Tonight BalletMet opened their second performance of the season, a revival of former Artistic Director David Nixon’s Dangerous Liaisons. Most people in Columbus know of Nixon’s choreography through BalletMet’s autumnal favorite, Dracula, but this, his first choreographed ballet, is just as innovative, daring, and—may I say—sexy as the Count and his machinations.
Based on the novel of the same name, and inspired by several films, Dangerous Liaisons tells the story of machinations of the Marquise de Merteuil (danced exquisitely by Annie Mallonee—more on her in a minute) and her lover/co-conspirator, the Vicomte de Valmont (Jimmy Orrante, who actually originated this role at BalletMet sixteen years ago. At the end of the performance, Nixon came onstage and bowed before him.) After the Marquise hears of a marriage between her sheltered, virginal cousin Cecile and one of the Marquise’s former lovers (Jessica Brown and Andres Estevez, respectively), the Marquise concocts a plan to ruin Cecile’s reputation, get her revenge on the count, and generally cause mischief among her set of French aristocrats. Valmont initially resists—he has a mind to seduce the very faithfully-married Madame de Tourvel (Adrienne Benz), but he wouldn’t mind having a piece of Cecile as well. If he succeds in his seduction of her cousin, the Marquise promises a night of pleasure (with herself, natch) as his reward.
Initially, all goes as planned. But then Valmont falls in love with Madame de Tourvel. And that was not part of the Marquise’s plan.
This is the most sensual, seductive, and sexy ballet I have ever seen, and I’ve seen Dracula and Bolero, as well as Carmina Burana. Nixon perfectly captures the tone of the epistalatory novel with a myriad of aching sensual pas des deux. Orrante and Benz do brilliant and gorgeous work, with perfect timing, especially in their pas that closes Act I and reveals the love they both legitimately have for each other. Brown’s evolution from the sheltered, naive Cecile to a young woman who has tapped her sensual side is a pleasure to watch, as she is both an excellent dancer and fantastic actress. When her mother (Olivia Clark, in a very well-played, comic turn) discovers the secret letters she has been exchanging with the handsome and romantic Chevalier Danceny (David Ward), Brown is heartbroken at their separation. Valmont’s seduction of her is uncomfortable to watch—as it should be, since she is desperately trying to escape him—but in Act II we have a glimpse of the pleasure she enjoys with him. Brown presented a beautifully textured performance, and Ward is a revelation. This is his first year with the company, and Danceny is a role that requires top-notch technique and a fearsome athleticism, since the role requires much in the way of batteries—leaps, tours l’en air, entracht, etc. It is a virtuoso role, and Ward played it brilliantly. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.
As Madame de Tourvel, Ms. Benz did, once again, a phenomenal job. Every role she is given, she inhabits fully, providing the audience with consistent, splendid performances. Here, she shone especially in Act II when Valmont abruptly ends their relationship in order to salvage his reputation with the Marquise. Having given her entire self to him, she is now ruined—she, a married woman, has had an affair, and now has absolutely nothing except her love for him. Watching her in this scene was heartbreaking.
Orrante, as always, displays incredible acting and technical brilliance as Valmont, the closest thing to a hero the piece has. Beginning as a somewhat spoiled, lazy and sensuous aristocrat, he discovers true love with Tourvel, only to throw it away to regain the “respect” of the Marquise. While he dies without regaining Tourvel, he has his revenge, for before his death he tells Danceny of the Marquise’s duplicity, and she is, eventually, ruined.
The Marquise is the tightly-wound, hyper-controlling puppeteer of this society. (In one Act I scene, the Marquise is, actually, a puppeteer—she mimes pulling strings and the dancers react like puppets, their heads, arms, and legs shooting out at odd angles as she pulls.) As Nixon said in a post-show talk, “Everything you see from her is pre-meditated.” Not only is the role technically demanding (jetes, fouettes, and other incredible feats are required), but the dancer must be an incredible actress. In Act II, as she reads the letter telling her of Valmont’s love for Tourvel, her face recoils in rage. At the end of the ballet, she lets out a scream as she finally loses control of her world, as news of her duplicity reaches society. Yet, for the majority of the ballet, she is charming, sensuous and desirable. Mallonee managed to balance all these things and give a tour de force performance tonight. She was, in every way, perfect. I could picture no other dancer giving as complete and chilling a portrayal of the Marquise as she did this evening. (Mallonee and Brown will dance their roles throughout the entire run, instead of alternating with other dancers, as is typical BalletMet practice.)
All of Nixon’s ballets are very character driven—the drama is portrayed through them, and their relationships. Thus, all of his dancers must be excellent actors. That criteria was definitely met this evening. Dangerous Liaisons is a tricky story to follow in and of itself, and without words, it can be even more challenging. But Nixon presents a cohesive, sexy story that draws the audience so close they feel as if they are actively participating in the drama. Set to the music of Vivaldi, Nixon’s ballet grabs you almost instantly, and doesn’t let you go easily. Long after the curtain has come down on the Marquise ripping her last letter into long shreds, the characters—and their desires and heartbreaks—are still very much with you.
BalletMet presents David Nixon’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Riffe Center’s Capitol Theater (77 S. High Street), Nov. 5-13, 2010. Tickets can be purchased at the BalletMet box office, balletmet.org, or at the Riffe Center box office.
And a side note: David Nixon is really nice. And funny!