Kyungka Kwak as Courtesan Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont. Northern Ballet - Dangerous Liaisons. Photo by Emma Kauldhar

There’s nothing like experiencing a live dance performance to put the spring back in our steps. And what could be better than the Northern Ballet’s production of Dangerous Liaisons performed at Sadler’s Wells to arouse the senses?

A tale of lust, deception and manipulation set in 18th century France, it follows the malicious deeds of Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont – two audacious, morally-challenged aristocrats straight out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the controversial epistolary novel written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel gained notoriety since its first publication in 1782, so much so that countless adaptations have proliferated worldwide – from films and TV to stage, opera and ballet. 

Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon, first choreographed the ballet version as part of the “David Nixon’s Liaisons” programme performed in Berlin back in 1990. For the 2021 season, he has done a marvellous job of reworking and interpreting the vicious machinations of the Marquise to exact vengeance on a lover who left her for the virtuous convent-bred Cécile de Volanges. Her accomplice, Valmont, a narcissist whose sexual appetite knows no bounds, is played by Mlindi Kulashe

Lorenzo Trossello as Danceny and MINJU KANG as the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Riku Ito
Lorenzo Trossello as Danceny and MINJU KANG as the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Riku Ito

Born and raised in Cape Town, Mlindi captured the essence of Valmont with his high-octane performance. As one could imagine, fleeting from one lover to the next can be an exhausting hobby, and the movements mimicking lustful intimacy with stylish contortions that would put the Kama Sutra to shame are executed with fluidity, technical virtuosity and physical prowess.

The Marquise is skilfully embodied by Minju Kang, whose delicate frame belies a fiery persona hell-bent on using her charms to get what she wants when she wants it. A native of Seoul, Minju started dancing at the age of four, training to be a ballet dancer like her mum. When asked what she likes most about being a dancer, Minju puts it down to “using our body and mind as a language to communicate with people”. Indeed, the intense emotions involved in this particularly demanding piece were beautifully conveyed by the dance ensemble. Expressing those feelings to connect with the audience also took the performance to a whole new level. 

The stage design was minimal – two chaise longues, a desk and chandeliers rising and dropping depending on the intensity of the scene, allowing the audience to focus on the performance, which was enhanced by full costumes reminiscent of that period. Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ was played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, adding to the passion and drama.

Kyungka Kwak as Courtesan Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Riku Ito
Kyungka Kwak as Courtesan Emilie and Mlindi Kulashe as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Photo Riku Ito

The twists and turns in the plot can be tricky to follow, let alone the to-ing and fro-ing of letters between lovers and rivals. Having read the book or seen the 1988 film adaptation starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich would have helped. However, the synopsis in the programme was sufficient to give the audience an idea of what was going on, although watching the story unfold without a word uttered does keep the mind focused and the imagination on its toes. 

In the end, after all of the heart-wrenching drama (and even some comedic moments) brilliantly conveyed by the whole company, the Marquise pays a high price for the lives she has destroyed, her cruel manipulations and the grief inflicted on her victims. Valmont is killed in a duel with Chevalier Danceny, another pawn; Madame de Tourvel, the true love Valmont deceived, dies of a broken heart, while Cecile is left in despair when her lover Danceny succumbs to the Marquise’s advances. Finally, when incriminating letters reveal the Marquise’s scheming, the disgraced aristocrat is left to simply vanish into oblivion. 

I would like to have seen a more dramatic climax conveying the Marquise’s downfall and her ruin. In the book, she flees to the countryside and eventually contracts smallpox, leaving her with a scarred face and losing sight in one eye. The poetic justice might have made a poignant denouement with Minju performing a final portrait of guilt and remorse – which, like the ballet itself, would have been beautifully executed.

But this is a minor regret in what is a spectacular display of artistry and boundless energy. All in all, Dangerous Liaisons is a piece of work bursting with character, creativity, and sterling performances.