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Dante ballet is a fitting tribute on 700th anniversary of his death

Claire Jackson reviews new ballet The Dante Project at the Royal Opera House in London. The piece marks the 700th anniversary of his death.

In one of those moments that make you feel as though you might be in your very own version of The Truman Show, the radio played National Express by The Divine Comedy.

The band takes its name from Dante Alighieri’s epic work, which chronicles the 14th-century Italian poet’s imagined journey through hell and purgatory to eventually reach heaven.

Dante’s writing has had a huge cultural impact, inspiring everything from video games (Devil May Cry) and best-selling novels (Dan Brown’s Inferno) to iconic pop groups. While Neil Hannon’s collective has just marked its 30th birthday, events are taking place to commemorate 700 years since the original Dante passed away.

The Divine Comedy’s appearance on the airwaves coincided with my journey to the Royal Opera House to attend The Dante Project, a new ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor, with a specially written score by Thomas Adès.  

This was the third Adès premiere I have attended in just a few months, following the first performances of The Exterminating Angel Symphony by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Alchymia, a mesmerising clarinet quintet piece presented by Mark Simpson and the Quatuor Diotima at Kings Place Music Foundation.

Although Adès has had three operas staged at Covent Garden – Powder Her FaceThe Tempest and The Exterminating Angel – The Dante Project is his first full-length ballet. Its structure mirrors that of The Divine Comedy, with three acts (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) loosely following the text.

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The hellish sound of the first part echoes Liszt, the composer best known for demonic harmony and who created several works – a symphony and various piano pieces – in honour of Dante.

The precision pointe work in the Forest of Suicides was perfectly percussive, subtly embellishing Adès’s whirling sound-pool (conducted by the composer himself for a few dates in the performance run).

Edward Watson gave everything to the role of Dante, his last performance as principal before his move to coach the Royal Ballet. Far from abandoning hope, there was heightened anticipation for our upward travels. 

Purgatory features recordings of chantings from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem, evoking restless souls. The disturbing woven textures are offset by sparser action on stage, as Dante recalls childhood happiness, represented by younger dancers, with his unrequited love, Beatrice, against a glowing tree.

The concluding Paradiso spirals; a powerful pas de deux is basked in white light. As is to be expected when translating a lengthy trilogy into a wordless artform, some of the narrative detail is lost (even after two performances, I still wasn’t entirely sure who was who in the first two acts). But Adès’s sinewy music more than makes up for that.  

In Oxford, a special series takes place to celebrate Dante’s work and legacy (The Oxford Dante Festival runs until November 14). Serata Dantesca (November 13 at the Holywell Music Room) includes poetry readings and a performance of Liszt’s Dante sonata by pianist Jonathan Katz. The Ashmolean hosts Dante and the Invention of Celebrity (until January 9), an exhibition that explores the writer’s influence on art and culture from the early modern period until today – including pieces by William Blake and Salvador Dalí.

It coincides with a display at the Bodleian Library of precious early editions of Dante’s most famous pages. And if you’re still not sure about where The Divine Comedy fits in, listen to Katya Adler’s brilliant three-part programme for Radio 4 that features Michael Sheen as Dante. 

The Dante Project will be digitally streamed in 2022. For further details visit www.roh.org.uk.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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