Cinderella or The Nutcracker, this production is not.
Queensland Ballet has boldly started its season with the world premiere of a new Liam Scarlett work based on the original Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Scandalous as the novel was then, it is no less disturbing a tale now with its depiction of cruel and exploitative relationships in a backdrop of hedonism and brazen sexual behaviour of a morally bereft aristocratic elite. The two characters that encapsulate the dark malice that hides under the lavish courtly life of the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy are the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil and one of her many former lovers Vicomte de Valmont. These two principal roles are magnificently acted (there needs to be a lot of acting in this production to convey the plot) and superbly danced in our session by Lucy Green (Merteuil) and Victor Estevez (Valmont).
The stage is set with the opening scene of Merteuil having a flagrant liaison on the coffin of her late husband shortly after his funeral. The complicated plot thickens in Act One as Merteuil meets with the Vicomte de Valmont to devise a convoluted means of revenge against the Comte de Gercourt. This involves a series of liaisons, seductions and a cruel use of people as pawns for their pleasure and personal power. The two main victims who are seduced are females; Cecil Volanges (danced by Tonia Looker) and Madame de Torvel (danced by Georgia Swan), both of whom convey their innocence and ambivalence by hovering between rejection of and submission to their seducer's persistent advances. The other two characters caught up in the web of deceit are the Comte de Gercourt (danced by Dylan Lackey) and Le Chevalier Raphael de Danceny (danced by Kohei Iwamato).
Did I mention that the means for revenge were diabolically convoluted?
The plot is really complicated (several people I spoke to at interval were confused), so in order to understand the intricate story of characters with complicated names with even more complicated sexual mores, I suggest that you read the novel or see one of the many films and read the synopsis before embarking on this dance interpretation. Without such prior knowledge, this production may come across as a panoply of seduction and erotic intrigue rather than a story redolent of power- politics, narcissism, revenge, love versus lust, exploitation, loss and ultimately damnation.
English choreographer Liam Scarlet had the fiendishly difficult task of converting an epistolary novel (a story based on letters by the main protagonists to each other) into dance form without the advantage of the letters' content or any dialogue. The Queensland ballet corps extensively and successfully uses expressive dance and gestures to be faithful to Scarlet's interpretation and they are backed up by designer Tracy Grant Lord's exacting renditions of historical costumes and simple revolving set designs with secret chambers to highlight the drama between the characters. The mood filled lighting, sometimes blood red in hue, by designer Kendall Smith also enhanced the drama of the scenes.
Appropriately, Saint-Saens, a French composer, was chosen by the music arranger Martin Yates and, by piecing together many of Saint-Saens' musical works into a coherent symphonic whole, Martin has powerfully undergirded the choreography and captured the historical flavour of life in 18th century France.
Under the baton of Nigel Gaynor, the Camerata-Queensland Chamber Orchestra provided an impeccable and dynamic rendition of this music.
Judging by the numerous plays, films and dance interpretations of this story, many a creative visionary has lent his or her hand to their own interpretation of the palpable drama of Dangerous Liaisons. Was this my favourite interpretation? Perhaps not but it certainly was an expressive and adventurous choreographic work. And it was certainly up to the usual Queensland Ballet standard; beautifully danced, impeccably rehearsed, and with the usual high production values.
This performance of Dangerous Liaisons may have been a bold step for Queensland Ballet but they are making forays into novel territory from very firm footings established over many years. And now, as they step out into the 2020 season aptly entitled "Bold Moves", their brave ventures (and perhaps with a deliberate soupçon of danger in their first production) have well and truly begun.