The Royal Ballet – Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project

The Dante Project – Ballet in three parts inspired by Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and Vita Nuova [co-production between The Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet; music co-commission with Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music and Artistic Director; world premiere of complete ballet]

score ★★★★★
design ★★★☆☆
choreography ★★☆☆☆

Inferno: Pilgrim
Dante – Edward Watson
Virgil – Gary Avis
Sinners – Artists of The Royal Ballet

Exile – The Dark Forest
The Selfish – Lukas B. Brændsrød, David Donnelly, Benjamin Ella, Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Mayara Magri, David Yudes
Ferryman – Marcelino Sambé, Yasmine Naghdi
Poets – Pavan of the Souls in Limbo –David Donnelly, Nicol Edmonds, Benjamin Ella, Joonhyuk Jun, Tomas Mock, Giacomo Rovero, Stanisław Węgrzyn
Francesca and Paolo – Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball
Ulysses – Calvin Richardson, Lukas B. Brændsrød, Harry Churches, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Leo Dixon, Hannah Grennell, Joshua Junker, Sae Maeda, Katharina Nikelski, David Yudes
The Forest of Suicides – Dido – Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Luca Acri, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Francesca Hayward, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Fumi Kaneko, Sae Maeda, Mayara Magri, Yasmine Naghdi, Katharina Nikelski, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Romany Pajdak, Julia Roscoe, Gina Storm-Jensen
Soothsayers – Paul Kay, Joseph Sissens
The Wrathful – Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Meaghan Grace, Hinkis, Mayara Magri
The Pope’s Adagio – James Hay
Stations of the Cross – Lukas B. Brændsrød, Harry Churches, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Leo Dixon, Hannah Grennell, Joshua Junker, Sae Maeda, Katharina Nikelski, David Yudes
Thieves –  Luca Acri, Matthew Ball, Leo Dixon, Benjamin Ella, James Hay, Joshua Junker, Paul Kay, Giacomo Rovero, Marcelino Sambé, Joseph Sissens, Stanisław Węgrzyn
Satan –Fumi Kaneko

Purgatorio: Love
Dante – Edward Watson, Marco Masciari, Marco Betteridge-Jimenez
Virgil – Gary Avis
Beatrice – Sarah Lamb, Francesca Hayward, Rose Milner
Penitents – Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Ryoichi Hirano, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Anna Rose O’Sullivan

Paradiso: Poema Sacro (continuous and planetary)
Dante – Edward Watson
Beatrice – Sarah Lamb
Celestial Bodies – Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Alexander Campbell, Olivia Cowley, Lauren Cuthbertson, Leticia Dias, Hannah Grennell, Francesca Hayward, Ryoichi Hirano, Paul Kay, Marco Masciari, Yasmine Naghdi, Natalia Osipova, Romany Pajdak, Calvin Richardson, Marcelino Sambé, Joseph Sissens, Akane Takada

London Symphony Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Thomas Adès

Choreography – Wayne McGregor
Music – Thomas Adès
Design – Tacita Dean
Lighting Design Inferno: Pilgrim – Lucy Carter & Simon Benninson
Lighting Design Purgatorio: Love & Paradiso: Poema Sacro – Lucy Carter
Dramaturgy – Uzma Hameed

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 14 October, 2021
Venue: Royal Opera House, London

Not one to be accused of lack of ambition, The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor brings his danced interpretation of one of the masterpieces of Western literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, pretentiously entitled The Dante Project, and takes us from Hell, through Purgatory and up to Paradise in what seems like an eternity.  It is a big, lumbering work, unevenly balanced, disjointed and, ultimately, unsatisfying despite the massive forces and finances thrown at it.  Where his last three-act ballet for the company, Woolf Works, benefitted from his differing choreographic and scenic approaches in each section, The Dante Project is weakened by a similar approach, the thread linking each part of the triptych too tenuous to convince.

