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Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ Wickedly Seductive


Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Nicholas Schultz and Cassidy Isaacson in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Photo by Jarred Griffith.

Grand Rapids Ballet – Dangerous Liaisons
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
February 12-21, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Rock icon Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister of English speed metal band Motörhead famously crooned “the chase is better than the catch” in the band’s 1980 hit song of the same name. For bored French aristocrats The Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s ballet adaptation of Stephen Frears’ 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons for Grand Rapids Ballet, “the chase” became a treacherous game in itself.

Frears’ film, with screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was an adaptation of Hampton’s play Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.  A succession almost as confusing to follow as Merteuil and Valmont’s romantic tristes in Ochoa’s PG-13 ballet involving cruel games of seduction and betrayal deliciously played out by GRB’s dancers in her skillfully-crafted contemporary ballet choreography.

The second such Dangerous Liaisons ballet by Ochoa, the first in 2013 for Augsburg Ballet, this 75-minute, 2-act, world-premiere production at GRB’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre ranks among the very best the steadily rising company has produced.

The performance on February 13 opened on dancer Yuka Oba as Merteuil encircled by four female dancers and Nicholas Schultz as Valmont by four males. The nasty, yet over-privileged pair were lifted, spun and further dressed onstage by their servants including Schultz donning a period-styled top coat with the image of a gold skull on its back.  


[L-R] Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Yuka Oba, Dawnell Dryja and Cassify Isaacson in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Photo by Jarred Griffith.


Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Yuka Oba and Isaac Aoki in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Photo by Jarred Griffith.

Set to a recorded music collage from Beethoven and Bach to Dutch composer Almar Kok, with minimalist set design by Ochoa featuring overhead chandeliers and double-sided moving panels, the production set in 18th-century France, had the updated contemporary feel of a Baz Luhrmann film. Adding to that look was Michael Mazzola’s soft lighting design and Danielle Truss’ stripped down costumes that included skeletal hoop skirts for the women.

The dark and sexual nature of the subject matter of the story was brilliantly offset by Ochoa’s cheeky handling of its sexy bits via humor; replacing potential vulgarity with pulse-racing delight.

Like misbehaving teens who got their kicks from one-upping each other in ever risqué behavior and accumulating sexual conquests, Oba shined as the devious Merteuil casting bedroom eyes while dancing with determined attitude and power. Schultz was also captivating as the bold, back-stabbing bad boy Valmont whose hands and lips found their way on to almost anything that moved regardless of gender. The pair weren’t alone in their sexual desires as the ballet was awash in horny characters.  

The somewhat convoluted story where sexual partners were like library books, easily obtained and swapped, found Merteuil and Valmont, when not pawing at each other, scheming up games of conquest and revenge that toyed with emotions and destroyed lives. At Merteuil’s request Valmont seduced the young Cécile de Volanges, played with sensual innocence by Cassidy Isaacson, and then lured a reluctant Grace Haskins as Madame de Tourvel away from her husband (Christian Griggs-Drane) into an affair, while Merteuil seduced Cécile de Volanges’ would-be lover and music teacher Chevalier Danceny (Isaac Aoki).


[L-R] Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Nicholas Schultz and Dawnell Dryja in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Photo by Jarred Griffith.


Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Grace Haskins in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Photo by Jarred Griffith.

Fueling all this mayhem were letters passed between the characters that served to entice encounters, disparage reputations, and ultimately reveal Valmont and Merteuil’s wanton depravity.

By the ballet’s second act, schemes unfolded and the public began to get wind of Merteuil and Valmont’s exploits.

Highlighting Ochoa’s descriptive choreography for the ballet littered with engaging duets, trios and group dancing, were several lush pas de deuxs. The most memorable being Madame de Tourvel’s giving herself to Valmont and him falling in love with her. To moving cello music, Haskins was enchanting as the vulnerable Tourvel. Her graceful, fluid dancing was spellbinding. Schultz proved a solid, giving partner to her in this emotional pas de deux.

As Hampton said of Valmont and Merteuil in an interview about the Dangerous Liaisons movie, their world relies on a system of people not being in love with one another. When Valmont falls in love, that system collapses. And so it did in Ochoa’s ballet with virtually every one of the main characters having their hearts broken, gone insane or died. The ballet’s final scene fittingly found a society-banished Merteuil seated alone at a dinner table set for many slowly succumbing to madness. Oba in period gown and powdered wig, chillingly barked orders at her servants, violently trashed the table setting, and then slumped totally defeated into her chair vacantly staring out into the distance.

