Illustration by Ben Beechener

In 2019 the 45 minute ballet ‘Inferno’ premiered in Los Angeles to fanatic acclaim. Grey suited dancers wafted through an icy, inverted hellscape with the desperate, limp displacement of lost souls. As the first act of Wayne McGregor’s hotly anticipated ballet ‘The Dante Project,’ ‘Inferno’ was seen as a breakthrough collaboration in the dance world. This union of the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera and the L.A Philharmonic is also stamped with Dante Alighieri’s Italian origins, a 20th century answer to a 14th century poet. Despite this international collaboration, the remaining spheres of the afterlife remained unexplored; the second and third acts, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’ were anticipated in the 2020 season and delayed by the Covid-19 outbreak. As the arts entered a purgatory of their own it was doubted whether the piece would emerge before 2021, the 700th anniversary of Alighieri’s death. ‘The Dante Project’ finally premiered on the 14th of October (presumably to the relief of the Royal Ballet’s accountants) and, as Covent Garden floods with balletomanes, the art world is anticipating a judgement. Was it worth the wait? 

The handling of such highbrow subject matter is no new thing for the Royal Ballet who frequently (and, according to the FT’s damning dance critic Clement Crisp, often unsuccessfully) enjoy the uptake of rather precocious literary departure points. McGregor’s last commission ‘Woolf Works’ (2015) captured the essence of Virginia Woolf’s beloved narratives but lacked a meaningful connection to the lyricism of her texts, ‘Woolf Works’ is undeniably spectacular with a gender morphing electricity, set against the haunting waves of Max Richter’s score but something was absent. While one felt for Mrs Dalloway’s plight (a woman with aging skin and a distant husband gets particular sympathy from the ballet demographic) it seemed that Woolf’s narratives had been prioritised over her essence. The 2014 adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (perhaps the closest literary ballet in age and canonical status to Dante) suppressed a similar hollowness, admittedly with the most stellar cast, sumptuous costumes and spellbinding production that the Royal Ballet has put forward this century. It’s clear from the naming of the ballet that the text has been taken as a stepping stone. It is not ‘The Divine Comedy’ but ‘The Dante Project,’ a title which respectfully nods back at the creative process.

Surprisingly this text was suggested by composer Thomas Ades who began work on the score in 2014. This seems to sum up McGregor’s creative process: recruit the most talented teammates possible and give them free reign. Ades drew musical inspiration from the psalm structure and references Syrian- Jewish chants from his heritage in the final act, ‘Paradiso.’ Ades also determined the duration of the ballet and its sections, supplying McGregor with a medium that was, while completely brilliant, decidedly inflexible. The same scope was given to Tacita Dean, the accoladed British visual artist, who took on the design work, having rejected ‘Woolf Works.’ Dean worked in her LA studio throughout the process, jumping on the virtual workers’ bandwagon before the pandemic made it the norm. Her work for the piece is symbolic and powerful: inverted mountains chalked on a blackboard, an iridescent tree of life, an overlay of photo negatives and positives that capture the inescapable liminality of purgatory. The designs are inspired and show strong reference to the cantos; anyone can wander into the Opera House’s Paul Hamlin Hall to admire her mountain scape, displayed threateningly over the champagne bar. One can only hope that McGregor answers these gigantic talents with something worthy of his principal dancer heavy first cast. If the production manages to marry these three creative minds ‘The Dante Project’ has the potential to be a modern classic. 

Despite celebrating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321 this piece will forever bear the scars of the pandemic. The first act will carry very different connotations on its second outing. The past year, with its flux of lockdowns and loneliness will haunt the choreography of the ‘Inferno,’ where dancers grasp at one another in damnation only to drift apart again. McGregor and Dean have both expressed the influence of infection on their creative decisions. The dark suits of the damned are marked with white spray paint on the locality of their sin (hands for thieves, genitals for lechers…) suggesting that the body is a threat to itself and to others; there is a conflict between the need for human touch and the fear of transmission. We will have to await the critical reception of the next few weeks to determine whether the performance has been compromised by the pandemic. In an artform so reliant on the physical body and the proximity of the audience it is unclear whether the ‘new normal’ will hinder original ballets or widen their collaborative potential. Starved of new ballet content, audiences will be hopeful that the movement from Inferno to Paradiso is worth the wait, if only for the sake of Edward Watson, the 45 year old principal dancer who had planned to retire after the ballet’s first run.