Dante’s Creative Personality and Wayne McGregor’s Ballet, The Dante Project (2021)

By Elena Vassilieva

“L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” – Dante. On the photo: Edward Watson after his glorious performance. The image was taken by E.V. during the livestream from the Royal Opera House on 20 December 2021, © The ROH.

In 2014 Wayne McGregor turned to Thomas Adès, kindly asking him to write music for his new ballet. The British composer, haunted since childhood by the prodigious gruesomeness of the Divine Comedy’s imagery, must have thought then that it was his best chance to get rid of the fright he had acquired from reading the great poem in the young age, but also to bury those striking impressions inside the score for McGregor’s three-act ballet. He also must have believed that, after 30 years of creating “the poetry of the foot,”* the world-renowned choreographer wouldn’t fail to do justice to Dante who died on 14 September 1321. Adès’ logic didn’t mislead him, as Wayne McGregor had also been very much impressed by Dante’s poem, although it wasn’t the fright that moved him most deeply, but the beauty of Dante’s poetical word, which he initially feared not to be able to translate into the language of dance, but that natural fear lived one moment only; Dante’s overwhelming aesthetics and his creative genius commanded every single dance move in the new ballet triumphantly, leaving no trace of that conundrum the choreographer had in the very beginning.

There are others beside Wayne McGregor and Thomas Adès who are pivotal in the creation of the ballet: Tacita Dean was appointed as a set and costume designer, Lucy Carter and her assistant, Simon Bennison, as light designers, Uzma Hameed as a dramaturg, McGregor’s all-time collaborators. The ballet, somewhat drily called The Dante Project, a co-production with the Paris Opera Ballet (L.A. Philharmonic, a co-commissioner of Adès’ score), premiered on 14 October 2021 and was generously shown by the Royal Opera House to the audiences across the globe in December 2021. The world premiere was a very special and memorable event for several reasons. Firstly, the ballet lovers had already been aware of the tremendous success of the Inferno, performed by the Royal Ballet in July of 2019 in Los Angeles, and were eager to see all three parts of the new work, especially after the pandemic interruption. Secondly, the tragic consequences of the pandemic reminded us harshly how thin the line between life and death is, in fact, and how important it is, as was the case in the Classical Antiquity and then especially in the Middle Ages, not to forget the motto, memento mori, and do the right thing while here on Earth. Thirdly, it was an immensely courageous and significant most recent artistic creation that commemorated 7th centennial of Dante’s death.

Dante’s poem is not just a pleasing and at once repelling all senses colossal piece of artistry and a lengthy exposition of human nature that is prone to mistakes and flaws per se, but it is also a monument to a creative personality, whose role was fulfilled in the Divine Comedy with such an authority and wisdom by Virgil, whom Dante addresses affectionately as “my true Guide, my sweet Friend, my sweet Father, my Master, my good Master, my prompt Master, My Lord, My Leader, My wise Leader, My Virgil.” One can really feel the love and such an endless admiration Dante had for the Roman poet. The regrettable to Dante fact that both poets lived in different historical epochs and couldn’t possibly have arranged a meeting, was overcome in the reality of his poem, and Dante cherished and appreciated every second of it.

At the same time, it is also a monument to a woman, the beloved woman, Beatrice, who was neither Dante’s wife nor his lover, yet, she is the one who had captured his imagination ever since he had first seen her as a 9-year-old child. There are many scholarly speculations among Dantists on why Dante chose to place Beatrice and not anyone else on the very top of that otherworldly reality which he created according to the Christian code of ethics, but, alas, there isn’t one definitive answer to it. Some believe that it was just Amour Courtois which was a common thing in the upper classes in the Middle Ages, just think of all the troubadours who were writing the most dazzling poetry lines for their Dames of heart. But most of them stayed on the very surface of that highly coded pursuit. In fact, this much that the code and the codex itself ultimately mattered more than the essence of the relationship, e.g. the true feelings or the lack of them. Therefore, such strictly coded relationships often seemed to be driven by a game-like ardour rather than a deep-rooted feeling.

Although I agree that Dante might have been influenced by this cultural tradition indeed, for he mentions the French troubadour, Bertran de Born, in Inferno (Canto XXVIII), and it might well be a proof of that, but, in my view, Dante’s poetic explorations are much more captivating and fervent than those of the troubadours. He shares with us a profoundly touching experience of his life-long spiritual attachment to the woman he happened to see just twice, without selfishly reducing her, say, to a mere object of temporary fondness. Instead, he idealises, even deifies, and immortalises her, because she had had such an enormous power over him and had been an irreplaceable source of inspiration and creative energy throughout his life, and not only for writing poetry, but also for making him resilient and giving his life a higher purpose.

