For his new ballet, Wayne McGregor has enlisted some big hitters. Dante Alighieri for one, Italy’s greatest poet, author of The Divine Comedy, which McGregor reimagines here, but living artists, too: composer Thomas Adès, writing his first score for dance, and artist Tacita Dean, creating her first designs for the stage. It’s also the final principal role to be danced by Edward Watson, as Dante, after an extraordinary career.
Dean’s first backdrop, her image of a freezing hell, is a vast, chalk-drawn upturned mountain, an incredible piece of draughtsmanship. But it is Adès’s score (which the composer conducts) that really sets the tone. Full of riches, it shimmers, growls and rumbles, glints and slides. In Inferno he’s definitely in the devil-has-the-best-tunes camp, sometimes soaring into Romanticism, sometimes rollicking like a night at the circus. It’s so far from the kind of music McGregor usually choreographs and it forces new invention, making dance to relish, more classical than usual in places, but also more characterful, even comical. There’s Joseph Sissens and Paul Kay doing a near vaudeville act as Soothsayers; and Mayara Magri and Melissa Hamilton, grabbing, pushing and headbutting as the Wrathful, all still within the realms of the choreographic language.
More seriously, there are Marcelino Sambé’s melting curves as the Ferryman on course to hell; there’s a strange and wonderful solo for Calvin Richardson as Ulysses; there’s Francesca Hayward, playing another Francesca, adulterous lover of Paolo (Matthew Ball), destined to be trapped for ever in a whirlwind. Hayward dances as if moving blindly, not flailing on the winds but always veering off course, unable to steer herself. And then in the Forest of Suicides there’s great use of the female dancers as the Harpies, with sharp-clawed precision pointe work, spiky échappés and detailed steps, toes stabbing into the floor.
McGregor fully embraces the music, and the dancers whip into a frenzy of grand allegro and dry ice, as if they’re cartoon characters racing so fast they leave plumes of dust in their wake. All this fun is cut short by the arrival of Fumi Kaneko, playing Satan – but looking every inch the image of the divine.
Purgatorio is a much sparser vision, a waiting room, with music incorporating psalms from the Ades synagogue in Jerusalem. Dante remembers childhood scenes with his great unrequited love Beatrice. When she finally appears as an adult (Sarah Lamb) he is grasping for her, she looking outwards; he is all torment and self-flagellation. It’s emotionally unsatisfying, but that is exactly Dante’s experience.
Watson brings texture and ambiguity to the final act, Paradiso, his physical presence all-too human among the surrounding celestial bodies. With the now heavenly Beatrice, he is pained, she serene. She is the ideal, not his own and he has to let go. Dean’s set for Paradiso is a projected 35mm film, a bloom of morphing colours – gold, ochre, bronze, lilac, topaz – it’s utterly transfixing and I wanted it to fill the whole stage (it sits far above the dancers although Lucy Carter’s excellent lighting bridges the gap). The dancers are tightly spinning moons and stars (Sissens more like a star imploding, folding in on itself) while the looping melodies of the score swell and retreat, the sound of the expanding universe. Carter’s lighting provides the final coup de théâtre, and it’s a fitting send-off for Watson, into the eternal light.