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Dangerous Liaisons continues 7:30 p.m., Feb., 19 & 20 and 2 p.m., Feb. 21. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave SW, Grand Rapids, Michigan. $38-48. (616) 454-4771 or grballet.com.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2015-2016 home season a mix of favorites and soon-to-be favorites

Photo courtesy of MLive.com

Yuka Oba and Stephen Sanford in a scene from “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of MLive.com.

By Steve Sucato

After a successful tour this past week to artistic director Patricia Barker’s old stomping ground Seattle, Washington, where she was a star at Pacific Northwest Ballet for two decades, Grand Rapids Ballet returns to the “Furniture City” this weekend to kick off its 2015-2016 home season. As in Barker’s past five seasons as GRB director, local audiences can expect a mix of top flight contemporary and classical works danced by one of the nation’s most rapidly rising dance companies.

Here’s a look:


October 16-18, 2015 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

A reprise of popular GRB repertory works, Pacifica includes choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “balloon-tastic” Written & Forgotten (2014), a humorous, sometimes poignant look at childhood memories, and Penny Saunders’ illuminating Slight (2015) of which Barker says: “The whole thing is how light and shadows change the look of the body, movements and mood. It’s quite eerie and quite cool.”  Also on the program will be choreographer David Parsons’ clever masterwork The Envelope (1984), a delightfully zany commentary on human social structures, and excerpts from Mario Radacovsky’s turbulent Beethoven (2015) that closed last season.


December 11-13 & 18-20, 2015 @ DeVos Performance Hall

Last year’s spectacularly re-imagined holiday classic returns with a few minor tweaks. The magical production with choreography by Val Caniparoli and set design by Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg and Eugene Lee, brings with it Broadway-style production values, a legendary Tchaikovsky score played by the Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony and some great dancing. One of the best regional The Nutcracker productions to come along in years, it is surely the stuff childhood memories are made of.


[World Premiere] February 12-14 & 19-21, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Not to be confused with her 2013 production of Dangerous Liaisons for Augsburg Ballet, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa creates a brand new telling the tale of scheming French aristocrats The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. The two rivals and ex-lovers use seduction to humiliate and degrade others all-the-while boasting of their cruel and manipulative talents. Of the new 80-minute production in two acts Ochoa says it will more closely follow the plotline of the 1989 movie adaption starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich rather than author Durand Neveu’s original 1782 book series.

The characters in Ochoa’s new Dangerous Liaisons come out of a time period in the French aristocracy where the powerful and wealthy became bored with parlor games and turned to more sinister games of the heart. Their intrigue and eventual comeuppance should make for a rather unique dancegoer experience.


March 18-20, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

The Best of MOVEMEDIA will revisit some of the most popular works presented in the annual cutting-edge dance series that began five years ago. They include Brian Enos’ Nae Regrets, Thomas Dancy’s You Gotta Be Kiddin Me and others, plus a brand new work by choreographer Penny Saunders.


[World Premiere] – May 6-8 & 13-15, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Closing out the season is will be a new ballet adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale Cinderella. Choreographed by former Boston Ballet resident choreographer Bruce Wells and set to Johann Strauss II’s “Aschenbrödel” (Cinderella), the classical ballet will be a lighter take on the timeless tale.

“It is very important for our company and school to come together and have a collaborative look,” says Barker. “Cinderella is another production like The Nutcracker we can do that. Having it be like a second Nutcracker to us is one of our big goals.”

Audiences will notice several new faces this season as ten new dancers join GRB’s ranks. They are: New Jersey-native Branden Reiners, Illinois-native’s Julia Turner and Matthew Wenckowski, Missouri’s Thomas Seiff, Seattle’s Grace Haskins and Georgia’s Nigel Tau. The company’s new trainees are: Charlotte Logeais (Paris, France), Elise Gillum (San Jose, CA), Derek Brockington (Holland, MI) and Adriana Wagenveld (Bayamon, Puerto Rico). Promoted from apprentice or trainee to company member are: Morgan Frasier, Emily Rose, Caroline Wiley, Jack Lennon and Hannah Potter. Departures from last season include dancers Leah Slavens, Jessica Smith, Keely Lytton, Vanessa Cielle, Yassui Mergaliyev and audience favorites Hannah Wilcox, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida, Monica Pelfrey, and Stephen Sanford.

