“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody”, said Mark Twain. A lot of research in psychology, as well as a lot of art and literature, has centred around the dark side of human personality. One such example is the 18th-century book “Les liaisons dangereuses” (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Over the years, the book has been adapted into a play, a Broadway production, a film, as well as the rewriting titled ‘Quartet’ by Heiner Müller. Closer home, a Basel based NGO, ‘The Dancers for the World’ (DFW)* have adapted it into a dance drama ‘Einige Todsünden’ (a few deadly sins), choreographed, directed and produced by Catherine Habasque.
THE SHOW – THROUGH THE REVIEWER’S EYES
The story, told through a series of letters written by the characters to each other, revolves around the corrupt, bestial, perverted and libertine court life of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution. The two main characters Vicomte de Valmont (Valmont) and Marquise de Merteuil (Marquise) are libertine aristocrats who derive pleasure in ruining the good name of many a modest family, their latest victims being a married woman (Madame de Tourvel) and a young maiden (Cécile). Their Machiavellian tactics with the two ladies, however, result in a social death-blow that they usually bestowed on others.
Einige Todsünden ironically plays out the story on a church floor! Inspired by the 1962 Luis Bunuel movie, ‘El ángel exterminator’ (the exterminating Angel) which is entirely played out in one room, where the entire church floor becomes a stage, with successive scenes happening in different parts of the room. The audience is free to move around sipping wine and nibbling delectable finger food, giving them a feeling of being a part of the dance drama. The music is played live and is a combination of Vivaldi, J. Bach, Carl Orff and P.Glass. Quotes from Heiner Müller’s ‘Quartet’ are used to add effect. The quotes are the only spoken portions by the two lead dancer-actors and give a slightly theatrical effect to the dance drama.
Catherine Habasque uses a mix of contemporary dance, ballet and a bit of Bharatanatyam (choreographed by Sumitra Keshava) to tell the story. She also brings in a bit of opera and Thomas Lichtenecker sings those portions. She uses two dancer/singer-actors to play Valmont – one representing Valmont and the other representing the alter ego of Valmont or ‘Temptation’. She uses a lot of symbolism to cut down on the details and keeps the attention on the main characters and their emotions. Realms of paper are strewn on the floor to depict the role of the letters in the lives of the characters. Peacock feathers are used to depict the act of writing (quills) as well as to show Marquise stoking Valmont’s pride to victimise Cécile. A cutout of a man representing a shadow is used to show Madame de Tourvel struggling with memories of a lost love.
The costuming is brilliant and has aristocrats dressed in beige to demarcate them from the common people/members of the society dressed in black. Cécile and Madame de Tourvel wear panniers (metal and wooden supports used to hold the skirt out away from the legs and look like baskets fastened around a woman’s waist) over their beige dress to depict their aristocratic status.
Four portions of the dance drama stand out in terms of choreography and need a special mention:
The first is a portion showing a man in black being chased by the others in black, pausing at intervals, representing a society unable to free itself from the shackles of the church and aristocracy. The second is the portion showing Marquise stoking Valmont’s pride to victimise Cécile while members of the society soak up the gossip and rumors and add to it. The third and the best part, is the subdued, underplayed depiction of rape and violation of Cécile and Madame de Tourvel by showing panniers worn by the women being unfastened. Cécile is shown holding two curtains and in pain. There are a couple of synchronized twists and turns with Valmont and she drops to the floor. The fourth portion is Madame de Tourvel struggling with grief, guilt and a lost love using shadows (a cutout represents the shadow) and eventually falling dead.
The dance styles are very well blended and appear seamless. Sumitra Keshava keeps the Bharatanatyam portions very simple, understated and they blend with the rest of the choreography. There is an intelligent use of symbolism, the singing is brilliant, the expressions of the dancers are good and they manage to keep the intensity, timing and co-ordination in spite of the audience walking around them. Catherine Habasque proves her mettle as a choreographer. She takes a scandalous and sexually explicit story and presents it very aesthetically.
Einige Todsünden plays at the Offene Kirche Elizabethen, Basel, on 1st October, at 7 p.m. If you are looking for a different artistic experience, this one is definitely worth a watch.
*Dancers for the World is a NGO headquartered in Basel and is created by professional dancers. DFW seeks to use dance creatively to effect positive and sustainable change, with a particular focus on the promotion of human rights in areas of international or civil conflict. They also present other works.
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