Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project proves to be Edward Watson’s thought-provoking, poignant farewell

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Royal Ballet’s The Dante Project: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, London Symphony Chorus (choral director: Simon Halsey), Orchestra of The Royal Opera House / Koen Kessels (conductor). Recorded (directed by Ross MacGibbon) when performed at the Opera House, Covent Garden, London, on 26.10.2021 and streamed from 20.12.2021. (JPr)

The Dante Project – Inferno: Pilgrim (c) Andrej Uspensk

Choreographer of The Dante Project, Wayne McGregor, explained for this stream, ‘We knew we couldn’t do that [Dante’s The Divine Comedy] as a narrative ballet … instead what we wanted to do was take amazing inspiration from these three beautiful sets of worlds and create our own versions of that or our own kind of emotional and narrative arc.’ Describing the three parts as having ‘very, very different kind of worlds [for Inferno] we have just called it “Pilgrimage” you go through these different circles of hell and Dante witnesses them and sometimes participates in them. [The] second act is really about Dante’s purgation if you like, this space is serene, it’s peaceful. There is a kind of beautiful monastic collective of an environment where people are reflecting back on their life and time extends as very, very long time but also at the centre of it is the story of Dante’s love for Beatrice. Then Act III kind of transforms, the Dantes become figures of light, they become abstractions. Beatrice guides Dante through this beautiful constellation of continuity and change and renewal … Each of the acts will have a very, very different feeling but the overall sense of the acts is this incredible journey of Dante through the afterlife to a place of hope and transformation.’ In discussing her work on The Dante Project, dramaturg Uzma Hameed said how ‘Wayne’s work sits between narrative and abstraction’ and how elements of the original should help the audience connect with the performance whilst they are allowed ‘space for them to fly free and link what they’re seeing to their own frame of reference and find their own emotional resonance within what they see onstage.’

Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in the early part of the fourteenth century, is considered the preeminent literary work in the Italian language. Though of course, it is not a ‘comedy’ as we would normally now understand it. The CliffsNotes are that the poet, writer and philosopher journeys through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise: in Inferno Virgil accompanies him to the underworld where each sin’s punishment represents a kind of poetic justice. Dante and Vigil – having survived the depths of Hell – then ascend to the Mountain of Purgatory which is symbolic of the seven deadly sins (Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth). Finally in Paradiso, Beatrice – who is the love of Dante’s life – guides him through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven. Here he must face up to the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) and then three theological ones (faith, hope, charity/love). Dante encounters several of the church’s great saints before at the end he sees God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

This source material for The Dante Project (details below) has been reimagined by McGregor and Hameed, his designer Tacita Dean, and Thomas Adès who not only supplies an original score – with some of his most accessible music – but also suggested The Divine Comedy to McGregor when he was contacted about a possible collaboration. Dante’s work is powerful and wide-ranging, and it is a measure of the choreographer’s ambition that he actually undertook this attempt to transfer it to the stage as a full evening of ballet. I refer to Hameed’s words above as to how successful McGregor has been as that will be down to your own individual reaction to watching this stream.

If you have never read The Divine Comedy or watched or read anything that introduces this new ballet, then you will have difficulty understanding who is who and what is going on. Undoubtedly it is visually stunning, and you will admire the technical accomplishment of a talented ensemble of dancers as McGregor seems to be exploring every way possible that a dancer might move. It allows a large number of The Royal Ballet’s dancers to be involved supporting Edward Watson who has been a muse of McGregor’s for over twenty of Watson’s 27 years with the company. It had been long trailed that this new creation would mark his final performances and Watson revealed that although he was not saying he was ‘never going to dance again, but my time as a principal of The Royal Ballet feels like it’s come to a really natural conclusion with this.’

That being said, with all the frequent balances, poses, legs up by their ears (or akimbo) and hands stretched upwards, McGregor’s choreography is a little repetitious – and spread thin over a running time of one hundred minutes – even though you appreciate the protagonist’s anguish and the struggle for his soul. The wonderfully expressive Watson haunts – in the best possible way – all three acts as an observer/participant; nevertheless, dancing barefoot in a shift (which is originally turquoise) there is a sense that Dante could be open to gender blind casting and it would be interesting to see what Natalia Osipova could do with the role.

