The Dante Project

Wayne McGregor
The Royal Ballet
The Royal Opera House

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The Dante Project - Artists of the Royal Ballet Credit: Andrej Uspenski

Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project is back for a second run and the ballet is nothing short of a dazzling masterpiece in terms of its freshness, wrapped in ancientness. It feels like something totally new, yet with a classicalism buried into its code.

In a flow of imagination and ideas, the ballet hovers between the abstract and narrative, allowing us to decipher meaning as part of its joyous journey. The collaborative genius of artists from sets (Tacita Dean), lights (Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison) and music (Thomas Adès) galvanise to create a sizzling synthesis of sound, colour and movement in a blaze of the senses. The stage becomes a glorious space to play, freeing dancers and viewers to bring a personal emotional resonance to the ballet.

Inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, McGregor only loosely bases his three worlds on the classic text, and the ballet is divided into three parts following the poet’s journey as he travels through the stages of the afterlife from Inferno to utopian Paradiso.

The performance opens with Inferno and the pilgrimage in Hell. William Bracewell (alternating with Ryoichi Hirano) is the man travelling through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise alongside Virgil (Gary Avis) and, later, Beatrice (Francesca Hayward and Fumi Kaneko). Dante is often a shadowy figure, on the sidelines, but eventually claims central stage as he travels through the worlds, sometimes participating and always watching.

Dean’s design skills speak through her abstractions of the story. Her bleak chalk drawings of treacherous mountains are wheeled out to represent Hell, reflected into a mirror so that the audience can see both positive and negative versions of the same image. It’s an oppressive setting, reflecting the tightly clad, grey-black unitards that highlight the dancers’ insane sinewy flexibility and body contortions.

Then the second act takes us into Dante’s Purgation. There is a line of chairs to the side of the stage; a God's waiting room setting. This section of the ballet breathes space, serenity and a peaceful monastic collective environment where dancers gather and disperse as the music simmers and wails, overlaying Sephardic cantor (synagogue singers) chants with twinkling elegiac melodies.

The music is sublime. Adès has composed a near spiritual score, at once new world and old order, with traces of early Liszt, but overlaying ancient Hebrew recordings from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem (guttural sounding Hebrew from his own Aleppo roots). There is a sonorous discordance that rubs against the light-hearted fluidity of the score in flow with the virtuosity of the dancers. It makes you want to jump out of your seat and sing.

Sitting at the centre of it all is the story of love. Dante’s love for Beatrice beautifully etched out here by Bracewell and Hayward as they passionately fold into each other, all elegant, elongated lines and sways to the deeply ancient spiritual music, then reflected back at us in the movement of two young dancers standing in as their childish selves.

It is beautifully framed by Dean’s bleached-out photograph of a street in Los Angeles, dominated by a huge jacaranda tree in a surreal reminder of the past and the present with an ancient symbolic tree rubbing up against the traffic of LA.

And finally to Paradise, where dancers in white become flickering figures of light, swirling until they become abstractions, while Beatrice guides Dante through the beautiful constellation of change through the afterlife, ending with hope and transformation.

McGregor’s choreography is sweepingly liberating and rich in imagery. Bodies hyperextend and leap sky high, only to collapse into pools of smoke. Dancers spin as if whirling dervishes, then fold and roll through their spines like snakes.

So many sequences are beautifully expressed by the dancers, for example, Matthew Ball and Hayward as the adulterous Paolo and Francesca, full of guilt, yet still incapable of letting go; sinuous Calvin Richardson as Ulysses lost at sea. Then there’s the jocular, acrobatic sequence for Joseph Sissens and Francisco Serrano as Soothsayers and the whirlwind jumps, turns and falls for the all-male thieves. The company find the space to respond to the choreography as individuals as well as in collective expressions only to reveal heightened physicality that is nothing short of super human.

Bracewell, the lynchpin for the whole ballet is a quietly powerful and brooding presence throughout who raises his expressive game during key romantic moments as he travels through his memories. By the time he reaches Paradiso, the music flits like a murmuration of birds out on the ocean and dancers flutter, donned in white, shining bright like angelic beings under a projected, spinning spiral; a giant eye or a sun hovering over the stage.

As Bracewell sweeps his lover in a beautifully willowy turn from Kaneko, they melt together, limpid and expressive, while the hovering celestial bodies pirouette offstage, leaving Dante holding the limelight framed in a single shaft of light. It’s exhilarating, breathtaking and beautiful. I could watch it all over again.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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