Thomas Adès (b. 1971)
The Dante Project – ballet in three Acts
Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Dante – Edward Watson
Virgil – Gary Avis
Sinners – Artists of the Royal Ballet
London Symphony Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Koen Kessels
rec. 21 and 26 October 2021, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Opus Arte DVD OA1319D [104 (ballet) + 15 (extras)]
My Sunday newspaper features a regular column in which a well-known figure is asked about his or her cultural passions. Reading it, I can discover their favourite book, the film they’ve most enjoyed lately or the TV series box set that they binged on during the pandemic. Just as revealing, however, are the answers to questions about things they’ve disliked, especially books that they couldn’t ever finish. I’ve never kept a tally of the responses, but I’d guess that the most frequent answer has been Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’d venture, however, that not far behind it as an unread classic may be Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
Dante’s narrative poem could certainly figure on my own “books I’ve never finished” list, so I hope that more literary-inclined readers will forgive any errors or misconceptions in the following brief synopsis. Written in the early 14th century, The Divine Comedy depicts its author’s – and, metaphorically, the human soul’s – journey through, in turn, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Guided by the Roman poet Virgil, Dante first travels through the various circles of Hell, where he witnesses the inventive and endless torments inflicted upon the irredeemably and perpetually damned as they are trapped forever in fiery wildernesses of excruciating pain. He then moves on to Purgatory, a sort of halfway house where less-hardened sinners who are capable of ultimate redemption may achieve it by undertaking a lengthy period of reflection and repentance. While there he is reunited with the spirit of his deceased first love, Beatrice, who becomes both his idealised personification of womankind and a symbol of God’s eternal love for mankind. Guided by her, Dante reaches his ultimate destination, Paradise, where the delights of attaining full oneness with the deity are revealed to him.
As you may have already noticed, although they move repeatedly from one vantage point of the afterlife to another, the poem’s central figures, Dante, Virgil and Beatrice, are often static observers rather than active protagonists in the stories of the souls that they see undergoing torment or experiencing salvation. That particular consideration might indicate that recreating the work as a ballet would not be easy. Nevertheless, in 2021 a Royal Ballet team led by choreographer Wayne McGregor, composer Thomas Adès and set and costume designer Tacita Dean demonstrated that, with some imaginative tweaking, such a transformation could be successfully achieved. They took the opportunity provided by the poem’s sequential Hell-Purgatory-Paradise progression to conceive and mount an ambitious three-Act production and, taking full advantage of its various dramatic scenarios, they devised plenty of eye-catching on-stage action. Meanwhile, they also applied a degree of dramatic licence to make the story more attractive to ballet-goers. In the first instance McGregor’s choreography enhanced the main characters’ active physicality and increased their degree of interaction with the other characters. Secondly, he slightly refocussed the narrative to introduce some new audience-pleasing elements, including sensual episodes for Dante and Beatrice and a couple of comic interludes elsewhere.
The representation of Hell that’s the setting for Act 1 – Inferno: pilgrim is not, as it turns out, any sort of blazing furnace. Instead, it is an ice-cold, stonily barren wilderness, all of which is entirely grey or black, for anything in the way of colour would presumably offer a reminder of the sinful frivolity of a previous earthly life. As the Act unfolds, various eternally tormented characters, once again dressed in grey or black, emerge onto the stage in what Wayne McGregor himself has neatly described as a series of “carnivalesque mini narratives” or, as we might put them in traditional ballet terms, modernistic divertissements. Among others, we encounter people who have been selfish in their dealings with others, as well as a group of poets (who’d have guessed that penning the odd sonnet might prove a mortal sin?) An adulterous couple blown hither and thither in perpetuity by a tempestuous hurricane turns out to be the infamous Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paulo. Meanwhile, a comic interlude introduces us to a pair of soothsayers who had, presumably, been so inept at the job that they’d failed to foresee their own eternal damnation. Hell’s inmates also include people who have taken their own lives and seem, as a result, to merit exceptional confinement in a uniquely fiery region of the afterlife. The sequence of sinners continues with others who have been too prone to wrathfulness, a surprisingly jolly gang of thieves – the Covent Garden audience’s clear favourite – and one or two unfortunate individuals. In real life Dante was notoriously anticlerical, so it’s hardly a surprise to find that one of them is a pope, whose subsequent attempt to engage the fictional Dante in a pas de deux might hint, perhaps, that he’s being tormented for the sin of sodomy. Another encountered sinner is rather less surprising, for, after all, no visit to Hell would be complete without an encounter with Satan herself. Yes, in this version she’s a woman.
