Review: Dangerous Liaisons (Queensland Ballet)

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We went to see Queensland Ballet’s hotly-anticipated Dangerous Liaisons – a brand-new, full-length, world premiere ballet by acclaimed choreographer and QB Artistic Associate Liam Scarlett. The season has concluded now, but I had such a jumble of feelings about the production that it has taken me this long to sort them out and write a cohesive review. I felt it was important to review the production itself, as a brand-new work, as well as the performance itself, especially as I felt such emotional conflict between the two things.

In essence, Dangerous Liaisons is a brilliant execution of – in my humble opinion – a less-than-brilliant idea. The Queensland Ballet dancers excelled in this performance in ways that I have not seen them do before. Scarlett has clearly worked with the dancers, never choreographs beyond their capabilities, and plays subtly to their individual strengths.

The ballet was promoted as being ‘for mature audiences’ and, to drive home that point, featured a graveside sex scene before the scrim even rose. As pornographic as classical ballet is likely to get, Dangerous Liaisons is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel, a tale of love, sex, and betrayal set amongst the aristocratic elite of late 18th century France.

As a nonverbal art form, ballet relies on physical storytelling as well as sets, props, and costumes to create clarity for the audience. Distinctive (and wonderfully lavish) sets and costuming by Tracy Grant Lord mostly kept the tangle of characters clear, but despite poring over the synopsis before the curtain rose I spent the entire first Act unsure if Cécile and Madame de Tourvel were the same person. Lighting design by Kendall Smith drew audiences into the shadowy alcoves and bedchambers of the French aristocracy as well as the brightly lit ballrooms.

The music for this world premiere ballet is also newly arranged by Martin Yates, a number of pieces from French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, although with none of the music in its original formats. “I have attempted to create a score that sounds totally symphonic and as if the composer had written it specifically for this ballet,” Yates wrote in his programme note and truly the effect is cohesive and thrilling, with the score performed live by Camerata, Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Nigel Gaynor.

Liam Scarlett excels at choreographing tension and power struggles, as he demonstrated in The Firebird, part of Queensland Ballet’s 2018 season, and Dangerous Liaisons is similarly thrilling. Scarlett also follows in the footsteps of Bob Fosse, paying equally close attention to the small movements in his choreography as to the exorbitant lifts and impressive pas de deux, and captures elements of traditional full-length ballets with a scattering of small pas de deux and pas de trios throughout, especially while key action occurred elsewhere. There were several moments and movements that left me wondering if I’d ever seen that in a ballet before – his choreography is in no way tired or hackneyed, but nonetheless remains firmly rooted in the traditional form of full-length classical ballets.

The Queensland Ballet dancers are to be heartily commended for their work in Dangerous Liaisons – they incited real loathing from the audience for their portrayal of these despicable characters as well as awe as they executed the challenging, often acrobatic choreography with skill.

Laura Hidalgo absolutely shone in the lead role of Marquise Isabelle de Mertueil: her final solo was a high point to leave the ballet on, dizzying and emotive; her technical prowess and athleticism were as strong as ever; her onstage chemistry with Alexander Idaszak as Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont was electrifying, in contrast to her proud coldness towards all other characters; and her pas de deux with Idaszak, especially the final one, spectacular and impassioned, her breath audible from the balcony at the conclusion. Idaszak’s performance was equally powerful, his embodiment of the brutish nobleman and subsequent descent into love enchanting. He was deservedly promoted to Senior Soloist on closing night.

Neneka Yohsida’s performance was technically immaculate as usual, and her pas de deux with Idaszak arguably the best in the show – acrobatic and athletic as well as emotional, but danced seemingly with ease. Yanela Piñera was lovely as Cécile Volanges, with such quick, neat footwork that she seemed to be floating and long, clean extensions.

Sophie Zoricic was also a standout, with excellent control and strong characterisation in her role as Émilie, Valmont’s favourite courtesan. Liam Geck and David Power were also a good pairing as the two courtiers, setting a strong tone in Act 1 for the rest of the corps. Rian Thompson had lovely moments of suspension as he danced the role of Le Chevalier Raphael de Danceny, and Lina Kim and Kohei Iwamoto lit up the stage with their intermittent duets, full of character. The corps de ballet, only eight dancers, were well-timed and well-synchronised and brought their own slices of personality to the stage.

In this era of cultural shift, when women’s oppression and power are finally coming to the forefront of conversation in many sectors, to commission another full-length ballet in which women have no agency and are also groped, thrown to the ground, intimidated, and raped, seems terribly out of touch. I understand that the plot of Dangerous Liaisons, being initially a book and adapted in numerous films, is set in stone; however, the decision to create and perform this work still lies with Queensland Ballet.

In summary, Dangerous Liaisons was beautifully choreographed and performed exceptionally by Camerata and the Queensland Ballet dancers, but was ultimately disappointing in its content, outmoded not only by the period in which the ballet is set but by the era in which we are currently living and making art. A fantastic ballet, and visually spectacular, but hardly a step forward for the art form.

Dangerous Liaisons will tour regionally to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Toowoomba, and Mackay. Ticketing and further information is available on the Queensland Ballet website.

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