Even without the masks (which most of us are wearing) and the deliberate, careful spacing of the audience, the metallic click and breathy “gasp” of cans of cider being opened around the auditorium (there’s no bar tonight), would tell you this is not a normal evening at the ballet. But we’re back.
They’re back. Those gifted, dogged humans, who train and hone their artistic talents for years on end. Those whose efforts can reinvigorate the weariness of spirits. Tonight, the very sound of musicians tuning and warming up, coming from the pit as we enter, carries added significance and defiant exuberance. One violinist seems determined to squeeze in a couple of concertos’ worth of notes, before the maestro enters the pit and the real night’s work begins. I doff my cap to her/his stamina. I have some flavour of how she feels. We have come through.
This is the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre space – necessarily sparsely populated for social distancing – and we are here for the return of Northern Ballet.
Much like its central characters, Dangerous Liaisons is a treacherous piece. Laclos’s 18th century tale, oozing lust, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, must whisper seductively in a choreographer’s ear. But how to capture it in movement?
David Nixon’s creation opens and closes with short extracts of spoken text. Since we’re dealing in letters (the plot turns on epistolary indiscretions) back projected script might have been more effective (especially given that, in one or two places, the voiceover actors don’t seem to have fully grasped the meaning of the words they’re speaking).
At the heart of the story rages a battle for supremacy between two despicable characters – the ruthless seducer, Valmont, and the manipulative egotist, the Marquise de Merteuil. Each of these has had multiple lovers – the more innocent and forbidden, the better – but while Valmont exploits, ravishes and moves on, Merteuil gathers evidence…and hoards power. Each now desires the upper hand over the other, and the fallout will result in despair, disgrace, and death.
I’d always advise artistic directors to work with a dramaturg – it’s their business to seek out the heart of a drama and bring it to the fore. Nixon’s version retains too much plot, with the effect that it fails to allow space for the two central relationships (between Valmont and the Marquise, and Valmont and the pious, faithful Madame de Tourvel) to climb above the background landscape of deception and seduction.
Musical director, Jonathan Lo, uses Vivaldi throughout. Excellent music though it is, again the end result is to flatten the emotional pitch, painting each step with the colours of a single palette. The lusty acrobatics of Valmont cavorting with his various conquests show the same pastel hues as his life-defining, unanticipated romance with Mme de Tourvel. It’s all very nice, and that’s the problem. Alastair West’s lighting design is, given the needs of the production, insufficiently obtrusive.
That said, the pas de deux of Joseph Taylor (Valmont) and Antoinette Brooks-Daw (Mme de Tourvel) are undoubted highlights of the ballet; a moment or two transcending the general prettiness of the whole.
Abigail Prudames (Marquise de Merteuil), Rachael Gillespie (Cécile), Heather Lehman (Courtesan Emilie) and Filippo Di Vilio (Chevalier Danceny) all play their parts to good effect.
As a return to performing arts, it feels like a prescription from a cautious physician. “Don’t overdo it, until you find your feet again.”
There are some cheers and even a smattering of standing ovations at curtain call. We are all glad to be back.
Dangerous Liaisons performed by Northern Ballet is at The Lowry, Salford from 1-5 June and London, Sadler’s Wells from 8-10 June 2021. Age guidance 12 plus due to scenes of a sexual nature and sexual violence including a rape scene. The company has made the programme available to read online for free.