Dance Preview: Ballet of the most sensual order

By Rachel Betts-Wilmott

Recognized on a world-class scale, Jean Grand-Maître has worked in cities known for their theaters and ballet companies. He’s worked in Paris, Milan and has been commissioned by numerous other companies across Europe and North America. It’s this experience that helps him as the Alberta Ballet Company’s Art Director and the task he has in front of him. Given to him by the National Norwegian Ballet, he’s been asked to bring Dangerous Liaisons, based on the 18th century novel of the same name by Choderlos de Laclos, to ballet.

“They suggested it, and then I watched the movie with Glenn Close and John Malkovich and read the book,” says Grand-Maître, choreographer for ABCs latest production. “I realized it would have to be done in a special way, it couldn’t be like any ballet. It wouldn’t work.”

That was in 1998 and a year later, after enlisting the help of fellow Canadian, composer Denis Gourgeon, Dangerous Liaisons premiered.

To make his production work, Grand-Maître wore the hat of librettist as well as choreographer and incorporated players in period dress into the staging. As well as dancers on stage, there are actors performing scenes from the story. Dancers dance the parts of Sebastien de Valmont and Isabelle de Meurteuil on center stage, while their actor counterparts can be seen through a window on stage, creating a German black-box effect.

“Having the two sets of characters gives the impression of the characters as having not only a physical body but also a soul,” explains Grand-Maître. “Having a contemporary soul in an antique body.”

But the Dangerous Liaisons performed in 1999 is not the Dangerous Liaisons people will see this season. The costumes and the sets may be the same, but a lot has changed.

“There are limitations in North America,” sighs Grand-Maître. “In Europe you are given a carte blanche. There’s no such thing as budget meetings.”

One of the limitations Grand-Maître encountered? The score had to be changed for the Canadian run. As there is no orchestra pit at the Playhouse, Gourgeon’s score was scratched. But limitations can lead to new opportunities.

“Instead I worked with a soundtrack designer,” says Grand-Maître. Simply put, Grand-Maître explains what was needed and what it was being used for, and the soundtrack designer sent him a list of possibilities. Once a selection was made the designer reworked it and added sound effects, and personalized it to the needs of the ballet.

Grand-Maître also reworked all the choreography. But he didn’t consider it a limitation, rather he looked forward to it.

“Working with a different company requires changes,” he explains. “The company here is of a world-class caliber, and I could have used the old choreography, but I have been working with them for two years now and I had an opportunity do something specifically for them. Having that familiarity with them is a big deal for me.”

Up until his engagement at the ABC, Grand-Maître worked on projects for different companies, spending only a couple of months at a time with a company. Now he has the chance to revise some of his earlier work and tailor it to dancers he knows. Dancers like Jonathan Renna and Sabrina Matthews, dancing the parts of Sebastien de Valmont and Isabelle de Meurteuil respectively, are not just dancing the parts of 18th century characters.

“It’s interesting how contemporary the story is,” said Grand-Maître. “The idea that [the main characters] are practically being bred to be weapons is reminiscent of the current warring state in the world. Everything they touch decays.”

Luckily Grand-Maître doesn’t share this similarity with these characters. Having achieved critical acclaim for his previous endeavors, the Canadian version of Dangerous Liaisons is greatly awaited amongst the Western public.