In terms of risk, this liaison with Northern Ballet at Sadler’s Wells – the middle part of their brief three-venue, post-lockdown tour – was anything but dangerous. The specially adapted version of David Nixon’s full-length interpretation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century epistolary novel requires a small cast (just eleven dancers), no scenic transitions and an orchestra exclusively comprised of strings, which ticked all the boxes for socially-distanced performance and – in a very important sense – it seems only fair to review it against the essential requirement, which was to present a ballet for these times that was safe. 

Abigail Prudames (Marquise)
© Emma Kauldhar (2020)

However, that said, paring the ballet down to these basics only served to heighten the confusion in this complex story of desire, seduction and revenge, played out in a series of interwoven relationships. Despite the best efforts of superb dancers, the knots in the narrative were difficult to untangle and only became knottier and, as a result, the sense of theatre was blurred. The novel’s essential sense of intrigue, which is linked to events occurring in different places, was lacking when everything appeared to take place in a communal room: the design motif of raising and lowering different chandeliers was clearly an attempt to suggest some locational variety but I struggled to make that mental leap. The very nice period sofa which was ubiquitous to all boudoirs was itself an object of desire.

It may seem a statement of the obvious but Les Liaisons dangereuses is about words, not merely because is it is a novel but more pertinently because Choderlos de Laclos used just the medium of letters written between the various characters to tell the story. Nixon opens and closes his choreography with statements translated from the original but in between these “bookends” the storytelling struggled to attain clarity through dance and gesture alone. The only vocal assistance came in an ear-piercing scream, which may have served as a wake-up call just prior to the curtain coming down, but it seemed an unnecessary aural assault.

Filippo di Vilio (Danceny) and Rachael Gillespie (Cecile)
© Emma Kauldhar (2020)

If the events on stage were not always clear, the danced performances were exceptional beginning with Abigail Prudames’ superb expression of the scheming Marquise de Merteuil. It was such a convincing and compelling performance that I had to check and double-check that it was Prudames in the role, since it was so unlike anything else that I had seen her perform. Joseph Taylor had a suitable aura of devil-may-care, dashing nobility in the ultimately tragic role of the Vicomte de Valmont (forever to be associated with John Malkovich). The ballet may have been reduced from Nixon’s original construction but the Valmont role is no less strenuous with sundry passionate pas de deux danced by Taylor with the three main female performers.  

I was confused between the performances of Madame de Tourvel and the virginal Cécile de Volanges, respectively danced by Antoinette Brooks-Daw and Rachael Gillespie, and I confess that I had the pair initially mixed up. Matthew Koon was the dashing music tutor, the Chevalier Danceny, torn between his love for Cécile and the seductive attentions of the acquisitive Merteuil. 

Joseph Taylor (Valmont) and Antoniette Brooks-Daw (Madame de Tourvel)
© Emma Kauldhar (2020)

Although composed several decades prior to the publication of Les Liaisons dangereuses, the use of Vivaldi’s music has an appropriate aesthetic resonance with the period and Nixon has selected pieces from The Four Seasons that match the temperature of his pas de deux, such as the sultry and tempestuous Summer for the explosive duet between Taylor and Gillespie, as Valmont and Cécile; and the Romantic duet early in the second act between Taylor and Brooks-Daw (including an impressive Spartacus-style presage lift). Big lifts excepted, Nixon’s choreography was cleverly constructed around key elements of Baroque dance that further enhanced the 18th-century atmosphere.

As a means of keeping the audience in their seats during the interval, there was an incongruous unrelated film, including interviews, about Northern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, which is to follow later in the season, albeit only in Leeds. It was a strange divertissement.    

Some – but by no means all – of these issues are the product of a need to respect the new conventions of live performance in the age of coronavirus but the over-cluttering of a dance theatre narrative has been a past criticism of Northern Ballet productions. One should not have to read the programme notes to understand what is happening on the stage and unfortunately this tends to present a barrier to accessibility for the art form.