Nothing that Sasha Janes has choreographed before was remotely as challenging, difficult, or ambitious as his new adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel, Dangerous Liaisons. Temperamentally, he showed his aptitude for the task with his very first piece in 2006, the sensuous Lascia la Spina, Cogli la Rosa. But Dangerous Liaisons, Janes’s first foray into extended narrative, is nearly ten times as long. Clocking in at 55 minutes, Janes’s latest piece certainly courted disaster as the former North Carolina Dance Theatre principal dancer attempted to distill an intricate plot – without dialogue – that develops no fewer than seven major characters. By comparison, the famed movie confrontation between Glenn Close and John Malkovich, with a star-studded supporting cast, seemed sleek and tight when it was edited down to two hours. Pairing the eleven scenes of Liaisons with Dwight Rhoden’s Artifice, first seen in Charlotte at the start of the 2007-08 Season, NCDT closed out its second full season at the Knight Theatre with arguably its edgiest, most technically demanding program ever.

At first, Artifice seems to belong securely in that family of choreography that stems from the muteness of the artform, relying on toys, robots, puppets, and the animal world for their protagonists. Even the nexus of the piece, the Joker Swing King danced by David Ingram, appears clownish in his costuming and robotic in his early movements, while the 10 satellite characters who seem to respond to the Joker’s will and imagination are an electrified harlequinade, sporting similar marionette movement. But Joker tosses off a couple of Chaplinesque moves amid the surrounding carnival, and when a microphone descends from the flyloft, we transition to Las Vegas, where the soundtrack becomes overtly Elvis with an impersonator’s attempt at “Viva, Las Vegas.”

With composer Michael Daugherty’s Elvis Everywhere in the soundtrack, written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet, the choreography lingered on the outskirts of humanity throughout the “He’s Alive” section, wallowing in the King’s glitz. Among the surrounding dancers, Jamie Dee as Grace unto Blue slinked to the fore as Joker’s girlfriend/nemesis, while Anna Gerberich as Loop Purple Pop stood apart from the other worshipers, strutting out her customary soubrette shtick. Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti were color-coded to match the character names of the six female dancers – or was it the other way round? – but less distinctively themed after playing cards for the men. As often happened with Rhoden pieces from that period, a curtain came down from the loft to send us into a new segment. Then the mood shifted abruptly to vaudevillian hamminess at the end in Traci Gilchrest’s staging, with a prolonged curtain call studded with bows and blushing curtsies, proving that robotic puppets need applause as much as humans and will do anything to get it.

Since nobody is listed as a stage director for Dangerous Liaisons, it must be assumed that Janes was the person who decided to incorporate cellist/composer Ben Sollee into the visual spectacle as he played his original score. Perched on a platform that hovered over the stage, Sollee began singing over his own accompaniment during the prologue, encouraging the speculation that his song lyrics might help us navigate through the dense narrative. But Sollee didn’t sing again. He occasionally descended and elevated on his platform at various points of the piece as he played his cello, cuing a pre-recorded synthesizer track with a foot pedal during multiple scenes or striking the instrument to emphasize the beat. Percussion came from another surprising source during the big ensemble scene, “Fencing,” as Janes contrived to insert a magnificent sword dance into the heart of his scenario. The obligatory en garde from multiple couples was just the beginning of a precisely-timed series of clinking foils. Men and women faced off in combat, making beautiful, sensuous music with each thrust and parry, not a bad summation of the overall flavor of the plot.

Rebecca Carmazzi, the mother of Janes’s three children, portrayed the Marquise de Merteuil in her valedictory performance for NCDT. She was the venomous adversary of her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, Ingram’s second turn in a lead role for the evening. Instead of doing the Marquise’s bidding and seducing Cécile, the fiancée of her newest lover, Comte de Gercourt, Valmont wagers that he can seduce the famously chaste Madame de Tourvel – earning a night in bed with the Marquise if he wins his wager. The plot twists tighter when Merteuil must recruit young fencing instructor Chevalier Danceny to seduce Cécile while Valmont, seeing a new protégé of the Marquise involved, decides to seduce Cécile after all.

Now the question that lingers after all Janes’s impressive spectacle is how much of the plot the audience gets if they haven’t read the 11-scene synopsis – or like me, seen the Hollywood version and multiple productions of the Christopher Hampton stage play that the film was based on. The choreography certainly worked for me, perhaps because I could fill in the blanks as we went along. Characters were distinctively drawn, costumed, and acted. Carmazzi was an elegantly strutting malignity as Merteuil, and Ingram was a charismatically confident seducer as Valmont. Supressing her earlier sass, Gerberich was the perfect embodiment of the virginally naïve Cécile, while Dee did a complete turnaround to become the virtuous contemplative Tourvel. Notable for his military costume, Naseeb Culpepper gave a convincing account of the upright hypocrite Gercourt, and Pete Walker was the perfect soulmate for Cécile, earnest, open, and athletic.

Costumes by Jennifer Symes had a Parisian kinkiness that chimed with the period, and John P. Woodey’s video design, splayed across three banks of monitors, crowned the technical wonders. About the only misstep in the whole concept was casting Alessandra Ball as Madame de Volanges, Cécile’s mother. The role needs to be recast for an older dancer, as Drosselmyer’s usually is in The Nutcracker, or discarded. Janes, Sollee, and the NCDT ensemble make no mistakes in conveying the deep-down sensuality of the story, however, assuring that it will remain a staple in NCDT’s repertoire. The sizzle peaked behind a sheer screen when Valmont, in graphic silhouette, took on two courtesans in a sexual orgy, revealed as Melissa Anduiza and Sarah Hayes Watson when the threesome emerged from behind the screen. Watching Carmazzi as Merteuil, seething with jealousy as she witnessed Ingram cavorting with these two lovelies, only doubled the guilty pleasure.