Dean provides an impressionist backdrop for Inferno – drawn in chalk – of a range of mountain peaks (atmospherically lit by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison) which are inverted and reflected the correct way up in a mirror above the stage. Amongst all this the dancers in a variety of chalk-covered black bodysuits represent the sinners who Dante – guided on his journey by Vigil (the wonderful Gary Avis) – encounters. There is much to admire and ponder on including a particularly sinuous duet for Marcelino Sambé and Yasmine Naghdi (Sinners); another that illustrates a highly sexual – and exhausting – encounter for the illicit lovers, Francesca and Paolo (Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball); in The Forest of Suicides past lives are revisited and wrists are (mimed as) slit; though Joseph Sissens and Paul Kay as Soothsayers will (attempt to) lighten the darkness with their twirling, tumbling, handstands and armography. At the end Dante comes face to face with Satan, here (oddly) a come-hither to Hell seducer (Fumi Kaneko).

In Purgatorio: Love what we see are some chairs (Satan’s waiting room?) and on a screen a blurred image of a street with cars and huge lime-green tree. The costumes are more neutral with hints of other colours (though Dante’s shift is now red and turquoise). Dante seems to be reliving his life and his love for Beatrice: we see two younger versions of himself as well as three incarnations of her, with a standout lyrical solo from Francesca Hayward (in a satin nightdress and possibly as the living embodiment of Beatrice). Notably here is the Adès’s music which was wonderfully evocative in Inferno with influences of Liszt and the martial sounds of Shostakovich, now it incorporates psalms from Jerusalem’s Ades(!) Synagogue and Middle Eastern influences, such as drumbeats, quickening whirling dervish music and a chorale. It ends with the reminiscence of a Mahlerian horn call, and Dante bids farewell to Vigil in an extended duet before there is a romantic one with Sarah Lamb’s more heavenly Beatrice.

Edward Watson (Dante) and Sarah Lamb (Beatrice) (c) Andrej Uspensk

The final act is Paradiso: Poema Sacro and the overhead video shows colourful versions of vortices as eighteen leading dancers – now in white – spin around the stage as the ‘Celestial Bodies’ they are there to represent. Adès’s music is appropriately ‘twinkling’ before we hear the chorus near the end when Watson’s Dante dances with Lamb’s idealised version of Beatrice in a culmination to all that had gone before. There is now more than a hint of the Romeo and Juliet balcony pas de deux to it before Lamb eventually moves back and disappears into the haze leaving Watson alone to walk forward as the lighting fades for the final time as Adès’s score veers towards the portentous final pages of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

A deeply affecting, extremely poignant, moment of farewell!

Jim Pritchard

Choreography – Wayne McGregor
Music – Thomas Adès
Design – Tacita Dean
Lighting design – Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison (Inferno: Pilgrim), Lucy Carter (Purgatorio; Love and Paradiso: Poema Sacro)
Dramaturgy – Uzma Hameed

Dante – Edward Watson
Virgil – Gary Avis
Sinners – Dancers of The Royal Ballet

Exile – The Dark Forest

The Selfish
Dancers – Lukas B. Brændsrød, David Donnelly, Benjamin Ella, Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Mayara Magri, David Yudes

Dancers – Marcelino Sambé, Yasmine Naghdi

Poets – Pavan of the Souls in Limbo
Dancers – David Donnelly, Nicol Edmonds, Benjamin Ella, Joonhyuk Jun, Tomas Mock, Giacomo Rovero, Stanisław Węgrzyn

Francesca and Paolo
Dancers – Francesca Hayward, Matthew Ball

Dancers – 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
Dancers – Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Luca Acri, Annette Buvoli, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Francesca Hayward, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Fumi Kaneko, Sae Maeda, Mayara Magri, Yasmine Naghdi, Katharina Nikelski, Romany Pajdak, Julia Roscoe

Paul Kay, Joseph Sissens

The Wrathful
Dancers – Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Mayara Magri

The Pope’s Adagio
James Hay

Stations of the Cross
Dancers – Lukas B. Brændsrød, Harry Churches, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Leo Dixon, Hannah Grennell, Joshua Junker, Sae Maeda, Katharina Nikelski, David Yudes

Dancers – Luca Acri, Matthew Ball, Leo Dixon, Benjamin Ella, James Hay, Joshua Junker, Paul Kay, Giacomo Rovero, Marcelino Sambé, Joseph Sissens, Stanisław Węgrzyn

Fumi Kaneko

Remembrance 3
Ritual Remembrance 2
Ritual Remembrance 1
Sweetest Father

Dante – Edward Watson, Marco Masciari, Lewis Chan
Virgil – Gary Avis
Beatrice – Sarah Lamb, Francesca Hayward, Rose Milner
Penitents – Dancers of The Royal Ballet

(continuous and planetary)

Dante – Edward Watson
Beatrice – Sarah Lamb
Celestial Bodies – Dancers of The Royal Ballet

Leave a Comment