Royal Danish Ballet
Dangerous Liaisons (Farlige forbindelser)
Copenhagen, Royal Danish Playhouse
27 May 2017
Cathy Marston is on a roll and in an area of dance – narrative – that has not always seemed so fashionable in recent decades. And yet it’s full-evening narrative ballets that audiences flock to – people want to see technique bent to greater and emotionally-charged purpose. But telling a story in dance is not at all easy and in London, as choreographers have shown renewed interest in storytelling, there have been some pretty stellar flops as dance makers struggle to deliver the goods and painfully learn what might work or not. Hopefully they learn. Marston on the other hand has always been interested in narrative and, from her early days at the Royal Opera House, as a choreographing director in Bern and latterly a freelance choreographer, she has been steadily carving out a name, in continental Europe particularly. Last year in England we saw just how accomplished a storyteller Marston has become when she tackled Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet (and garnered many 4 star reviews) and seeing her take on Les Liaisons dangereuses in Copenhagen I was again struck by just how effortlessly a story can be communicated and emotions laid bare by ballet – it was a triumph.
That I should be so moved is perhaps unusual in that this ballet actually included much spoken dialogue in Danish. Marston has long been driven by literary works and also the possibilities afforded by mixing actors and dancers on stage – here a collaboration between the Ballet and Drama Ensemble of the (Danish) Royal Theatre. With her regular dramaturg Edward Kemp they decided on a rather different approach to the well-known work – hence the different title Dangerous Liaisons – and set the piece 10 years after the book. It’s the time of the French Revolution, “The Terror”, and the Marquise de Merteuil in in jail, on the eve of her execution, and looking back on her previous life in a series of flashbacks. She is the only real person on stage.
This older version of Merteuil is played by Danish actress Marie Dalsgaard, and joining her in this review of a their libertine past is Mads Romer Brolin-Tani as the older Vicomte de Valmont. Their younger selves and all the other characters are dancers – 16 in all. Although compelling, as plots go Les Liaisons dangereuses isn’t the most straightforward, and refracting it with the mind games of looking back makes it the more complex. But this is the genius of good storytelling in dance and although I couldn’t understand the Danish dialogue and all the nuances of revised plot, I found the danced drama compulsive watching with all the manipulations and game-playing laid bare and clear.
Although sexual control and conquest is at the core of Dangerous Liaisons and it features some of the most memorable and blisteringly charged duets I’ve ever seen, what I like is the fractured way it is all told with layers of interest on stage. A posse of moving dressing mirrors sometimes reflect the action from another view, but they are also translucent and you can see the comings and goings of life above and below stairs at the back of the stage. None of us remember the past perfectly and the multi-viewed ever-changing approach shows the haziness. All the action takes place beneath a white spider’s web that reminds you of Merteuil’s imprisoned existence, the pressure of past memories’ rights and wrongs and also echoes the dress hoops of ladies’ petticoats. Excellent design of sets and costumes by Steffan Aarfing.
The fractured world has a fractured score, by Jasper Mechlenburg with Jonas Vest responsible for the overall sound design. It references Vivaldi and the 18th century but adds in more modern approaches like Max Reicher and Georgs Pelecis. It can be spookily sparse at times and I was particularly struck by some sections with flute and prepared piano for the most manipulative liaisons, when the hair on the back of your neck stands up. The lead dancing roles were particularly well cast with Kizzy Matiakis, as the well-worn Merteuil and Jon Axel Fransson as Valmont. When you first see Fransson he looks too young for such a scheming trickster, but he rapidly convinces with powerful, magnetic acting.
The young and innocent Cecile was danced by Ida Praetorius – wide-eyed gullibility turning to sexual enjoyment was strongly captured. Madame de Tourvel was also beautifully rendered by Astrid Elbo – her slow falling in love with Valmont and her eventual conquest and rejection are touchingly conveyed. A tall dancer, she has perfect control of her limbs which Marston uses to stunning dramatic, not to say orgasmic, effect. There are 8 dancers in unnamed roles – most notably as servants – and Marston brings their lot to life as they constantly skivvy at this and that and are used and abused as furniture and musical instruments – people of no consequence (until the revolution of course). Only the ageing Madame de Rosemonde seemed to be over-coloured amidst the believable drama on stage. The usually impeccable Sorella Englund rather overdoing the dotty character, and having to wield 2 sticks didn’t help. But I’m being very picky and it might just be the distorted view of Merteuil’s looking back. Whatever way I look at it this was first rate dance drama and I can’t help but feel I would have appreciated it even more if I could have understood the dialogue in its dancing context.
Come the end there was a standing ovation and later Royal Danish Ballet’s artistic director, Nikolaj Hubbe, candidly spoke of it being “a keeper” and bringing it back. It’s certainly a keeper, but it would be good to see it in the UK (and beyond) and acted in English. Not that Marston isn’t busy enough – busy resetting earlier works across Europe and on new commissions from the National Ballet of Cuba and San Francisco Ballet – Helgi Tomasson (the SFB artistic director) as on-the-ball as ever in spotting thrilling talent. Meanwhile in the UK Marston will be creating a new narrative work for Ballet Black, and Northern Ballet should be touring her Jane Eyre again next Spring. I’ll end as I started – Cathy Marston is on a roll.
As you know, I’m always ready to read good things about Cathy’s work – it’s just a pity that it so much of it happens so far away these days. Still, with commissions around Europe and now in San Francisco next year, I’m delighted to see her continue to build on the reputation established in Bern. One day we may know why her ROH2 time did not result in a piece for the RB on the mainstage, but I think that’s all water long under the bridge for her now.
I’m interested to see that, with Edward Kemp once again, she has chosen a ‘retrospective’ approach, using actors and dialogue as in Witch Hunt to clarify and advance the story. I’m personally fairly convinced that this is a valid way ahead for staging complex narratives, and she is nothing if not a literary choreographer. (I still recall the morning we were able to watch class in Bern when, after a spell in the office, she came in and lay down with a book of T S Eliot poetry.) And, from what you relate, she has not forgotten how to create some effectively erotic pdds!