The Dante Project, Wayne McGregor’s latest full-length work for The Royal Ballet, is a monumental production from whichever perspective you look, an undertaking that many choreographers might well have shied away from. McGregor relishes a challenge however, and the result is a ballet that is a real spectacle and one which seemed to raise the temperatures of most of the audience on the opening night. Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and Vita Nuova, it is not necessary to have read either work to derive pleasure from watching the dancing, but it might help to identify the characters if you have. Reading the programme is also conducive to a better understanding, though not definitive. The Divine Comedy, a narrative poem, was written at the start of the 14th century. It took twelve years to complete and is considered to be one of the greatest literary works in the world. Composed of 14, 233 lines and split into three ‘cantiche’, it’s extraordinary that McGregor had the vision, and ambition, to get it onto the stage.
But, given the enormity of the content, it was never going to be easy to tell the story and fit it into 1 hour 50 minutes of dancing. Much of its appeal can be attributed to McGregor’s collaborators: the highly regarded composer Thomas Adès, writing music for ballet for the first time; artist and designer Tacita Dean, also designing for ballet for the first time; lighting designer and long term collaborator Lucy Carter (and in Inferno: Pilgrim with Simon Bennison) and dramaturg, Uzma Hameed. The music, written before the choreography had begun, should have been a driving force. Adès has given McGregor a spectacularly good and memorable score, filling the auditorium with glorious and varied sounds. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under Adès’ own baton, gives a remarkable rendition.
Opening with Inferno: Pilgrim it is the longest of the three parts, where Dante (Edward Watson) is guided through a frozen hell by Virgil (Gary Avis) and within thirteen episodes, is shown sinners in all their different forms, everything from The Selfish, Soothsayers, The Wrathful to Thieves. Dean’s backdrop is an impressive, inverted mountain range (reminding me of John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath which hangs in The Tate), looming over the action menacingly. The dancers, other than Watson and Avis, are clad in dark grey unitards that have varying degrees of chalk sprayed onto them. Marcelino Sambé and Yasmine Naghdi have a short, beautifully danced but insubstantial pas de deux in Ferryman, Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball execute another as Francesca and Paolo, adulterous lovers. Calvin Richardson was deliciously pliant and slinky as Ulysses and Anna Rose O’Sullivan was suitably distraught as Dido in The Forest of Suicides. The audience absolutely loved the frenetic (and somewhat chaotic) pirouetting of the men in Thieves, throwing themselves under a blanket of dry ice at the end. Most baffling was the exquisitely beautiful Fumi Kaneko as Satan. Whilst Satan is traditionally known as the evil force who seduces humans into sin, it felt like the wrong time, in the current climate, to depict the devil as a woman. Too much time was spent trying to work out who was dancing by scrutinising their legs and then trying to fathom who or what they were representing. That they were clothed similarly did not invite clues but more disappointingly was that the choreography was no more enlightening. Some of the best dancers in the world populated the stage but their roles were not developed, the characters only very vaguely drawn. Even Watson and Avis seemed short changed in the first part, seen mostly as bystanders. However, there was much truly excellent dancing to be seen.
The second part, Purgatorio: Love introduces Beatrice (Sarah Lamb), Dante’s true love, though it remained unrequited (she married someone else and died young, at 25). The scenes depict 7 penitents as well as Dante and Beatrice as children, youths and then adults. Dante remembers his great love. Here, the choreography really does speak – the duets between them are tender (and yearning on his part). Dean’s backdrop of a huge jacaranda tree is wonderful and once again, the music fuels the action with pace and intrigue.
In the final part, Paradiso: Poema Sacro, Dean has created a screen above the stage with ever-changing and mutating circular colours which undoubtedly sets the stage for a much more pleasant conclusion. It is flooded with eighteen aptly named Celestial Bodies. In shimmery white unitards, this corps de ballet, made up of mostly principals and soloists, glide, leap and fouetté their way through some really taxing choreography but as with many of McGregor’s scenes using multiple dancers, it’s often hard to know where to focus. It’s difficult to admit, but I could not pick out some of the principals and when I did, I couldn’t help thinking, it can’t be them – they’re back in the corps! The benefit of throwing them all on stage together is that the dancing is staggeringly good.
I absolutely loved the ending – with Watson and Lamb finally united in a pas de deux that was heavenly in execution and Watson, remaining on stage in a bright light – to fitting and rapturous applause. So much of the evening’s overall success is as a result of stupendous collaborations with all elements of the production (even the wig department noticeably excelled). Certain dancers kept drawing the eye (Joseph Sissens, William Bracewell, Sambé, Naghdi, Hayward and O’Sullivan, spring to mind). Whether or not the entire cast feel that they have been given fulfilling roles would be an interesting discussion to have. But across the board, the commitment and sheer talent shine through. Lamb is a fragile, ethereal Beatrice; Avis is always an unforgettable presence. The superlative Edward Watson never gives anything less than his absolute best and McGregor has given him a wonderful parting gift (his retirement from the stage is imminent). He seems to be in such good shape and still has so much to offer, it feels too soon to say farewell but begrudgingly, we must. If you can, it is worth catching him in The Dante Project – an immense visual feast.
By Deborah Weiss