling her puritan reputation with, of course, sex.
The sinister twists leave a massive storytelling challenge for the company. Supplemented by breathy voice-over narration of the saucy letters exchanged between Valmont and Merteuil, the focus jumps back and forth between the traditional Theatre tableaux and the emotional marketplace of the dancers’ realm. This is where the viewing experience becomes frenetic — there’s a constant shift of attention from upstage to down, from slick choreographic sequence to curious plot points being metered out in mime. It can be irritating to split attention this way because the downstage action is where the great dance is, but the pomp of the Theatre is also tough to dismiss.
An essential ingredient in Grand-Maître’s vision is the magnificent musical score: a varied soundtrack created by Claude Lemelin that includes emotive and absolutely gutting works by a variety of composers, with styles ranging from classical to monastic to sombre and hyper-modern.
There are lovely pas de deux moments, particularly the scenes featuring the youthful Cécile and Danceny, which contrast the turgid dynamics of the more mature Valmont and Tourvel. The young lovers are carefully playful with each other, and in the November 3 performance, Luna Sasaki and Yoshiya Sakurai made a winsome pair. Nicole Caron, who plays Cécile in alternate performances and who reprised the role from its 2008 incarnation, was featured at the end of the night in a touching send-off from the company. The dancer retires after an incredible sixteen-year run with Alberta Ballet.
Valmont and Tourvel, danced respectively by Garrett Groat and Hayna Gutierrez are a masterful match, albeit predictable in the movement of their cat-and-mouse pursuit. The pair of principals are long-time favourites of the Alberta Ballet audience and deftly convey the complexity of desire and, in Gutierrez’s case, utter devastation.
Act one closes as Valmont runs into an old flame and gets to vent some pent-up urges, concluding the scene with an all-hands-on-deck orgiastic tableau. Act two begins swiftly with Valmont finally taking up Merteuil’s challenge and bedding Cécile, stripping her of clothing (literally) and innocence.
Meanwhile, Merteuil has moved on, successfully seducing Danceny. Valmont goes back to his original pursuit of Tourvel, who finally succumbs to his advances. In yet another jerk move, Valmont ditches her quite unceremoniously, and she joins a convent where she succumbs to mental anguish and dies. Gutierrez is impeccable in this role: emotive and supple but also a bastion of strength and honour. Her demise is heartbreaking.
While act one drags in its convoluted set-up, all of act two seems to fly by in a series of scenes where Valmont actually spreads the legs of every woman onstage, save for Merteuil. The action becomes repetitive enough that yes, we get it, the sex is happening. Everywhere. There’s not much emphasis on the lack of conscience on Valmont’s part;the focus is more so on the utter betrayal and depravation of the women left in his wake.
Valmont gets sick of Merteuil’s manipulation and lures Danceny away from her, then reveals Cecile’s betrayal to Danceny, who becomes enraged and challenges Valmont to a duel. In the end, it’s the music teacher who finally slays the dastardly villain. It’s also here that the ultimate victory doesn’t feel so great; even with Valmont dead, every character is still suffering from shame or heartbreak.
The dancing is truly at its best, though, in the memorable corps of Angels that flutter past and through the downstage scenes, sometimes crab-like, other times towering like gargoyles around the various characters in their most vulnerable moments. Cast in film noir-ish shadows and neutral, the stage apron is given a dark, nuanced wash, casting intricate shadows on the dancers’ bodies. Designed expertly by Pierre Lavoie, this lighting treatment gives the corps an eerie texture, each muscle defined by a hint of ethereal glow.
The choreography of the Angels is a paragon of Grand-Maître’s imaginative style; jagged limbs, aggressive scissor-legged lifts and disconcerting upside-down shoulder stands all add to the creeping stakes that grow as the story becomes increasingly morose. These bodies are the ones that illustrate the threat and weight of the games being played and are truly the highlight of the show.