Last Updated on October 15, 2021
A Triumphant Collaboration in Movement, Sound and Light
In the contemporary art world’s equivalent of a rock supergroup, The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Tacita Dean and composer Thomas Adès have joined forces to create The Dante Project to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. This creative A-Team have delivered a major new work, a gorgeous modern spectacle that should become a mainstay of the repertoire and is a powerful model for McGregor’s ongoing revitalisation of classical ballet.
The Dante Project is based on Dante’s narrative poem The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1320 and inspired by the author’s exile from his home town of Florence. The Divine Comedy is one of the great pillars of Italian and world literature putting flesh onto the bones of the medieval conceptions of sin, purgatory, hell and heaven. To emphasise the cultural significance of the project, it’s an inaugural co-production with Paris Opera Ballet and a music co-commission with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
McGregor’s ballet follows the tripartite structure of The Divine Comedy which fits neatly into the form of a 3 act ballet. The opening act INFERNO: PILGRIM tells the story of ‘the Pilgrim’ – Edward Watson in his final lead role as a characterful Dante – being led through the various circles of hell by his literary hero Virgil, beautifully danced by Gary Avis in a refined portrayal. The two writers encounter and interact with the sinners who inhabit this underworld whilst acting out their punishments. McGregor had previously referenced Dante’s Inferno in his landmark one-act 2008 piece Infra and the choreography here is similarly bold and masculine with Watson making McGregor’s fluid movements and trademark hyper-extensions look easy. After Adès’ strident opening 5ths that become a recurring motif in the piece, the dancers in the opening scene The Selfish are soon caught up in an infernal twist. Adès is unafraid of postmodern plundering with obvious references to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker swirling in and out of focus and the composer interpolates orchestrations of several of Liszt’s piano works directly into the composition.
McGregor is known for his abstract choreography but here fuses classical ballet technique with his signature swirling and fractured gestures. There are ballerinas on pointe combining with contemporary folk dances. Combined with Adès’ melodic and predominantly tonal score, this is a piece that is accessible to fans of more traditional work. It’s all set to the backdrop of Dean’s huge inverted chalk drawings of ice mountains for this a cold hell and not a furnace. The scale of Dean’s work makes her a very suitable candidate for the monumentality of this type of project.In the first act we meet a variety of miscreants. There are the adulterous lovers Francesca and Paolo (Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball) whose sinuous and sinful but love-driven entanglements gain Dante’s understanding. A den of virtuosically contorted thieves are swaddled in dry ice and tight fitting black catsuits; they pass their sins amongst themselves in the form of spectral chalkdust. Fumi Kaneko’s Satan is simultaneously fragile and powerful.
In the second act PURGATORIO: LOVE, Dante’s pilgrimage leads him to Mount Purgatorio again accompanied by Virgil. The mountain’s seven terraces are named after the Seven Deadly Sins with the summit being the Garden of Eden. The backdrop is Dean’s painting of a Jacaranda tree, a tree that signifies rebirth. There are incantations, recorded voices from the Great Adès Synagogue in Jerusalem reflecting the composer’s Syrian Jewish roots, with the orchestra providing counter-melodies. The dancers are dressed in diaphanous silver costumes making rotating hip lifts and dancing to fractured folk melodies. There is a sweeping lyricism to the movement and when Sarah Lamb as Beatrice, Dante’s long lost love appears, the music rises with bells ringing out as Watson executes an exultant series of lifts.
It is Beatrice who takes Dante through the 9 celestial spheres of Paradise in the final act PARADISO: POEMA SACRO. with their endless spiral configurations of light reaching the Empyrean or highest heaven where he meets the great saints of the church. At the end of the ballet, the Pilgrim has a brief vision of God, the Holy Trinity and gives his soul to God. This last section of the ballet is ravishing, hypnotic and transcendent with Adès’ glissandi and the dancers swirling movements being reprised as Dante reaches his apotheosis. Lighting designer Lucy Carter deserves special praise for the way she bathed the bodies in different colour tones adding to the ethereal mood as well as creating a luminous architecturality to the celestial spaces.
I was lucky enough to get to the ballet’s World Premiere conducted by Thomas Adès himself. The orchestra sounded settled and confident in the new score with the brass and percussion blazing and the strings and wind taking us forever to higher harmonic planes. Be in no doubt that this ensemble piece which features many of the stars of the Royal Ballet is a landmark piece of work as well as being a fitting swansong to Edward Watson’s stellar career. Bravo!
All photos by Andrej Uspenski and Cheryl Mann
The Dante Project,
The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House,
Click here for more information
Dates and Times:
14, 15, 18, 20, 21, 26, 28 October at 7.30 pm
16 October at 1 pm 30 October at 11.30 am
Streamed on Friday 29 October 2021 and on-demand for 30 days via the Royal Opera House website
Tickets £7 – £90
Also showing at the Royal Opera House is Romeo and Juliet, McMillan’s ever-popular ballet set to Prokofiev’s stunning score. For more information about other shows check our preview of what’s coming up at Covent Garden this season