Dangerous Liaisons, a major new work by choreographer Liam Scarlett, is this year’s season opener for Queensland Ballet. Based on the famous 1782 novel that scandalised both the French aristocracy and literary world, the ballet tells a complex story of seduction and manipulation. There’s a beautifully arranged score and a stunning set design, adorned with lavish costumes. But a convoluted plot in need of dramaturgical thinning ultimately dilutes the dramatic potency of the work.

Joel Woellner and Georgia Swan in Queensland Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo © David Kelly 

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel centres around two rivals, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – former lovers who engage in a sexually-charged game of deceit and betrayal to tragic effect. Through a series of letters, the two protagonists and their many victims gradually weave a densely layered web of lies and sexual immorality.

Scarlett is no stranger to staging adaptations of literary works, having recently choreographed ballets like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015) and Frankenstein (2016). For Dangerous Liaisons, he has strictly followed the original text, structuring the work – like the letters in the book – as a series of pas de deux. These dalliances are framed by heavily acted scenes full of furtive eyes and whispered secrets that hint at the game’s ever-changing dynamics.

To his credit, Scarlett does well to direct our attention; focusing on key moments or gestures that allude to the characters’ motives. The opening scenes are deftly handled, and the final climax offers many powerful moments of dramatic tension. But the midsection of the narrative becomes overly dense and, without a clear arc to anchor it, our emotional investment in the characters remains limited.

Camilo Ramos and Georgia Swan. Photo © David Kelly 

Scarlett’s choreography features strong partnering work full of impressive lifts and luscious port de bras. The movement is sensual and electric, frequently exploding into more literal depictions of debauchery and sex. In a bid to highlight their characters’ libertine impulses, the dancers often break form, surrendering the balletic vocabulary to more primal movement like roughing each other up or beating fists on the ground.

Pleasingly, Scarlett hasn’t shied away from the scandalous themes of the book. But the novelty of mimed sex, which features in almost every scene, becomes a little tedious and the movement vocabulary doesn’t develop much after the first act. That said, the dancers of the Queensland Ballet, notably the leads, showed great maturity and conviction in their roles.

Senior soloist Joel Woellner was reliably strong as Valmont in a number of pas de deux, especially towards the end of act two, with both soloists Georgia Swan as Merteuil and Neneka Yoshida as Madame de Tourvel. Special mention must also go to corps member David Power whose superb technical execution was matched by a totally charming characterisation of Azolan, Valmont’s valet.

Joel Woellner and Nenekka Yoshida. Photograph © David Kelly

The many characters and their plotlines weaved throughout Tracy Grant Lord’s fractured set design, which underscored the constantly shifting power dynamics. The set featured moveable panelled walls with gold trim that were illuminated by Kendall Smith in motley crimson and olive green. Lord’s stunning costumes luxuriously recreated the eighteenth-century French aesthetic, taking full advantage of a key period in design history.

Martin Yates’ symphonic score is an original arrangement of selected works by Frenchman Camille Saint-Saëns, spanning the full gamut from grand waltzes to operatic movements that drive the narrative. Cleverly, the overture of both acts is a salon piece (beautifully played by solo pianist Roger Longjie Cui), which has a distinct interior feel and draws us into the private lives of the characters on stage.

Overall, Dangerous Liaisons has many pleasing elements, even more for those who have read the book. For the unfamiliar, a simplified plot and clearer narrational arc would have heightened the stakes and emotional weight of the work. Without that, the audience is left to rely on the visual design, the music and some dramatic acting late in the second half to keep up.

Queensland Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons is at the Playhouse, QPAC until April 6