Bad people make potent ballet in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’

When he turned “Dangerous Liaisons” into a ballet, Sasha Janes made a clever change. He took a character who’s a music teacher in the original story and turned him into a fencing instructor.

That sets things up so the scene at the midpoint of this tale of serial seduction – premiered by N.C. Dance Theatre on Thursday – can unfold in a fencing class. In this class, each pair of students consists of a man and a woman, sparring and teasing at the same time. The fencing foils become weapons of flirtation.

That strikes right at the heart of the story. In “Liaisons,” romance is a sport. It’s about strategy and conquest, not love.

That’s why most of the characters in “Liaisons” aren’t very appealing. But Janes’ 50-minute ballet makes their urges and actions so vivid that these hard-hearted figures – especially the scheming duo of Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil – become compelling nonetheless.

Valmont and the marquise, played by David Ingram and Rebecca Carmazzi, have smooth, killer-instinct exteriors. But Janes exposes the weakness underneath.

The marquise is cold yet clingy, as her scene with her first paramour reveals. Valmont turns out to have feelings. When they get tangled in his conniving, he takes off in a lunging, whirling outburst as if he’s trying to fling himself apart. Carmazzi conveys a tension that’s as telling as Ingram’s explosiveness.

It’s the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, played by Jamie Dee, who sets off Valmont’s emotions. When Tourvel finally gives in to him, their pas de deux is the one scene of real tenderness in the ballet. She sometimes floats above Valmont, sometimes practically melts into him. Dee makes it so rapturous that there’s no wonder Valmont is touched.

As two young people drawn into the schemes, Anna Gerberich sparkles as Cecile, and Pete Walker is a vigorous, ardent Danceny. The rest of the company’s freewheeling pizazz suits the tale’s air of no-holds-barred revelry.

Rather than three-dimensional sets, designer John P. Woodey supplies banks of video screens that illustrate locales or what the characters are thinking about. On a platform hovering above the action, composer, cellist and singer Ben Sollee performs his score, which by turns is melancholy, raucous, buoyant and ethereal.

“It ain’t enough just to love yourself,” Sollee sings at the beginning. No wonder the marquise, racked with guilt about her deeds, ends up in an asylum.

The program’s opener, Dwight Rhoden’s “Artifice,” is madcap rather than madhouse. Propelled by a series of musical quick-changes, it’s part circus, part Elvis’ Las Vegas, and maybe a little “Twilight Zone.”

A jittery, oddball ringmaster – Ingram, mixing athleticism and Charlie Chaplin goofiness – sets a menagerie of sideshow characters into action. Now and then, they’re a vivacious and disciplined group, apparently doing his bidding. But they often take off in individual antics.

A glamor girl played slinkily by Dee sometimes toys with the poor ringmaster. Whatever indignities he goes through, though, the group finally rallies around him in a sort of apotheosis, with him seated at the center. He ends up a lot better off than the Marquise de Merteuil.