The Dante Project’s strongest aspect is its score, new-minted by Thomas Adès, who brings a dizzying variety of invention, technique and sounds which intrigue, stimulate and satisfy.  The composer took the podium himself and the Royal Opera House Orchestra responded with virtuoso playing, from the panoply of percussion to the sonorous brass, piquant woodwind and slinky strings.  For Purgatorio, Adès has turned to Liszt and moves effortlessly back and forth from straight orchestration to his own original invention and all stops on the way.  It makes for an uncommonly rich sound world, although someone could (should?) have warned him off lengthy use of two sections which are very familiar to The Royal Ballet audiences from Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.  To create a sound world of those atoning for their sins in Purgatory, Adès has taken the chants from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem, and created around them a section satisfyingly rich in levantine sonorities.  Paradise is resolutely contemporary, the composer in fully transcendent mode, upwardly sliding sounds evoking the flight of the soul towards the godhead.  Certainly, The Dante Project is immeasurably strengthened by Adès’s music but it is also overbalanced, with a powerful sound-world unmatched by what we see.  Fatally, McGregor’s choreography pays little attention to what is coming from the pit.  The separate creative processes for music and dance are openly admitted, and it is clear that the choreographer has, at a late stage, pinned some movement to the score, but very little.  Time and again, the mood and effect of the music are simply ignored, as artists dance across the rhythms and sounds, their movements cast wholly adrift.  The dance thereby assumes an anonymous quality, the motivation behind bodies in motion (or stasis) unknowable to the observer.

Tacita Dean’s designs are striking.  Purgatorio is the strongest with a stage-wide panel depicting inverted mountains in negative evoking the bleak coldness of Dante’s Hell.  Costumes are  in essence body stockings in mottled greys onto which chalk has been applied.  Paradiso features a suspended screen with an ever-changing divine oculus, colours constantly mutating, a mesmeric effect but which often diverts attention.  Opalescent white body suits take on the colours of Lucy Carter’s polychromatic lighting.  Least successful, a single panel featuring a Jacaranda tree and a few stools for Purgatorio, for all the world the waiting room for an L.A. plastic surgeon rather than a place for those atoning for their sins.  Again, the disjunct between design and choreography makes itself felt, the designer herself having readily admitted that it was all conceived without seeing dancers in movement.  Disastrous, the shapeless hospital gowns that a severely underused Gary Avis as Virgil and a much put-upon Edward Watson as Dante have to sport – they were not there at the 2019 Los Angeles premiere of Inferno and do nothing whatsoever for these two distinguished company artists.

McGregor’s structure for the ballet is uneven, with fifty minutes spent in Hell, twenty-five in Purgatory and thirty in Heaven.  His choreography changes too, moving from the more illustrative, quasi-narrative of the thirteen sections of the first to the full abstraction of the last.  Inferno is the most satisfying, even if some of the sinners depicted are not identifiable from their movement.  Critically, Adès’s inspiration and nomenclature for the musical episodes have mostly been changed by McGregor for his movement, so that the musical ‘The Gluttons – in slime’ which elicits a remarkable slithering solo for Calvin Richardson, is the danced ‘Ulysses’, making it quite inexplicable to the viewer.  The most rousing section for ‘Thieves’ sees McGregor set eleven men off on a whirlwind of spins, leaps and falls on a stage flooded with a three-foot deep cloud of dry ice, disappearing only to jump up again; by the reaction it garnered from the audience it certainly confirmed that such movement is what most people wanted to see.

The episodic nature of Inferno and the musical score make it reminiscent of Leonid Massine’s great symphonic ballets of the 1930s.  In Purgatorio, not one but three Dantes and Beatrices are featured in what, according to the programme, are episodes of reminiscence, but which in performance have no explanation.  Paradiso sees eighteen of the company’s finest (of whom no fewer than nine are principal dancers, in an expression of McGregor’s ability to call upon whomsoever he wishes to realise his vision) as celestial bodies, either spirits or the stars, engaged in their perpetuum mobile.  It is perhaps the most typical of the choreographer in terms of dance style and is also the least interesting, mostly anonymous human bodies set in motion by his quasi-divine hand.

Watson, in his dancing swan-song, has been given a very unsatisfactory role, reduced to wandering the stage in the first section and given some unattractive and awkward partnering thereafter, interspersed with some of his trademark moves from his back catalogue of McGregor ballets.  We salute him for his long career with The Royal Ballet, his uncommon intelligence in the portrayal of character and his fearless embrace of the new.  Crucially, and disappointingly for him, his Dante is not given enough to draw the three disparate parts of this ballet together, his role is unfocussed and his own journey as the poet unclear in McGregor’s work of choreographic hubris which no doubt the great poet himself would have assigned to some ring of Hell.

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