“Pretty much the longest collaboration I’ve ever done,” is how Wayne McGregor describes The Dante Project, finally due to receive its complete premiere at the Royal Opera House in London this October.

Wayne McGregor in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House
© ROH | Andrei Uspenski (2016)

The British choreographer is in buoyant spirits as he talks to me in July from Venice, the location for Biennale Danza 2021 of which he is Artistic Director. He is still basking in the glow of the Los Angeles premiere of Inferno, the first part of his Dante Project, which received rave reviews back in July 2019. Following a concert performance three months earlier by the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, the same orchestra appeared at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with none other than the work’s composer Thomas Adès in the pit, for the choreographed version – complete with lighting by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison, and spectacular set designs and costumes by artist Tacita Dean. Royal Ballet dancers, led by outgoing Principal Edward Watson as Dante, flew over specially for the occasion. “The LA reaction was incredible,” recalls McGregor. “It was a beautiful moment.” There was even a spontaneous standing ovation which interrupted the natural segue way into the final ‘vignette’, as indeed it had during the concert premiere (“How often does that happen for a new piece these days?” asked critic Richard Ginell in his Classical Voice review).

Like Dante’s The Divine Comedy on which it is based, The Dante Project comprises three sections (or ‘canticas’) encompassing the Italian poet’s ruminations on the afterlife: first is Inferno, his depiction of Hell – “that cavern of grief and pain that rings a peal of endless miseries”; second is Purgatory, “that second realm where human spirits purge themselves from stain, becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven”; and finally, after a journey “towards the stars”, Paradise, where one finds “the happiness beyond all worlds”. Purgatory and Paradise were to have been performed alongside Inferno at the Royal Opera House in May 2020. The pandemic, of course, put paid to that – and it’s only this autumn, 17 months later than planned, that all three acts will be performed together for the first time. Hence McGregor’s wry observation on the sheer length of this collaboration.

Edward Watson and artists of The Royal Ballet in Inferno
© Cheryl Mann

But good things come to those who wait: and even McGregor admits that, for this second attempt, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. With the world marking the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death this September, the premiere perhaps takes on even more significance. And Edward Watson fans need not fear: this project will still be his swansong. “Ed was going to retire a bit earlier,” McGregor explains, “but his tenacity is incredible. He has used this time extraordinarily well to get himself into great physical and mental shape.”

The nature, as well as the length, of this collaboration is also noteworthy. For years, McGregor has wanted to work with British composer Thomas Adès, having been drawn to his music in the past for dance pieces such as Outlier and Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment. Similarly, Adès has in the past expressed and demonstrated his desire to be involved in dance, most obviously in See the Music, Hear the Dance at Sadler’s Wells in 2014 when he himself conducted four choreographed versions of his compositions. “Excitement at the prospect of these four brilliant and diverse responses to my music has tempted me into the pit for dance for the very first time,” he says.

Thomas Adès in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House
© ROH | Lara Cappelli (2020)

For a composer of Adès’ calibre to want to associate himself with the art form in this way is hugely exciting for any choreographer. For him to go even further and accept a commission for this, his first full-length ballet, is even more of an honour for the dance world, as McGregor is the first to admit. “You go to Adès because you want Adès,” he tells me. “What you don’t want is a composer to write something they’re not happy with because you’ve interfered with it.”

Using Dante as a springboard was Adès’ idea, an idea that McGregor wasn’t initially convinced by but which he listened to and adapted in accordance with his own vision. As the choreographer explains, collaboration can take on different forms. “Sometimes it’s about releasing the collaborator to produce what’s right for them, and then having a conversation about how it has panned out.”

Adès himself tells me that there was “total trust” between him and McGregor, and that he didn’t encounter “any need for compromise”. One could be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a rather one-sided collaboration. But McGregor knows when to stand back. He also loves a challenge, and the motivation to work differently. “My natural instinct may be ‘This isn’t going to work’ but there’s a joy in delving deeper, in finding a dialogue with a music [and narrative] that wouldn’t be your natural leaning... I’m always trying to find a way of unsettling what I think I know about choreography.”

Melissa Hamilton and Mayara Magri in Inferno
© Cheryl Mann

McGregor’s main reservations about basing a ballet on The Divine Comedy were connected to “the scale of the writing, and the fact that it moves through lots of character relationships – how could one extrapolate or find equivalence in dance to find extra meaning?” His previous success with Woolf Works, working with the same creative team as for Dante (including dramaturg Uzma Hameed), eventually gave him the belief that they could pull it off: “Woolf Works emboldened us to know that we can find different ways of pulling out ideas,” he says. “Rather than trying to represent each novel in total, it was about finding the essence of those novels, of seeing things through a particular lens.”

