Grand Rapids Ballet – Dangerous Liaisons
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
February 12-21, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Rock icon Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister of English speed metal band Motörhead famously crooned “the chase is better than the catch” in the band’s 1980 hit song of the same name. For bored French aristocrats The Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ballet adaptation of Stephen Frears’ 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons for Grand Rapids Ballet, “the chase” became a treacherous game in itself.
Frears’ film, with screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was an adaptation of Hampton’s play Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. A succession almost as confusing to follow as Merteuil and Valmont’s romantic tristes in Ochoa’s PG-13 ballet involving cruel games of seduction and betrayal deliciously played out by GRB’s dancers in her skillfully-crafted contemporary ballet choreography.
The second such Dangerous Liaisons ballet by Ochoa, the first in 2013 for Augsburg Ballet, this 75-minute, 2-act, world-premiere production at GRB’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre ranks among the very best the steadily rising company has produced.
The performance on February 13 opened on dancer Yuka Oba as Merteuil encircled by four female dancers and Nicholas Schultz as Valmont by four males. The nasty, yet over-privileged pair were lifted, spun and further dressed onstage by their servants including Schultz donning a period-styled top coat with the image of a gold skull on its back.
Set to a recorded music collage from Beethoven and Bach to Dutch composer Almar Kok, with minimalist set design by Ochoa featuring overhead chandeliers and double-sided moving panels, the production set in 18th-century France, had the updated contemporary feel of a Baz Luhrmann film. Adding to that look was Michael Mazzola’s soft lighting design and Danielle Truss’ stripped down costumes that included skeletal hoop skirts for the women.
The dark and sexual nature of the subject matter of the story was brilliantly offset by Ochoa’s cheeky handling of its sexy bits via humor; replacing potential vulgarity with pulse-racing delight.
Like misbehaving teens who got their kicks from one-upping each other in ever risqué behavior and accumulating sexual conquests, Oba shined as the devious Merteuil casting bedroom eyes while dancing with determined attitude and power. Schultz was also captivating as the bold, back-stabbing bad boy Valmont whose hands and lips found their way on to almost anything that moved regardless of gender. The pair weren’t alone in their sexual desires as the ballet was awash in horny characters.
The somewhat convoluted story where sexual partners were like library books, easily obtained and swapped, found Merteuil and Valmont, when not pawing at each other, scheming up games of conquest and revenge that toyed with emotions and destroyed lives. At Merteuil’s request Valmont seduced the young Cécile de Volanges, played with sensual innocence by Cassidy Isaacson, and then lured a reluctant Grace Haskins as Madame de Tourvel away from her husband (Christian Griggs-Drane) into an affair, while Merteuil seduced Cécile de Volanges’ would-be lover and music teacher Chevalier Danceny (Isaac Aoki).
Fueling all this mayhem were letters passed between the characters that served to entice encounters, disparage reputations, and ultimately reveal Valmont and Merteuil’s wanton depravity.
By the ballet’s second act, schemes unfolded and the public began to get wind of Merteuil and Valmont’s exploits.
Highlighting Ochoa’s descriptive choreography for the ballet littered with engaging duets, trios, and group dancing, were several lush pas de deux. The most memorable being Madame de Tourvel’s giving herself to Valmont and him falling in love with her. To moving cello music, Haskins was enchanting as the vulnerable Tourvel. Her graceful, fluid dancing was spellbinding. Schultz proved a solid, giving partner to her in this emotional pas de deux.
As Hampton said of Valmont and Merteuil in an interview about the Dangerous Liaisons movie, their world relies on a system of people not being in love with one another. When Valmont falls in love, that system collapses. And so it did in Ochoa’s ballet with virtually every one of the main characters having their hearts broken, gone insane, or died. The ballet’s final scene fittingly found a society-banished Merteuil seated alone at a dinner table set for many and slowly succumbing to madness. Oba in a period gown and powdered wig, chillingly barked orders at her servants, violently trashed the table setting, and then slumped totally defeated into her chair vacantly staring off into the distance.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons continues 7:30 p.m., Feb., 19 & 20 and 2 p.m., Feb. 21. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave SW, Grand Rapids, Michigan. $38-48. (616) 454-4771 or grballet.com.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.