As already noted, the setting of Act 2 – Purgatorio: love is no longer the icy prison of the irredeemably damned. Instead we find Dante and Virgil in the less frenetic environment of Purgatory, observing its contemplative inhabitants repenting their sins in the expectation of eventual redemption and their ultimate ascent to heaven. The stage is rather less busy in this Act for we see just seven penitent sinners, the returning figure of Virgil and, of course, Dante and Beatrice, with the lovers’ roles shared between six dancers who portray them variously as young children, adolescents and mature adults. Inspired, it appears, by the penitents’ own reassessments of their past earthly lives, Dante similarly takes the opportunity to look back. He recalls, in particular, earlier times when he and Beatrice had played together innocently as children and when they had subsequently experienced adolescent love. Recollections completed, he is ecstatically – if, presumably, chastely – reunited with the spirit of his long-dead beloved.
Please don’t be put off by the somewhat cumbersome title, Act 3 – Paradiso: poema sacro (continuous and planetary). The New Age-y description “continuous and planetary” might sound like it’s come straight out of Glastonbury, but in reality, the Act itself is pretty straightforward. Virgil having left the scene, we now discover that Dante and Beatrice have ascended to Paradise, where they find themselves in the company of 18 gently cavorting “celestial bodies”. While it is true that not a great deal actually happens in this final Act, the composer, the choreographer and the designers of the costumes, sets and lighting have taken immense pains to create the most convincing possible impression of a heavenly environment. Hell, you’ll recall, had been characterised at times by energetic and near-anarchic physical activity. In contrast, Purgatory’s overall atmosphere had been edgy and tense, giving a strong impression that its inhabitants were neither quite here nor there, as it were, and that their moral issues still remained to be resolved. At first glance, Paradise appears to offer a significant improvement in – presumably eternal – lifestyle. While Sydney Smith’s famous quip that “My idea of heaven is eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets” proves somewhat off the mark, The Dante Project’s conception of the place embodies many of the characteristics that most of us have always imagined – grace and elegance, harmony, sweetness and light. As we look more carefully, however, we see one or two disquieting features. A constantly changing “sky” and the occasional deployment of a bit of stage smoke begin to hint, perhaps, that Paradise isn’t as straightforward a concept as we thought. Maybe, after all, it remains a place of unfathomable metaphysical mysteries, far beyond the scope of mere human comprehension.
Although I was aware of Thomas Adès’s name before watching this production, I had never previously listened to any of his music. The Dante Project is actually his first three-Act score for a full ballet company. As such, he will have necessarily approached it with a few practical considerations. Ballets are often perforce somewhat episodic, as time is required for sets, props and large numbers of dancers to be moved on and off the stage. Varied musical forms also need to be incorporated into a score, if only to give dancers an opportunity to regain their breath after particularly energetic episodes. Mr Adès meets those and other challenges head on, however, and The Dante Project is a very impressive and successful achievement. His score deploys a wide range of styles and even outright influences with both confidence and aplomb. You’ll recognise, for example, the odd cleverly-integrated nod to Liszt as fragments of a theme from his Dante Symphony appear within just a minute or two of curtain-up. Later, in the Purgatorio Act, you’ll also hear an evocative recording of chanting voices from a Jerusalem synagogue. Don’t be too distracted by either of those, however, for the vast bulk of The Dante Project’s listener-friendly music is very much Mr Adès’s own. Taken overall, it works superbly as a beautifully-judged complement to the on-stage action, whether it’s focusing on creating an appropriately mystical atmosphere in Paradise or, during the soothsayers’ and thieves’ episodes, prioritising the strongly rhythmic pulses necessary for expert dancers to execute precisely timed and judged steps in exact coordination with each other on stage. I suspect that the composer felt pretty pleased with the end result, for I notice that he has now produced an Inferno suite that he himself has recently conducted at the Royal Festival Hall.
