How lucky we are in Tokyo, to be graced with the world premiere of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by one of the leading dancers of our time, the former Royal Ballet principal, Adam Cooper.
The 33-year-old Englishman became a overnight sensation in Japan two years ago, for his role as the Swan in the gay reworking of the classical ballet “Swan Lake” by Matthew Bourne’s London-based Adventures in Motion Pictures. It wasn’t just his outstanding dance technique, but his very charismatic aura that made such a huge impression. Then last year Cooper returned to Japan’s stage scene with his new version of the musical, “On Your Toes,” based on the 1936 Broadway hit by Rodgers and Hart, originally choreographed by George Balanchine. In that show, Cooper, as Junior Dolan, the dance master in this comic tale of a ballet company’s internal troubles, gave a dazzling display of his talent as an all-round entertainer — dancing, acting and singing — in his two roles of clownish teacher and elegant jazz dancer.
This year Cooper has gone one better by not only performing and choreographing “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” but also having conceived it from the beginning with his long-time business partner, co-director and designer, Lez Brotherston. Having gained such a massive following in Japan, Tokyo seems to be the logical place to debut a production he has invested so much of his energy into.
“Les Liasions Dangereuses” is based on the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) that was, due to its satirical swipe at aristocratic society, actually banned when it was first published. Given the story’s scandalous nature, it is not surprising that in our post-aristocratic era “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” has been filmed and staged numerous times.
Set in 18th-century Paris, the story concerns one Marchioness Merteuil (Sarah Barron), who asks her former lover Viscount Valmont (Adam Cooper) to seduce and take the virginity of Cecile (Helen Dixon), the fiancee of Count Gercourt (Richard Curto), by whom she has recently been ditched. To add to the steamy stew, the enchantress Merteuil naughtily also asks Valmont to seduce the faithful and morally upright Madam Tourvel (Sarah Wildor) — just, it seems, to confirm that in matters carnal all women are as vulnerable as she herself.
As a reward, if he succeeds in both beddings, Merteuil promises Valmont a night of passion beyond his wildest dreams. What scheming Merteuil hadn’t bargained for, though, was that Valmont would fall head over heels in love with Tourvel . . . an unforeseen liaison that would have tragic consequences all round.
At an advance press conference in Tokyo, Cooper said that with this production he wanted to create a completely original and new type of ballet — one that he even said may not be categorized as ballet at all. This, he said, was because to understand ballet, audiences need some kind of special knowledge about its forms of expression, whereas with his “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” he wanted “to offer an entertainment accessible to all that told of scandals and unbalanced relationships taking place beneath a veneer of elegant gentility.”
From the start onstage, the veneer is very much in evidence, as, behind a shimmering white sheer curtain, masked dancers come and go like ghosts from the past. Then the scene moves to a room in a gorgeous 18th-century French chateau that Brotherston modelled on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. But it is a mirrored room in which the mirrors at times become transparent to allow the audience a glimpse of what is hidden in the dark workings of the human heart. It is not just the sets, with all reflective surfaces, golden frescoes, period sofas etc., that dazzle the eye here, but also the gorgeous costumes, especially a provocative orange dress worn by Merteuil, a virtuous and delicate black-lace one worn by Tourvel and — outstandingly — the luscious black leather dinner jacket and shamelessly sexy leather pants in which Valmont struts his stuff.
Beyond all this, though, the key to this production’s memorable success is its casting. It feels as though the story has been written precisely for each of these dancers, and their personalities fit their roles perfectly — none more so than Barron’s devastating femme fatale and Cooper’s Don Juan-like ladykiller (a role that he said shows that bad people can be interesting, attractive and positive, too.) Apart from a few operetta snippets from Valmont’s aunt, Madame Rosemonde (Marilyn Cutts), here Cooper lets his and his cast’s graceful, dancing alone tell the story and express the characters’ emotions — nowhere to greater effect than when Cooper himself performs a virtual striptease in the course of deflowering Cecile, perfectly representing men’s insolence and sense of superiority through, in particular, the haughty way he moves his legs and toes. If a stretched leg or curled foot could be more erotic, this critic has yet to see it.
At the press conference, Cooper declared, “For Japanese audiences, I wanted to deliver something they’ve never seen before, and also I wanted to make a production that was accessible to everybody.” He has surely succeeded. It is a great privilege for Japan to host the world premiere of such a tour de force of avant-garde European aesthetics, a privilege, Cooper said, that he bestowed to recognize the loyalty of his supporters in a country he feels is a kind of second home.