Great works of fiction often live on for centuries, but few have the longevity of “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” the French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos originally published in 1782. The ultimate tale of manipulation and seduction, better known to audiences today as “Dangerous Liaisons,” spawned a stage play, a BBC radio series, an opera, French TV miniseries and numerous films including two Korean versions and the 1999 teen adaptation “Cruel Intentions.” In the late `80s, it enjoyed a particularly triumphant comeback with the Oscar winning 1988 film “Dangerous Liaisons” (starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich) followed by a 1989 version by award-winning director Milos Forman called “Valmont,” starring Colin Firth and Annette Bening. As if it didn’t have legs already, North Carolina Dance Theatre and director Sasha Janes are creating a contemporary ballet version for Charlotte audiences with original music by pop cellist/composer Ben Sollee. It runs April 26-28 at Knight Theater (430 S. Tryon St.). It’s not the first time “Dangerous Liaisons” has been performed as a ballet, but it may well be the most unique version. David Nixon reworked the piece for a performance in Berlin in 1990 using the music of Vivaldi, but the Janes/Sollee collaboration appears striking given the haunting, dark snippets of cello music and sexy costumes that were revealed early in the staging process.
The story is a convoluted and complicated one. Former lovers the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont play a game of seduction and revenge, with the latter seducing two fairly chaste women for his and his old friend’s amusement. But the tables are constantly turning in this game as players switch sides and emotions run deeper than the cruel game would suggest. Janes has taken liberties with the complicated storyline, molding it to fit one act and transforming the static tale of letters into a story of movement and dance. Young Chevalier Danceny is a fencing instructor instead of a music teacher, for instance – a change that lends itself to the final duel (“A ballet instructor would be too obvious,” notes Janes). The action doesn’t take place in any given era.
“We’re not doing it in period,” Janes explains. “To give it the look of the film is not possible financially. That’s a million-dollar ballet. I think it would be great to rip off the film entirely and put it on stage and make it a ballet, but that is someone else’s interpretation of the book. Though there are certainly elements that influenced how it will look on stage in regards to the film.
“If you’ve read the book, it’s basically letters to and from the main characters. That’s another thing. Do you have people passing letters? I think that’s too literal. What I’m trying to do is to tell the story through dance. It’s important that it’s visual,” he adds.
In addition to dance, video projections and elegant-yet-revealing costumes, Sollee will perform live with the ballet. The plan is to have him hovering above the dancers in some sort of moveable rig.
“I think that’s so important for dance,” Sollee said recently from his home in Louisville. “Unfortunately because of money and ease of rehearsal, dancers have gotten acquainted with dancing with recordings of music. It’s not really giving the dancers the opportunity to truly dance. They’re fitting themselves into the music as opposed to what happens between music and the dance. I’m not saying it’s not compelling with recordings, but it’s more compelling with live music. You can feel the performance breathing a lot more.”
Janes was familiar with Sollee’s music through David Ingram, a dancer with NCDT who knew Sollee from his work with the Louisville Ballet. Though he was not familiar with the film or book, Sollee dove in as a fan of dance who thrives on the collaborative process.
“I felt so awkward carrying the book around in airports. ‘Exotic thriller,’ it said on the front,” the classically trained cellist half-jokes. “It’s not that dissimilar from the soap operas of today. All the characters are so big it’s easy to write music for. From reading, I formulated ideas, but the idea of this performance is going to be stylized in a different context.
“For this ballet we’re setting it in an open framework and taking a sound design, almost cinematic approach to the music as opposed to trying to interlace characters with motifs and make it a narrative piece. Let the movement on stage carry the narrative,” Sollee explains, who has watched the film with the sound low. “The book is a little more attenuated in the way the characters can joust with each other verbally. With the Marquise (de Merteuil) you see how twisted she is. Her music is very textural and very dense. It’s always very provoking. Valmont - he’s just a dude that’s getting kind of egged on. Sasha and I see him as a little bit of a victim in this. His music is somewhat carefree and showy. He’s not nearly as maniacal. He’s trying to catch what he wants.”
It’s certainly the story, despite leads who aren’t necessarily the most likeable, that continues to intrigue audiences centuries after it was written. “The story is still relevant,” says Janes. “I could’ve set it on Wall Street. At the end of the day it’s about human behavior and manipulation.”
Ben Sollee is a classically trained pop cellist from Louisville, Ky. who has released three solo albums and has worked with renowned artists like Bela Fleck, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Vienna Teng. He’s currently taking contributions for his upcoming album “Half-Made Man” through www.pledgemusic.com. He lives in Louisville with his wife and young son.
Sasha Janes was born in Perth, Australia and received his formal dance training from the Australian Ballet School. He has danced professionally with The West Australian Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Dayton Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre. He serves as rehearsal director of NC Dance Theatre after eight seasons dancing there. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.
Want to go? What: Dangerous Liaisons When: April 26-28 Where: Knight Theater Details: Tickets: $25-79. 704-372-1000. www.ncdance.org