All the supporting material that accompanies this release emphasises that bringing The Dante Project to life was a collaborative project and that, as you would expect in such a major undertaking, Thomas Adès was working hand-in-glove throughout with Covent Garden’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. With its somewhat opaque references to “some of the extraordinary phenomena of physical thinking”, “thinking through and with the body” and “choreographic thinking tools”, Mr McGregor’s own website might suggest that he will be taking us back into that aforementioned New Age Glastonbury territory. In reality, however, his choreography for The Dante Project is down to earth and easily comprehended. As with a great deal of modern dance, much of it is designed to convey characters’ inner emotional turmoil through motion and gestures that can, at times, be uncompromisingly exaggerated in order to make the point. At the same time – and quite unsurprisingly, I suppose, in that Paradise is a place where all personal anguish has been resolved – much of McGregor’s more gently delivered choreography is actually rather beautiful. Whatever its style, however, his creations invariably prove finely judged matches for the dramatic situations that The Dante Project presents on stage.
The successful realisation of the ballet’s story – and, indeed, the ultimate success of the production as a whole – also owes a great deal to the inventive creativity of set designer Tacita Dean and the imaginative lighting designs of Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison. In Act 1, the set is dominated by a black backdrop on which Ms Dean has painstakingly drawn a chalk design of an inverted mountain. It’s an ingeniously designed visual concept, for if we glance upwards we see a large mirror that neatly puts the image the right way up again. A point is effectively being made: the right-way-up “real” world is far out of reach of Hell’s prisoners and all they can do now is look longingly up at it. That becomes, indeed, an integral part of their cruel punishment, for their lives in subterranean confinement are thereby reduced to poor, inverted reflections of that same reality. Ms Dean’s achievement in the final Act is equally impressive, though very different, as she projects above the stage a film of constantly shifting abstract images which effectively suggests that Paradise may not be a fixed “place” – or even any sort of “place” at all – in the sense that we mere mortals understand that word. Thus, those arriving there are embarking upon an entirely novel sort of existence that does not conform to conventional expectations. Paradise’s way of life and standards are, we must understand, uniquely its own and, once again, in all probability way beyond humanity’s experience or understanding.
Of course, we need to recognise that no matter how good the music, choreography, sets and lighting may be, much of a ballet’s success will depend on the quality of those dancing it. As you will probably have noticed, the only character who appears in all three Acts of The Dante Project is Dante himself, a role danced in this filmed performance by Edward Watson. The athletic, muscular and long-limbed Mr Watson was a Royal Ballet principal dancer who was then coming to the end of his long on-stage career with the company. All involved in the development of the ballet seem to have viewed it as both perfectly suited to his strengths as a dancer and a highly appropriate swansong. As well as being an accomplished technician able to surmount all the choreographer’s challenges, Watson is a highly effective actor – something that isn’t necessarily true of all his peers. He effectively uses both facial expressions and his whole body to convey the wide range of emotions – from anguish to exaltation – that Dante exhibits during the course of his journey. It is good to learn that he has now taken up the post of répétiteur to Covent Garden’s principal dancers and that the company will thereby retain his experience – not least in this particular role.
