An “allegory of our time”: the “Dante project” of the Royal Ballet

LONDON – “Be like a jellyfish,” said Wayne McGregor, expressively waving his upper body. Dancers on the dark stage at the Royal Opera H...


LONDON – “Be like a jellyfish,” said Wayne McGregor, expressively waving his upper body. Dancers on the dark stage at the Royal Opera House one recent afternoon watched him for a while. Then, as one, they trained to be like jellyfish. McGregor, the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, laughed. “Gorgeous!” he said, walking away to speak to a stagehand who was adjusting the huge monochrome backdrop of artist Tacita Dean, used in the first part of McGregor’s long-awaited new “Dante project. “

The dancers embodied the tormented souls of “Inferno,” the opening section of the feature-length “Dante Project,” which premiered Thursday. With a new score by Thomas Adès and design by Dean – two of the most important artists of their generation – he has been among the Royal Ballet’s most important commissions in recent years, as well as his first co-production with the Paris Opera Ballet. Expectations, already high, have been amplified by the multiple cancellations and rescheduling since its premiere in May 2020 was swept away by the pandemic.

McGregor started working on ballet long before the pandemic arrived. (“Inferno,” was performed in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in July 2019, with the LA Philharmonic, Adès co-curator of the score.) But he was struck, he said, by the relevance of its themes for the moment. .

“’The Dante Project’ is almost like an allegory of our time,” said McGregor, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, in a behind-the-scenes interview. “Some people have literally gone through personal hell, and we have all been through this period of purgatory, of stasis, of not knowing. But also from an introspection born of the crisis, to determine what we want to do next and, hopefully, to make decisions that will bring us joy and light. “

The idea to do a “Divine Comedy” ballet came from Adès, whom McGregor approached in 2014, after use his music for two dance works. “I want a massive play, three acts,” McGregor told him. In a telephone interview from Paris, Adès said he was immediately intrigued. “The great thing that Wayne gave me was a great amount of time, which is more usual for opera commissions than for ballet,” he said. After having “beaten” various ideas, Adès thought of “The Divine Comedy”.

“It came to my head and didn’t want to go away,” Adès said. “It goes back to my childhood; I did not read it in a scholarly way, but it came straight to me then; the physicality of it, the geographic scale of hell. It was pretty scary. “

McGregor, whose style of movement is often characterized by hyperkinetic complexity, extreme limb extensions counterbalanced by distorted torsos, said that when he read the poem he was drawn to its vivid physical imagery and beauty. “It offered so many ways to get in without having to do a direct translation of Dante on stage,” he said. “The poetry is amazing, but the dance does not make the words.”

McGregor contacted Dean, whom he had previously approached to work on “Wool works. “He’s drawn to her use of different media,” he says, “she’s an accomplished filmmaker as well as a visual artist – but, as with Adès, he didn’t make any suggestions or set any parameters when she did. accepted.

“You don’t tell Tacita Dean or Tom Adès what kind of work you want, it’s not that kind of service arrangement,” McGregor said.

Dean, who never designed for the stage, said her original source was Dante’s text, but she also drew on visual representations of Botticelli’s Divine Comedy, Blake, Golden and Robert rauschenberg. “I might have gone in the wrong direction initially, imagining doing something for a scene,” she said. “I was trying to build something in the middle, then I realized it was dance and Wayne needed an empty floor!”

She returns to mediums that are more familiar to her – drawing, photography and cinema – to characterize each act. For “Inferno,” she drew negative images on a chalkboard, depicting ice and hell’s garbage in shades of gray and black (“not easy”) rather than white. “I worked on it for months, writing names on the web while listening to US news and the Brexit negotiations,” she said. “The corrupt politicians of the Ninth Circle of Hell, they’re all in there!” For “Purgatory,” she used a photochemical process to transform the negative of a photograph of a Jacaranda, overlooking a Los Angeles streetscape, into a positive, transforming it into an unearthly green. And for the final act, “Paradise”, she created an “entirely abstract and extremely colorful” film.

McGregor said he worked hard to conjure up characters in “Inferno,” which features 13 musical vignettes, depicting different groups of sinners: adulterous lovers, hypocrites, thieves, gluttons, and Satan, among others.

“Dante describes tortured and tormented bodies, in extreme states of terrible physical affliction, and these are incredible anchors for a physical vocabulary,” he said. “How to do a dance where you have a body with two heads, or show Satan, or the story of lovers shaken by an extreme wind? It’s really new to me and quite fun.

The next two acts are choreographically more abstract, he said, although he incorporated the relationship between Dante and Beatrice, recounted in “La Vita Nuova”, in “Purgatory”, and portrayed the changing relationship between Dante. and Virgil.

Edward Watson, a lead dancer who has long been a central figure in McGregor’s work in the Royal Ballet, has postponed his retirement to dance the role of Dante, with Sarah Lamb as Beatrice. “What Wayne does is give you the range of meaning to find on your own, through gesture, stillness, fluidity, even spirituality in the third act,” he said.

Musically, says Adès, he wanted “completely different sound universes” for each section. For “Purgatory”, he was inspired by the musical material he had wanted to use for a long time: “a particular form of prayer that is done before dawn”, originating in the Syrian Jewish community of Aleppo. Now it can only be heard in the Synagogue of Ades in Jerusalem, which was founded by the ancestors of the composer.

“Heaven,” he added, “is a leap into another world, the world of nature, like a great spiral that continues to ascend higher and higher until you hear the voices of the angels – or in this case, the London Symphony choir! “

Writing music for dance, he said, made him realize that while the mind can move “in mercurial and intellectual directions,” the body is very different. “There is fluidity, more connection, we are not machines; I had to find music that thinks like a body, not a spirit, ”he said. “You allow him to breathe; it’s a very gracious thing to do as a songwriter, to go in one direction for as long as you want. Moreover, he added, “the dancers have to cross the stage and come back.”

During the rehearsal, the dancers, dressed in Dean’s chalk painted jumpsuits (“the first time I designed costumes,” she said, “it’s not a safe place!”) were doing just that, sketching their steps, getting a sense of space.

“The dancers spent so many months not touching each other, not being on stage, it’s a reminder that we took all of that for granted,” McGregor said. “It is fascinating to me that the horrible things inflicted on the body in ‘Inferno’ happened in many ways to people who had Covid.

“We think of our bodies in a different way now, like a battlefield of space and touch.” But at the end of the play, he added, “we’ve come a very long way from abandoned hope.”

The Dante project

Until October 30 at the Royal Opera House in London, roh.org.uk. A rehearsal will be broadcast live on World ballet day October 19. The ballet can be viewed online from October 29 ROH flow.

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