Trailblazing a Path to Paradise

The Dante Project, The Royal Opera House, 14-30 October 2021

Wayne McGregor has never been shy in taking on literary greats. In 2015, the no-holds-barred resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, premiered Woolf Works, a three-act ballet based on the works of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves). His fearlessly abstract approach ruffled traditionalist feathers, yet won him multiple awards and garnered him international recognition as a trailblazer. He now finds himself face-to-face with the most celebrated Italian poet: Dante Alighieri.

The Dante Project, currently in its world premiere opening run at the Royal Opera House, is fortified by an ensemble cast of outstanding talent and bolstered by being in co-production with the Paris Opera Ballet. A retelling of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead are a perfect fit for the triptych approach that has become McGregor’s forté. In each act we see Dante on a various leg of his tour; beginning in the ice-cold depths of hell; continuing up the Mount of Purgatory, before ending in the dizzying heights of paradise. Alongside McGregor are composer-conductor Thomas Adès’ and designer Tacita Dean. All have fiercely embraced, even relished the challenge of bringing Dante’s vision to life. The breadth of Adès’ new score is masterful and expansive while the scale of Tacita Dean’s stage designs are monumental. This production is on an enormous scale. 

It is in the first act, ‘Inferno’, where the synergy between music and dance is at its most exciting. Adès’ score soars with a devilish playfulness and McGregor is more than willing to go along for the ride. Here he presents his boldest and most inventive choreography. Retiring principal dancer, Edward Watson, in the role of Dante, is fluid and refined, as is his poet-guide Virgil, played by Gary Avis. The real fun comes when we are introduced to a variety of miscreants in thirteen fragmented episodes, each one depicting a moral crime. In Soothsayers, Joseph Sissens and Paul Kay make for a riotous double act, virtuosically cartwheeling and hand-standing with posturing bravado; Calvin Richardson is captivating as Glutton; Marcelino Sambé is all liquid movement and curves as the Ferryman on course to hell; and the Forest of Suicides sees dancers spikily scuffling and tussling, their toes pounding the floor, while at no point relinquishing their precise pointe work and detailed steps.

This is hell, but not as we know it. Nothing is truly as it seems: there are no all-engulfing flames, no pointy-horned red devil. It is a shadowed, icy-cold world, with a set dominated by Dean’s drawing of inverted mountains running the whole length of the stage. It is made of the simplest means, with chalk on a blackboard. The chalk billows around the stage, spraying and mottling the dancer’s black costumes. The more they dance, the more they are covered; chalk, like sin, sticking to them on every turn. It is here that Adès’ composition is the most unsettling. Adès often evokes the spirit of Tchaikovsky (at times the score is even reminiscent of the ‘Land of Sweets’ sequence in The Nutcracker) and, in his own words, ‘abducts Liszt’. These sounds invoke an eerie sense of being on a knife-edge between the reassuringly familiar and the distantly unknown. 

‘Purgatorio’, in contrast, is bare and brightly lit. A suffusing sense of serenity shapes composition, design and lighting. Yiddish incantations reminiscent of the sounds of Ades’ synagogue in Jerusalem can be heard alongside drifting songs of the psalms; chants weaving through and rising above the orchestra. Dean stages the second act with the backdrop of a hand-printed photograph of a jacaranda tree; a tree that signifies rebirth, while Lucy Carter soaks the stage in luminous light. This is Dante’s waiting room: a place for reflection and prayer in the hope of retaining purity. Dante remembers childhood scenes with his great unrequited love Beatrice. Francesca Hayward is exuberant as a younger Beatrice and when she finally appears as an adult (played by Sarah Lamb) she is sweepingly melodic. Dante is desperate in his attempts to flirt with her. Watson displays a series of triumphant lifts and it is touching to see him play a character who, for the moment at least, is light and untortured. Yet, Beatrice is half-hearted and distant. Dante is left frustrated and unsatisfied.

Aloof as she may be, Beatrice guides him through the celestial spheres to his final destination, ‘Paradiso’. For this final act, the Royal Opera House is briefly turned into a cinema, projecting a completely abstract 35mm film above the dancers’ heads, as they spiral underneath. Here, Dean uses the planetary circle motif, which was first used by Botticelli in his illustrations of The Divine Comedy. The lack of correlation between film and music is striking: nothing here is illustrative or literal. In contrast to Dean’s jerky film, Adès’ score is hypnotic; sweeping from melodic strings and wind with flourishes of the harp, to blazing brass and percussion. Lucy Carter’s mesmeric lighting bathes the dancers before blooming into a prism-like rainbow of brilliant colours – gold, lilac, bronze – bouncing off bodies and reflecting back. This universe pulsates with sound and colour. Orbited by eighteen dancers, Watson imbues Dante with an all too-humanness. It is a performance of texture and in fearless partnership with the elegant and ethereal Lamb, who falls into his arms, only to be let go of for the final time. In what is a fitting swansong for Watson, he is  left alone; a dazzling white light floods the stage and all other colour is drained from the world.

T.S. Eliot once said that in ‘Paradiso’ Dante had reached the limits of what language could do. McGregor – in attempting to reach beyond these limits of greatness, by stripping Dante of his language, by non-verbalising the epic poem and steering it into a world of abstraction – is treading a fine line between hype and ambition, foolishness and fearlessness. And yet, it is Dante himself who gives McGregor a helping hand. Dante’s story is one of both pilgrim and poet. The pilgrim is navigating his way through the realms of the afterlife, while the other is exiled from his native Florence, never to return. Dante wrote his epic while on the move and neither narrator nor narrative is ever static. This physicality, this sense of constant movement and motion is ideal material for a McGregor reinterpretation. It is the remarkable the ensemble of dancers that catalyses the narrative to such different, rather than new, heights.

As we collectively emerge from the trauma of living through a pandemic, as we attempt to heal and find meaning, this reimagining of the timeless masterpiece has never felt so resonant. Seven hundred years after his death, Dante’s questions are our questions: what it is to be human, what matters in life and death. His search is our search.

The Dante Project will be available as a digital stream from 29 October and on demand for 30 days via

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