The other two dancers accorded DVD front-cover billing are not as consistently exposed. Gary Avis, taking the role of Virgil, is onstage for only two of the three Acts and the same is true of Sarah Lamb who undertakes the role of Beatrice in spirit form. Mr Avis conveys a natural air of authority on stage, as readers who have previously encountered him in such roles as Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker, the high Brahmin in La bayadère and Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet: beyond words will already know. His Virgil is a similarly weighty figure, often looming over proceedings from the gloom at the edge of the stage but always a dependable guide on the path to salvation – even if, presumably as a pagan, he doesn’t himself qualify for admission to Act 3’s very Christian version of Paradise. We have encountered Sarah Lamb dancing with Edward Watson before, though on that occasion, in a performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet A Winter’s Tale, she portrayed his long-lost daughter rather than his long-deceased lover. Here Ms Lamb dances with both immaculate technical security and exquisite grace and, given that she encounters Dante in Purgatory and Paradise where even a hint of carnality would presumably be taboo, she successfully conveys a passion that, if chaste, is nevertheless very real.
The Dante Project keeps the rest of the Royal Ballet company pretty busy. Act 1, in particular, sees a series of episodes that require the greatest degree of coordinated precision from large numbers of dancers, for it appears that there’s not much leeway for individual expression if you’ve entered Hell as a suicide or a thief (though a pope, as you’ll recall, is an entirely different kettle of fish). For much of that Act, the audience’s eyes are inevitably focussed on the corps de ballet rather than on Dante or Virgil and the Covent Garden dancers consistently demonstrate their skill and commitment, as well as their sheer stamina. The performances of all the dancers are very well-supported by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor Koen Kessels emphasises the score’s contrasts very effectively, pulling out all the stops at its most dramatic moments while also delivering the refined celestial delicacy that’s required in, especially, the third Act. As a highly experienced ballet conductor, he remains constantly and laudably aware of what’s going on on-stage and of the need to support the dancers by adopting practicable tempi.
I must, in conclusion, offer a few observations about the presentation of The Dante Project for the purposes of home viewing. In the first place, while I am usually fairly complimentary about the booklets produced to accompany Opus Arte’s Blu-ray and DVD releases, I am afraid that on this occasion the details that we are offered aren’t as helpful as they might be. We are dealing here with an entirely new ballet and those of us who did not see it at Covent Garden won’t have had sight of one of the Royal Opera House’s typically informative programmes. I would therefore have appreciated a booklet that included a more detailed outline of something as fundamental as the work’s storyline. It is perfectly possible to work out independently what’s going on in the first and last Acts, but I would certainly have appreciated a little more hand-holding in, at least, the second, which, in temporarily abandoning a clear, linear approach to the narrative, can, at times, be somewhat puzzling. Secondly, matters have moved on since DVDs first appeared. In those days we were grateful for anything at all that we could watch at home but, over time, we have come to expect rather more. A single 15 minutes’ long “extra” that is, in reality, merely a generalised puff for the main feature is really, nowadays, a pretty poor show. If Stuttgart Ballet can take the trouble to film 90 minutes’ long features that add some really interesting and worthwhile material to their releases (review, review), it’s about time that other companies started to think equally ambitiously too.
I might also observe that Opus Arte is missing a trick when it sends out review copies. It seems pretty much common sense to me that a new release of a previously unknown work is unlikely to tempt casual buyers looking for mum’s next birthday present. I’d suggest instead that The Dante Project will more often be ending up on the shelves of balletomanes and hard-core collectors who will probably want to watch it in the highest available quality. As it is, I have only seen the DVD release and I have no idea whether or not to recommend the Blu-ray version. It might well be a worthwhile investment – but, then again, over the years I’ve encountered several releases in that particular format that have exhibited occasional problems with the visual image. While, as a reviewer acting on your behalf, I would like to be able to let you know that the Blu-ray disc is a definite improvement on the DVD format, on this occasion I am unable to do so.
Presentational niggles put to one side, I hope that I have made it clear that I regard The Dante Project as a very important new work that may well, I suspect, become something of a modern classic. Its wide release for domestic viewing should be warmly welcomed by all admirers of Thomas Adès’s music, Wayne McGregor’s choreography, the Royal Ballet and fine dancing.
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DVD-9 double-layer discs
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts Digital Surround
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon