The Dante Project by Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House review: One hell of a show

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Edward Watson and Marco Masciari (Andrej Uspenski)

Never let it be said that Wayne McGregor shies away from a challenge. The resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet has made a career out of embracing – not to mention pulling off to dazzling effect – difficult subjects using state-of-the-art technology. Former works have included flying robotic orbs (+/-Human) and genome sequencing (Autobiography), while his Woolf Works, an abstract triptych inspired by the novels of Virginia Woolf, was widely hailed at its 2015 premiere as having rewritten the template for the three-act ballet. Now he’s paired up with the composer Thomas Adès and artist Tacita Dean to reimagine Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which takes audiences through the inferno, purgatory, and paradise no less. And it’s one hell of a show.

Over two hours, McGregor offers us three acts, each markedly different in sight, sound and choreographic texture. Act One (‘Inferno: Pilgrim’) – first shown as a standalone piece in the US in 2019 – is staged in a shadowed world, a hell made up not of fire and brimstone but ice and granite. In front of Dean’s backdrop – an inverted mountain sketched in grey chalk on blackboards that run the length of the set – Dante (Edward Watson) is helped through the inferno by the poet Virgil (Gary Avis), encountering sinners along the way. In Stations of the Cross – one of 13 episodes, each depicting a moral crime – bodies are dragged across the floor, pointes slamming into the stage; in Thieves, the space is filled with a burst of male virtuosity and dry ice. The dancers, in black catsuits liberally doused in chalk, transfer clouds of dust between themselves, meant to represent sins being passed on.

Act Two (‘Purgatorio: Love’) sees penitents reflecting on their past lives under a flowering jacaranda tree; in Act Three (‘Paradiso: Poema Sacro’) Dante is guided by Beatrice, the great love of his youth, to paradise amid clever lighting and film installation. Across it all, Adès’s lyrical score winds and falls, with hints of Liszt (Kenneth MacMillan fans should keep an ear out for snatches of Mayerling), morphing into soulful Syrian baqashot and soaring, spiralling strings.

McGregor is known for the strength of his collaborations, but The Dante Project shows what an expert casting agent he can also be. The stage is jam-packed with talent, with most of the Royal’s principals making an appearance, as well as up-and-coming names such as Joseph Sissens. (Deliciously, Fumi Kaneko, that most delicate of dancers, gets the chance to play a three-faced Satan.)

Joseph Sissens, Matthew Ball, Calvin Richardson and Ryoichi Hirano (Andrej Uspenski)

At the centre of everything is Watson, McGregor’s muse for 20 years, dancing his last role before stepping down as a leading man. All the attributes that made the 45-year-old such a ground-breaking performer are on display: his extraordinary musicality and stage presence, plus the extreme plasticity that gives extra weight to Dante’s tortured soul. After dancing a last tender duet with his Beatrice (a fluid Sarah Lamb), Watson is left alone stumbling forward as a light sweeps the audience, temporarily blinding them. The curtain falls on an extraordinary moment – and an extraordinary career.

Royal Opera House, to October 30, roh.org.uk

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