For more information and tickets visit grballet.com or call the Grand Rapids Ballet box office at (616) 454-4771 ext. 10

All graphics courtesy of Michael Auer, Grand Rapids Ballet

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In return to Northeast Ohio, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet wows with ‘Return to a Strange Land’

The company in Jorma Elo's "Over Glow". Photo by Sharen Bradford.

The company in Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow”. Photo by Sharen Bradford.

Special to The Plain Dealer

AKRON, Ohio — DANCECleveland, in conjunction with The University of Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall, kicked off its 2014-2015 with the return of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Sunday.

The 11-member touring company, last seen in the region in 2010, brought with it to the former home of the Ohio Ballet — another troupe known for its touring popularity — a program of three contemporary dance works including the Jiri Kylian masterwork “Return to a Strange Land”.

Things got off to a rousing start with Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s latest work for ASFB, “Over Glow” (2011). Set to music by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the piece bathed in a yellow-green hue began with a solo by a shirtless male dancer moving in tightly controlled choreography that seemed contrary in energy to the booming and sweeping classical music accompanying him.

Several other dancers then trickled onto the stage following suit, dancing self-absorbed solos filled with rippling arm movements, sharp hands gestures, wiggling torsos and high leg kicks. The abstract and quirky choreography interjected with moments of humor and consternation had its six dancers pausing at times to linger in stillness before resuming their dance riffs.

A talented choreographer whose work tends to either alienate or delight audiences, Elo embraces playful oddity in his choreographic movements and gestures, turning them into a collective thing of beauty.

The mood in “Over Glow” mood turned solemn midway through the piece as the dancers paired off into three male-female couples and moved through an array of gesture-infused phrases and partnered lifts. The work’s most intriguing moments occurred when a male dancer intensely held his flat palm inches from his female partner’s face, who the recoiled in fear as if being smothered.

Shuffling her feet backwards and gripping his arm, she arched slowly backward and slumped to the floor lifeless. A heady moment in an otherwise light-hearted work, the scene was followed with more humor as a different male dancer meandered onto the stage to the prostrate dancer and nudged at her limp body with his head like a dog trying to wake its master.

Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land". Photo courtesy of the company.

Jiri Kylian’s “Return to a Strange Land”. Photo courtesy of the company.

Elo’s unusual and interesting piece was followed by Kylian’s 1975 contemporary ballet marvel “Return to a Strange Land.” Dense with intertwining partnered moves and set to a lulling piano score by Janacek, the beautifully danced work mesmerized.

A trio of dancers (two males, one female) opened the piece, holding hands and weaving in and around each other in clever patterns. In the second of the work’s four parts, dancers Samantha Klanac Campanile and Joseph Watson engaged in a soft and lovely pas de deux built on choreography that seemed to pull the dancers upward.

Campanile, on pointe, was swept into leaps and soaring lifts by Watson and spun on one knee in a unique pirouette variation. The remainder of the expertly-crafted work continued the brilliance of the first two sections with more inventive choreography and partnering combinations, making it the highlight of the program.

The troupe’s deft and inspired dancing continued in the final work on the entertaining program, “Square None” (2012), by up and coming choreographer Norbert De La Cruz III. The Princess Grace Foundation Award-winner’s first work for the company blended nicely constructed movement phrases with lighting designer Seah Johnson’s dark and atmospheric lighting scheme featuring a grid of lighted squares.

Dancer Seia Rassenti in Norbert De La Cruz lll's "Square None".  Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Dancer Seia Rassenti in Norbert De La Cruz lll’s “Square None”. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Like the program’s opening work, “Square None” began with its seven dancers moving in self-contained solos within individual lighted squares on the stage, each solo a spurt of energy ending in an elegant pose. Cone-like streams of light from overhead creating the squares along with stage fog and a wide-ranging musical score (Aphex Twin to Handel) gave the work a pulsing and dreamy feel.

Using the familiar contemporary dance movement language in vogue nowadays, Cruz created an enticing piece that fit well on ASFB’s dancers and pointed to a bright choreographic future for the recent Juilliard School graduate.

This review originally appeared in The Plain Dealer October 6, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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