His everyday was far from being ordinary and was marked by turbulent political upheavals in his native Firenze where, in 1302, his property was seized, and he was condemned to death by fire, shall he ever be caught there. These circumstances forced him into exile, entirely separating him from his family, and Beatrice, the mistress of his soul, kept his spirits and hopes high. So in this context, Dante may be regarded even as one of the very first feminists who believed that it is crucial for an artist to have that special female presence in his life, which doesn’t have to be necessarily physical, but, rather, metaphysical. Eventually, as a wanderer throughout Italy, he could survive without his fortune, but he would hardly have done so without Beatrice’s spiritual guidance and support. It is thus the book that offers an incredible insight into man’s struggles and solace within the two realities, the one on the Earth, and the other one someplace else, depending on man’s deeds. In both realities, eternal dichotomies such as God and Satan, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, love and hatred, kindness and hostility, suffering and blissfulness, are central for Dante’s universe.

That’s true that his narrative is perceived foremost as theological, but it is by far not limited to it. On the contrary, Dante’s critique of the societal norms of that time is rather audacious and admirable, e.g. it is hard to miss his sympathy for the Florentine poet and philosopher, Brunetto Latini, whom Dante and Virgil encounter in the Seventh Circle of the Inferno (Canto XV) and who was sent there for just being a homosexual. The unfairness of Latini’s and his companion’s punishment leave Dante deeply disappointed and dismayed: “Ah, had I all my wish, […], you would not yet be banished from the world in which you were a radiance among men…” Latini himself says that it is hard to fathom for him why he and his troop (“all clerks, great scholars, and of great renown, by one same crime on earth defiled”), condemned and punished that unfairly and severely. He adds that, luckily, his life continues in his book, Livre dou Tresor: “I would say more but there across the sand a new smoke rises and new people come, and I must run to be with my own band. Remember my Treasure, in which I shall live on: I ask no more.” And Dante fully agrees with him. Moreover, he is grateful to Latini for teaching him the art of becoming eternal, meaning his creative pursuits. To Dante, Ser Brunetto remains dignified and victorious even in the Seventh Circle. Another of the many instances of his harsh critique is the scene in the Purgatorio (Canto XVI) where Dante and Virgil are moving “through that foul and acrid air” and one of the spirits, Marco Lombardo, complains about growing corruption and loss of spirituality in the circles of the Church.

These two examples throw light on Dante’s personality with his sentiments, viewpoints, and judgement. To many readers, he is first of all a prophetic poet, but I would also stress that, besides being a creator and a visionary, he is a remarkably compassionate and tolerant human being. Neither judgmental nor pious, he impresses us with his humanism, which is so much ahead of the medieval Zeitgeist. Dante is more congenial to a Renaissance man rather than to a man of the late Middle Ages, no wonder that he had chosen Virgil as his guide. With his humane values, sound ethics, and utter interest in man, the Italian poet appears to us surprisingly contemporary as for his worldviews, and that is what Wayne McGregor highlighted in his ballet so astonishingly well. He reconstructed the poet’s creative personality in such a beautiful and sensible way for us. To show Dante as a human being and not only to concentrate on the picturesque narrative of his poem is one of the strongest intentions in the ballet, in my view. And it turned out to be immensely advantageous to the conceptual side of The Dante Project. I could even forgive the dryness of the ballet title, as it shifts the focus to Dante’s personality and his inner life with all its struggles and hopes. The ballet does paint a very fair and colourful psychological portrait of the Italian poet genius, and this is doubtless a huge achievement by all those who had worked on it.

The first act, the Inferno with its nine circles, is the most spectacular one. Everything in this act is spellbinding: the music, deep and dark, had clearly inspired the intricacy and complexity of the choreographic movements, complimented by the austerity and elegance of Tacita Dean’s setting and costumes, and Lucy Carter’s and Simon Bennison’s very fine lighting design. The dancers seem to live in every movement and move, each playing his or her part superbly. One really delights in the usual sophistication of McGregor’s choreographic style. Edward Watson (Dante) and Gary Avis (Virgil) have a great rapport with each other while interpreting the Divine Comedy’s most glorious literary friendship on stage so movingly. Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball portray the adulterous lovers (Inferno, Canto V), expressing the Divine Comedy’s passions so convincingly, one wishes their pas de deux lasted longer. Calvin Richardson’s Ulysses is adventurous in his sublime confidence and worldliness, as is his sharp wit, in the Inferno (Canto XXVI). Ulysses’ vivid and garlanded storytelling doesn’t escape Wayne McGregor’s notice. A very curious and unexpected dialogue between Dante and Satan (Fumi Kaneko) captivates one’s mind the minute we see them converse, and even more so, because Satan is being portrayed here as an attractive and dangerous female seductress, but Satan’s charms hold no allure for Dante.