The fact that Adès already had his own ‘filtered-down’ version of The Divine Comedy in mind was also beneficial, giving McGregor, for Inferno in particular, “an acoustic series of images” that he could respond to. And once McGregor was on board with the Dante, he knew straight away the visual artist he wanted to collaborate with. “Tacita works in so many different mediums, and her themes are relevant to how she sees the world,” McGregor explains. For Inferno, Dean has created her biggest-scale chalk ‘mountain scape’ drawing to date, which she executed upside down so that on set the audiences see its reverse image in a giant mirror. This very particular environment – which extends to Dean’s costumes, with dancers dressed in black bodysuits sprayed in chalk that transfers from one ‘sinner’ to another – also inspired McGregor to, in the words of The Royal Ballet’s Kevin O’Hare, “create something unlike he’s ever done before”. And that, says McGregor, is the beauty of collaboration. “It helps you think wider, but it also refines down what opportunities and options you might end up working with.”

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Inferno
© Cheryl Mann

If The Dante Project transported McGregor into unknown regions, the same could be said for Adès, whose music for Inferno has possibly never sounded so playful, melodic and humorous. “Indeed, ballet allows more latitude, and melody may be able to flourish in that field,” was the only concession Adès makes to me in this regard, although he, like McGregor, was overwhelmed by the rapturous reception in LA. “The power of the dancing and Wayne’s choreography combined with the impact of Tacita Dean’s designs and the effect of the score to produce an ovation in the middle of the piece – something I’ve never seen before.”

Adès harnesses huge orchestral forces, including a formidable percussion section – castanets and wooden spatulas anyone? – for the 45-minute Inferno, and channels the music of Liszt to compelling effect. As he told Gramophone last year, “I abducted Liszt for the weekend – I thought he would be my Virgil, and we had a good time together.” For McGregor, who initially only had the two-piano reduction to work with, it was a surprise to hear the full orchestral version a few weeks before its concert premiere. “I’m used to Tom’s music having a more abstract, intellectual complexity,” he admits, “but this is more characterful.” Indeed, Inferno – which requires more dancers (40 in total) than any other act – is probably the most programmatic of the three acts, with each of the 13 vignettes portraying a different group of sinners, from gluttons and deviants to fortune-tellers and hypocrites.

Despite McGregor and Adès working for the most part independently, they devised the scenario together and Adès sent early musical material to McGregor for feedback. From the start, they were also united in how the temperatures of each act should differ, particularly the need for Purgatory to contrast dramatically with what has come before: “Tom and I always talked about silence and air for Purgatory,” says McGregor. “It’s a place of peace and serenity.” Accordingly, Adès chose to incorporate Jewish prayers from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. Choreographically, the comforting presence of the Syrian sea is reflected in what McGregor describes as “the liquidity and fluidity of the body” and with far fewer dancers on stage compared to Inferno. Dean’s backdrop this time is photographic – “a photograph in reverse that becomes enlivened during the piece,” is how McGregor describes it – while her costumes are still hand-chalked bodysuits but with pastel shades replacing black and white.

Fumi Kaneko and Edward Watson in Inferno
© Cheryl Mann

For the third and final act, the climate shifts dramatically yet again as Beatrice guides Dante into Paradise. The score here, Adès tells me, “draws from music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, my own geometries and the sound of insects,” combining to create what McGregor describes as “an incredible textural, planetary, cosmic universe”. This time, Dean has created a hypnotic 30-minute film as the backdrop, alongside mirrored bodysuits reflecting the light. One senses that this may be the act McGregor is the most excited about, even if, when we talk in July, it’s the one that still requires the most work. “It’s going to be the purest in dance terms,” he says. “The story vanishes and we look at colour, texture, and motion.”

Is a choreographer’s work ever done? When he speaks to me from Venice, McGregor has just spent five weeks on Dante with The Royal Ballet. He currently has way too much choreographic material, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his Benesh notator Amanda Eyles. And yet, there remains “lots more to make and lots more to throw away”. Ultimately, he says, he’ll never be completely finished or completely satisfied with any project – even if, as one gets older, “you don’t beat yourself up about it” quite so much. As for knowing when the ideas will come, not even an experienced choreographer like McGregor can predict that. “You can’t control when you’ll get insight, but when you do it would be criminal not to use it – so you’re just hoping it will come soon enough.”