One of the reasons I first fell in love with ballet was the idea that it could bring together many great artists to achieve one overarching vision that was then performed by dancers who made the soul soar.
For me, The Dante Project is utterly thrilling because it fulfils that ideal. The choreographer Wayne McGregor asked one of the best modern composers, Thomas Adès, to work with him; Adès came up with the idea of looking at a literary masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Tacita Dean, an astonishing artist, was invited to design the setting and the costumes. Then Edward Watson, the most distinctive interpreter of McGregor’s work and the most significant English dancer of the past 20 years, who retires as a principal after these performances, was placed at the centre of the world created.
The result isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter. It’s bold, beautiful, emotional and utterly engaging. The opening section, Inferno, where Dante (Watson) journeys to hell in the company of Virgil (Gary Avis), all but blows your socks off. Adès delivered 20 minutes more score than he was asked for, and you can feel the lightning bolt of his virtuosity, the sense of pure enjoyment as he uses every orchestral resource to create a battery of exhilarating sound from a 75-strong orchestra, which he was conducting.
Dean provides a chalk-drawn backdrop of icy mountains, lit by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison to become an ever-changing landscape against which the dancers in chalk-covered black costumes embody the sinners Dante encounters. The choreography is remarkably free and inventive, rich in feeling, whether it’s the languid, stretchy solo for Calvin Richardson as Ulysses, or the passionate but exhausted embraces of Matthew Ball and Francesca Hayward as Paolo and Francesca, the semi-jokey knockabout for Joseph Sissens and Paul Kay as Soothsayers or the almost literally show-stopping jumps, turns and twists for the all-male thieves.
The dancers perform as if liberated by the sheer excitement of it all. In Purgatorio, things are calmer but just as vivid. Adès’s score quotes voices from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem, while Dean provides a bleached-out photograph of a street in Los Angeles, dominated by a huge jacaranda tree. Here, Watson’s Dante, his red tunic rippled with aquamarine, encounters two versions of his youthful self and three of his beloved Beatrice.
Watson, who anchors the entire three acts with his powerful, expressive presence, is in his element here, communicating his penitence, revisiting his life. He dances with Hayward (as the living Beatrice) in lovely, poetic flow, and with Sarah Lamb as the heavenly Beatrice, all unfolding limbs and ethereal gestures.
By the time he reaches Paradiso, the music is as radiant as the dancers, flitting and flying around the stage, all in white, like so many shiny celestial orbs. The mood is one of abstracted joy, deep but dazzling. Under a projected, ever-changing spiral, like a giant sun over the stage, Watson dances with his beloved, until Lamb finally bourrées off into darkness, leaving him alone in a shaft of white light. It’s a wonderful farewell.
The Dante Project is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 30 October, and will be available online from 29 October