THE DANTE PROJECT, Royal Opera
It is often said that Dante Alighieri is the Italian William Shakspeare, and he certainly is in many ways. Often photographed on his side – with a prominent nose, a laurel wreath and a red tunic becoming the stars of his portraits – he somewhat invented the Italian language even before modern Italy was conceived of as an ideal. The English would not meet their bard for two more 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 stage of the Royal Opera House. 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.
Overall, 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 paradise.
Written during his forced exile from his beloved Florence, the poem is imbued with longing for his hometown, harbors a plethora of glorious allegories, and sees a great number of famous figures arise here and there (those in hell are the more surprising). It’s also an inherently political piece and removing that element – as it is here – does a colossal service to both the audience and the material.
As my old Italian teacher would say (she idolized Alighieri and equated him to her god – I know) when someone quoted him badly or worse, “Dante rolls in his grave”. But she’s not in this conversation, and she isn’t. It is important to keep in mind that The Dante project is a ballet little influenced by the original poem. The end result at McGregor’s helm is visually dazzling and impressive Comedy– infused show.
Unfortunately, none of the particular characters we find in Alighieri’s material are presented correctly, and sinners in particular all become one with very little distinction between them. This makes it a huge feat for Dante-laity and those not too familiar with the text. Against a large upside-down mountain range sketched on black, penitents wear dark coveralls, white chalk stains their bodies in specific parts loosely related to their sins (Paolo – by Paolo and Francesca fame, The Forbidden Lovers – has it through his groin, for example), while Edward Watson’s Dante watches.
He is both strangely drawn to the frenzy of sins and overwhelmed by a deep sadness to see their suffering. Particularly noteworthy is the Suicide Forest – Dido (and probably one of the more immediate parts). The company is breathtaking, following haunting, thunderous music as it waves to them before slowly transforming into soft and nostalgic.
As in the book, Dante is seen fainting a few times – which was a particularly whimsical detail to spot given the circumstances. In the Comedy, he passed out several times, overwhelmed by emotions, fear or fatigue. It was a clever evasion that made it easier for Alighieri to move his alter ego from circle to circle without much explanation. Once or twice Virgil is described as carrying it heroically, thus forming one of the very first healthy bromances.
It comes out in a fine and charming way at the end of McGregor’s Purgatorio: Love. It is time for Virgil de Gary Avis to bid farewell to his passing companion and return to his friends the “spiriti magni” (noble souls). They are artists, philosophers and authors born before the birth of Christ. Oddly enough, Dante should have put them among the heretics and tortured them, but since he was a huge fan of them, they end up in a special shining castle outside of Hell.
The last farewell of Virgil and Dante becomes tender movements, a physical and tender farewell at the end of the second act. This one is remarkably different from the first. Dean’s use of color and color differences between souls alludes to the hierarchy of souls. Purgatory is a place characterized by penance and waiting to be welcomed in Paradise.
Souls make their way to the white suits in the final act, which are still stained but fade here. Dante and Virgil become the few intense spots among the subdued hues. A large square backdrop dominates the stage while short stools to its left allude to the waiting element of the place. This act features weird Arab-sounding examples that tip the scales of work as it seems inappropriate and unwarranted.
Watson is however fascinating when he takes the stage alone. A sinner in need of repentance, he pays his due with his comrades until he is finally met by Sarah Lamb’s Beatrice – the love of his life, whom we saw briefly outside the gates of the hell. She escorts him to paradise, where The Dante project finalizes his detachment from Alighieri.
If Purgatory could still be somewhat attached to his poem even though very few events taking place there are present in the ballet, Heaven feels a completely different and separate piece. A more classic stage is now installed, with a rectangular screen suspended above the dancers’ heads.
The projections are both distracting from the leaf talent happening below, and confusing as to their relevance. Pure white and colors blend together here, with Watson now wearing Dante’s famous red robe (gone blue in Hell and half-and-half in Purgatory). While all narrative is missing, this final act is magnificent. With all the tension of torture and the need to reunite with Beatrice from the previous parts, it turns into pure heavenly dance entertainment. Paradiso: Poema Sacro is flashy and bewitching, sweet and jubilant, a feast for the eyes.
In all, The Dante project is an ambitious enterprise that could never have matched the grandeur and magnificence of the Comedy. It is, however, a clever introduction to related material with impeccable visuals and amazing talent. Dante’s universe has been the source of all kinds of media, from plays to video games. It’s complex, compelling and magnetic. Maybe even more than Shakespeare’s world …
The Dante Project runs at the Royal Opera House until October 30.
Photo credit: Andrej Uspenski