The second act, the Purgatorio, surprises the audience with its postmodern touch and rather interesting musical and geographical solutions. The mountain of Purgatory is said to be located in the middle of the ocean in the Southern Hemisphere, just the opposite of Jerusalem, which is in the center of the Northern Hemisphere; Thomas Adès unites both geographical locations on stage: while Dante is reminiscing on his life during his Purgatory journey, psalms are being sung in Hebrew in the Adès Synagogue in Jerusalem. Tacita Dean also finds an unordinary way to connect Dante’s personality to our everyday, placing the picture of an enormous jacaranda tree on a car-jammed L.A. street that serves as a background for the ballet scenes of the second act. Lucy Carter uses the symbolism of illuminating the jacaranda tree in different colours, from greenish-yellow to violet or purple. The musical canvas has a folkloric base. Nearly in all its entirety the second act consists of the group dances typical of festive occasions.

Two scenes stood out here in particular. The first one when both poets reach the Garden of Eden (Canto XXVII) and Virgil has to leave Dante, as Beatrice is there to guide him further on; and when the two pilgrims say goodbye to each other, the farewell truly breaks one’s heart, Edward Watson and Gary Avis presented the painful moment so well. The second scene with Dante, who is, finally, able to see Beatrice, will make the audience recall it again and again, as Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb, while on their journey high up, to the Paradiso, made the pas de deux unforgettable. They both looked as if not only did their bodies dance but also their souls in this love scene. “Now be celestial!” Wayne McGregor commanded like a god during rehearsals, and such they truly were. That gorgeous is the choreography and its fulfillment in this scene. Tacita Dean thought of a traditional red gown for Dante and of a gauzy, spring-like dress for Beatrice, emphasising will, desire, and love of Dante’s, a newcomer to the Garden of Eden, and purity, grace, and repose of his beloved. The role of Dante was extremely difficult to dance and act, it required so many skills from the dancer: stamina, knowledge, emotional intelligence, and incredible technique, given how complicated McGregor’s dance vocabulary and stylistic are. Clearly, it’s hard to cast a better artist than Edward Watson for this role, which he danced with such vividness and brilliance. It’s a pity that it was his swan song because of his retirement, and his presence on stage will be missed greatly in the future.

I had imagined the third act, the Paradiso, to be the most striking one, but after having seen the ballet, I would still prefer the Inferno. As for the musical qualities, it seemed to me that music wasn’t leading the choreography in the third act; it was too autonomous, and, therefore, quite difficult to follow choreographically. Of course, it is an enormous challenge to create something we don’t really know what it is. All we know it must be a certain state of being, say, a bliss, but what exactly is that bliss, we are left speculating. It is hard to compose the paradisaical blissfulness and the purity of the spirits on a musical canvas, anyway. But one assumes, nonetheless, that a musical bliss should lift up the soul of man who is still here, on Earth, offering him something that would make him believe that he is in Paradise, whatever the latter might be. Alas, a rare living composer has been granted that gift. However, Tacita Dean and Lucy Carter did a magnificent job of (re)creating the image of the Paradise. I admired a great deal their choice of colours and hues and geometrical patterns. They both concentrated on the Light of the Paradiso, and that was the secret of their extremely successful setting. The elegant pearly white costumes reminded me of Frederick Ashton’s contemplative serenity of his classic, Monotones II, choreographed to the music by Erik Satie, Gymnopédies. Wayne McGregor accentuated the euphoria of the Paradiso in his choreography, and it was as complex as the Inferno, but for all the Royal Ballet artists it seemed to be a breeze. They made it look as if their bodies were happily dissolving in this Heaven on stage.

Thus, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Dante Project team presented a creative piece of an extraordinary beauty and effort to the world. On 26 December 2021, on Instagram, Wayne McGregor said that “[c]oming back into the Royal Opera House to create, produce and perform a huge new 3 Act Ballet (after such covid havoc) was a massive challenge. All of the teams, across the house had to dig deep, working insanely hard to pull this off. Together we achieved so much and are very grateful for the reminder that each and everyone plays their individual part to manifest the whole. Collaboration at the heart of all that we do.”

It was a joy to see how carefully and sensibly Dante’s genius was treated in this work. The team’s decision to place his personality rather than the narrative of his poem in the foreground seems to be more challenging, but most appropriate. Not only aesthetic pleasure one finds in this work, but also solace and hope that unfavourable personal circumstances can eventually be overcome (just think of Dante’s life!), and so can the collective tragic circumstances that have recently sadly affected every single one of us. This makes all of us, not only the ballet lovers, appreciate this ballet greatly. Congratulations to the Dante Project team on such a brilliant work and many thanks to the Royal Opera House for the livestream of the ballet!  

Excerpts from the following editions of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri were cited here: The Carlyle-Wicksteed Translation. The Modern Library, 1932; Random House, 1944, p. 83. And The Divine Comedy, translated by John Ciardi. New American Library, 1954, pp. 122f; 1957, p. 420. *John Dryden (1664): The Rival Ladies.

Written on the night before Good Friday, 2022, in the Sky Control Room, on Cape Cod. Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.