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BWW Review: THE DANTE PROJECT, Royal Opera House


The world premiere of Wayne McGregor's new ballet inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia hits the Royal Opera House stage.

BWW Review: THE DANTE PROJECT, Royal Opera House

BWW Review: THE DANTE PROJECT, Royal Opera House Dante Alighieri is frequently said to be the Italian William Shakspeare, and he certainly is in many aspects. Often pictured from his side - with prominent nose, laurel crown, and red tunic becoming the stars of his portraits - he somewhat invented the Italian language before modern Italy was even conceived as an ideal. The English wouldn't meet their Bard for a further two centuries.

To celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante's death, a new ballet inspired by his Divina Commedia, Divine Comedy, has its world premiere on the Royal Opera House stage. A collaboration between The Royal Ballet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Dante Project is choreographed by Wayne McGregor, composed by Thomas Adès, and designed by Tacita Dean, while lighting design is by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison with dramaturgy curated by Uzma Hameed.

As a whole, the production looks and sounds magnificent as in its attempt to translate a body of work defined as an "allegorical and didactic poem" to dance. Divided into three "cantiche" (three parts), it details Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven.

Written during his forced exile from his beloved Florence, the poem is imbued with longing for his hometown, hosts a plethora of glorious allegories, and sees a great number of famous figures popping up here and there (those in Hell are the most surprising ones). It's also an intrinsically political piece and removing this element - as it happens here - does a colossal disservice to both audience and material.

As my old Italian professor would say (she idolised Alighieri and would equate him to her god - I know) when someone misquoted him or worse, "Dante is rolling in his grave". But she's not in this conversation, and that's not the case. It's important to keep in mind that The Dante Project is a ballet only lightly influenced by the original poem. The McGregor-helmed end result is a visually dazzling and impressive Commedia-infused show.

Unfortunately, none of the peculiar characters we find in Alighieri's material are introduced properly, and the sinners especially all become one with very little distinction among them. This makes it an enormous feat for the Dante-laymen and those who aren't too familiar with the text. Against a large upside mountain range sketched on black, he penitents wear dark catsuits, white chalk soils their bodies in specific parts loosely related to their sins (Paolo - of Paolo and Francesca fame, the forbidden lovers - has it across his groin, for instance), while Edward Watson's Dante looks on.

He is both weirdly attracted to the frenzy of sins and pervaded by deep sadness seeing their suffering. Especially remarkable (and probably one of the most immediate parts) is The Forest of Suicides - Dido. The company is stunning, following haunting, thunderous music as it beckons them before softly turning into sweet and longing.

As in the book, Dante is seen fainting a few times - which was a particularly whimsical detail to spot given the circumstances. In the Commedia, he blacks out multiple times, overwhelmed with feeling, fear, or tiredness. This was a clever escamotage that made it easier for Alighieri to move his alter ego from circle to circle without too much explaining. Once or twice Virgil is described as heroically carrying him, hence forming one of the very first healthy bromances.

This comes out in fine and charming fashion at the end of McGregor's Purgatorio: Love. It's time for Gary Avis's Virgil to say goodbye to his temporary companion and go back to his friends the "spiriti magni" (noble souls). These were artists, philosophers, and authors born before the birth of Christ. Curiously, Dante should have put them among the heretics and tortured them, but since he was a huge fan of theirs they get to be in a special shiny castle outside Hell.

Virgil and Dante's last farewell becomes fond movements, a physical and tender goodbye at the end of the second act. This is strikingly different from the first. Dean's use of colour and colour differences between the souls hints at the hierarchy of the souls. Purgatory is a place characterised by penitence and waiting to be welcomed to Paradise.

The souls are working their way to the final act's white bodysuits, which are still stained but fading here. Dante and Virgil become the few intense spots among subdued hues. A big square backdrop dominates the scene while short stools at its left hint at the waiting element of the place. This act features some weird Arabic-sounding instances that tip the balance of the body of work off as it feels out of place and unjustified.

Watson is, however, mesmerising when he takes the stage by himself. A sinner who needs to repent himself, he pays his dues with his comrades until he is finally met by Sarah Lamb's Beatrice - the love of his life, who we've seen briefly before the gates of Hell. She escorts him into Paradise, which is where The Dante Project finalises its detachment from Alighieri.

If Purgatory could still be somewhat linked back to his poem even though very few of the events that take place there are present in the ballet, Heaven feels a completely different and separate piece. A more classical stage is now set, with a rectangular screen hanging above the dancers' heads.

The projections are both distracting from the sheet talent happening below and baffling as to their pertinence. Pure white and colours mix here, with Watson now donning Dante's famous red frock (having gone from blue in Hell, and half and half in Purgatory). While any narrative is lacking, this final act is gorgeous. With all the tension of torture and the need to find Beatrice of the previous parts gone, it turns into pure, heavenly, dance entertainment. Paradiso: Poema Sacro is flashy and haunting, sweet and jubilant, a feast for the eyes.

All in all, The Dante Project is an ambitious venture that could never have matched up to the grandiosity and magnificence of the Commedia. It is, however, a clever introduction to the material tied together with impeccable visuals and astounding talent. Dante's universe has been the source of all kinds of media, starting from plays down to videogames. It's intricate, compelling, and magnetic. Perhaps even more than Shakespeare's world...

The Dante Project runs at the Royal Opera House until 30 October.

Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski

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From This Author Cindy Marcolina