Those darlings of the depraved <I>haut monde</I>, the Vicomte de Valmont and his partner in guile, the Marquise de Merteuil, are back, this time in a dance piece entitled "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," and many a spectator will question whether they've ever really gone away. After at least five films, a major play and various competing ballets, along comes the protean Englishman Adam Cooper with his dance-theater version of the defining 18th-century novel to remind us that sexual deceit doesn't always proceed as smoothly as those busily seducing the audience might like.

Those darlings of the depraved haut monde, the Vicomte de Valmont and his partner in guile, the Marquise de Merteuil, are back, this time in a dance piece entitled “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and many a spectator will question whether they’ve ever really gone away. After at least five films, a major play and various competing ballets, along comes the protean Englishman Adam Cooper with his (and collaborator Lez Brotherston’s) dance-theater version of the defining 18th-century novel to remind us that sexual deceit doesn’t always proceed as smoothly as those busily seducing the audience might like.

What leaves this “Liaisons” running in place? The answer doesn’t become fully apparent until the second half, at which point even those who have succumbed to the production’s enticements — and they are genuine — are likely to have switched off. By show’s end, you’re left with a bold but only halfway successful attempt at the newly energized genre (some are calling it “the dancical”) pioneered by another Sadler’s Wells regular, Matthew Bourne, whose “Swan Lake” brought Cooper to international fame.

In some ways, the most obvious objection to this “Liaisons” turns out to be the least of its problems — namely, the inevitable absence in any dance version of the words that fueled both Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel and Christopher Hampton’s rampantly successful play, which in turn sparked Stephen Frears’ much-touted film “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Just as “Romeo and Juliet” has thrived in the ballet repertoire without reliance on Shakespeare’s verse, there’s little reason why “Liaisons” shouldn’t ensnare a spectator caught in the ever more tangled web of erotic deceit among a pre-Revolutionary aristocracy sweeping its way toward extinction (the guillotine, to be exact). And with Cooper’s saturnine glamour to propel the enterprise, the stage is set for a two-act modern ballet that should alternately attract and repulse — and command attention throughout.

The first act more or less does precisely that, abetted no end by a peerless physical production (Brotherston, a “Swan Lake” alum, did both sets and costumes) whose sheen is suggestively tarnished in accordance with a Versailles-like hall of mirrors reflecting behavior that is none too pretty.

The contours of the time-honored plot are intact and lucidly told: Onetime lovers turned rivals in corruption, Valmont (Cooper) and Merteuil (Sarah Barron) make erotic mockery, and worse, of a Paris seemingly packed full of innocents. One of these, the sweet-faced Madame de Tourvel (Sarah Wildor), upsets the game-playing apple cart by — gasp — awakening in Valmont that truly dangerous emotion known as real love. (Helen Dixon’s scarcely less naive Cecile has no such luck.)

The movement co-exists with an original Philip Feeney score — some of it electronic, some played live by the London Musici orchestra — peppering Baroque niceties with the sound of something going chop. (No prizes for guessing what that might be.) But before this society loses its collective head, Cooper must give choreographic shape to the surrender of some fairly bruised and fragile hearts, which is where his “Liaisons” loses its impetus: at its very reason for being.

Those who remember this dancer’s glory days at the Royal Ballet (Cooper has been freelance since 1997) will find numerous echoes of the variably disturbing Kenneth MacMillan works, notably “Mayerling,” on which he first staked his reputation. Theater goers, meanwhile, can’t help but note direct echoes of Cooper’s career-making Stranger in “Swan Lake” in a Valmont who is once again a leather-clad predator determined both to entice and destroy, shedding his clothes (and wig) to become all wanton libido.

If it’s possible for a dancer to seem typecast, Cooper here is, his capacity for darkness ossifying into a cliche to make one wish for the return of his charming Junior Dolan several years ago in the Rodgers & Hart musical “On Your Toes.”

That crucial element of surprise isn’t all that’s missing from a “Liaisons” that takes a serious left turn after intermission. With Barron’s haughty Merteuil seeming increasingly absent from her own jeu d’esprit, the attention shifts with mounting hysteria to various set pieces for Valmont and the doomed Tourvel, whose about-face toward the Vicomte has to be taken on faith in a scenario bereft of the silken cunning John Malkovich embodied onscreen.

Wildor has some startling moments as a black-clad enchantress unaware of the wiles she will provoke, but the necessary sleekness turns into a sour, melodramatic stew, as if Cooper had neglected the abiding lesson of his apparently timeless source: The cunning — and not the crudeness — is all.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Sadler's Wells Theater, London; 1,568 seats; £45 ($80) top

Production

A Sadler's Wells, Adam Cooper Prods. and ACT Prods. presentation of a dance-theater piece in two acts, based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, conceived and directed by Adam Cooper and Lez Brotherston. Choreographer, Cooper. Musical director, Stephen Lade.

Creative

Sets, costumes, Brotherston; lighting, Paule Constable; fights, Nick Hall; composer, Philip Feeney; additional words and music, Marilyn Cutts; sound, Andy Pink. Opened, reviewed July 27, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Vicomte de Valmont - Adam Cooper Madame de Tourvel - Sarah Wildor Marquise de Merteuil - Sarah Barron Madame de Rosemonde - Marilyn Cutts Cecile Volanges - Helen Dixon Chevalier Danceny - Damian Jackson
With: Richard Curto, Barnaby Ingram, Wendy Woodbridge.
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