Photo by Emma Kauldahar

Northern Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

Dangerous Liaisons and Contemporary Cuts

What a pleasure it was to see Northern Ballet return to Sadler’s Wells in two very different programmes. The first was director David Nixon’s version of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous 18th century novel Dangerous Liaisons, which tells of cruel seductions, scheming and manipulative games, played out among the aristocracy. It can be a tricky task to create a narrative ballet that is easily digestible to audiences with varying degrees of initiation, especially those with complex and intricate storylines. In this case, the novel itself was written in the form of letters, adding another convolution to the stage version. All things considered, Nixon achieves clear character depictions and if the story weaves in and out of clarity, the outcomes could not be more obvious. The main protagonists are the Marquise de Merteuil (Abigail Prudames) and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (Joseph Taylor), the happily married and pious Madame de Tourvel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw), the virginal Cécile Volanges (Rachel Gillespie) and Chevalier Danceny (Matthew Koon).

Abigail Prudames as the Marquise and Joseph Taylor as Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons” Photos by Emma Kauldhar

The Marquise is the instigator of the heartbreak and downfall of each character by challenging Valmont to embark on various acts of seduction, first with Volanges and then Madame de Tourvel, while she herself indulges in a dalliance with Danceny. The most powerful tool in portraying all that we need to know comes in the form of Nixon’s passionate, sometimes brutal pas de deux. Of course, he has had a career of executing many pas de deux himself and knows only too well how to express emotions and intentions through the type of movement he uses. Without being crass or blatant, we are aware that Volanges does not willingly succumb to Valmont’s attentions. As she is thrown into high, flying jetés (very exciting to the viewer), it becomes apparent that she has nevertheless been violated. In Act II, the pas de deux between Valmont and de Tourvel, which are explicitly filled with lust, love, betrayal and finally destruction, are exhilarating to watch.

Antoinette Brooks-Daw as Madame de Tourvel and Joseph Taylor as Valmont

Beautifully costumed (Nixon’s own designs) and with a minimalist set, the dancing comes into sharp focus. Set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it is the second act that is most impactful. Prudames gave a fearsome account of the calculating Marquise de Merteuil, as well as being the reigning queen of arabesque balances. Taylor is such an attractive leading man, with a huge jump and partnering skills that are exemplary. He acts well, but occasionally slips back into his natural, kinder disposition rather than projecting an image of a man as a sexual predator, without a conscience. In time, he will no doubt grow into the character and risk revealing the unscrupulous perpetrator that Valmont undoubtedly is. His pas de deux with the always excellent Brooks-Daw were emotionally well-paced, initially rather brusque, latterly infused with barely controllable emotion. Gillespie, a genuinely strong stage presence, was completely engaging as the impressionable Volange and Koon gave his usual 200% to Danceny, bounding at great height and speed through the air. The company were on great form in spite of the inevitable and ongoing pandemic issues and it was also good to have live music played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia.

Northern Ballet dancers in “For an Instant”

As if to accentuate the versatility of the dancers (a prerequisite for any company of note these days), the second programme offered a varied mix of contemporary excerpts and two London premieres. The first was by Amaury Lebrun titled For an Instant. Using music by Heinrich Biber and Henry Purcell, it’s an abstract work portraying fleeting moments in life. With that slightly ambiguous premise – it turned out to be a beautifully constructed series of dances: solos, duets and ensembles that seamlessly melded into one another. Amid a highly invested and committed cast, Kevin Poeung and Koon once again, were particularly in tune with each other.

Following this were three pas de deux from some of Northern Ballet’s best loved works.  Demis Volpi’s Little Monsters is a quirky pas de deux set to three of Elvis Presley’s well known songs. Each song represents the different stages of a love affair, from new love through to the relationship’s demise. Brilliantly executed by Prudames and Taylor, there were some interesting ideas. The first song, ‘Love Me Tender’ had Prudames placed behind Taylor, virtually obscured, doing highly stylised arm movements that were very effective. The last song, ’Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, was tinged with inevitable melancholy.

Minju Kang in “For an Instant”

The second excerpt was from Jonathan Watkins’ 1984 – the Countryside Pas de Deux. Minju Kang and Lorenzo Trossello were tremendous as the lovers, Julia and Winston. Absolutely believable as the pair who are forbidden any kind of relationship, their clandestine meeting is charged with a certain desperation. Alex Baranowski’s score offers all the light and shade to enhance the action on stage.

The final pas de deux was the Proposal Pas de Deux from Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre. This is a duet that works well whether it is within the context of the full-length ballet or as an excerpt. This is in part due to the dancers’ portrayals but aside from that – it feels satisfyingly complete. Dominique Larose and Mlindi Kulashe, neither of whom I’ve seen in these roles previously, managed the fine balance between an uncertain beginning and the openly, joyous relief when they discovered their love was mutual.

Sarah Chun and Kyungka Kwak in “States of Mind”

The last ballet was Kenneth Tindall’s State of Mind. Created entirely during lockdown and with all the restrictions that that entailed, including social distancing and limited time, the outcome is aesthetically very pleasing. With a mixture of music – JS Bach, Jacob Ter Veldhuis and Aretha Franklin, no less and with voice over clips from various news reports – unsurprisingly this is both thoughtfully put together and thought provoking. It’s not hard to imagine how stressful it must have been for all concerned within the industry at the start of lockdown, when it’s a profession that is based on close, physical proximity and team work. However, as Tindall points out in an interview in the programme, the pandemic has, through necessity given artists a platform to discover different ways to work and to learn new skills. While no one would have wished to create under these circumstances, there is no diminution in the quality of work, it’s simply different. The large cast begins on a serious but fluid note and by the end the mood is verging on ecstatic. I wasn’t going to single anyone out because the dancing from everyone was first rate, but I cannot resist mentioning Matthew Topliss, who surreptitiously slinks into the groove of Aretha Franklin’s beat and seems to the entice the whole stage to rock with him. A very positive conclusion!

by Deborah Weiss