In its journey from despair to limbo to redemption, The Dante Project’s parallels with the pandemic are striking. And just as the war against Covid has yet to be won fully, the “happiness beyond all worlds” described by Dante in Paradiso, the final part of The Divine Comedy, seems just out of reach in Wayne McGregor’s interpretation. The choreographer and his magnificent creative team, originally working towards a May 2020 London premiere before Covid hit, throw everything at it – from heavenly choir, to laser beams, to smoke machines – all overseen by Tacita Dean’s slowly mutating spiral images projected from 35mm cinemascope colour film. And yet Dante’s reunion with Beatrice, the lost love of his life, lacks the emotional engagement of, say, Virginia Woolf’s submission to the waves in the final part of McGregor’s previous triptych, Woolf Works.

Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb in The Dante Project
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The subject matter was proposed by Thomas Adès, who has composed a debut ballet score that’s expansive, lush – and surprisingly playful. Across the 13 ‘vignettes’ of Inferno (premiered in Los Angeles in 2019) he “abducts Liszt” to depict various miscreants. We hear orchestral transcriptions of the Bagatelle sans tonalité and the Grand Galop Chromatique, alongside more subtle references. The orchestration for 75 musicians can be outrageous: we hear trombone slides, rasping brass, a whip, castanets and tubular bells, performed by an orchestra that has never sounded better under the composer.

Edward Watson and Fumi Kaneko in The Dante Project
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

It’s Inferno that draws the most exciting choreography, even though characterful episodes are not McGregor's natural home. We see a new, welcome style which cannot be explained simply by the more-obvious-than-usual fusing of contemporary and balletic elements. The sheer inventiveness often draws spontaneous applause, even chuckles. In The Selfish, four couples – dressed in grey-black unitards sprayed in chalk, which transfers between ‘sinners’ and erupts in clouds of dust during entrechats – are devilish sprites, the women bicycling their legs like tantrumming toddlers while their partners grip them round the waist. For The Ferryman, a portal in Dean’s snow-capped mountain backdrop – hand-drawn, upside down in chalk, then reflected ‘upright’ in a mirror – opens to reveal footage of lapping waves, while Marcelino Sambé and Yasmine Naghdi swoop, dive and paw the ground like impatient horses. Calvin Richardson is sensational as Glutton – in slime, slithering and writhing, then tossed high in the air by his fellow gluttons before consigned to eating dust once more. We witness a welcome synergy between Adès’s percussive music and the military-like movement of The Suicides, who bang their feet relentlessly (like the stick-wielding Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle) before sliding away en pointe, leaving a maimed Anna Rose O’Sullivan bathing in Lucy Carter’s blood-red light. In Soothsayers, Joseph Sissens and Paul Kay are a riotous double act, executing cartwheels and handstands with swaggering bravado. In The Wrathful, four females bitch-fight through dance – cue scrums, headlocks, even head-butts.

Joseph Sissens, Matthew Ball, Calvin Richardson and Ryoichi Hirano in The Dante Project
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Each vignette is different, Adès often evoking the spirit of Stravinsky, Offenbach and Tchaikovsky (and, in Part 3, Mahler). The Rite of Spring surely influenced Stations of the Cross, a plodding ritual for five couples, men dragging women across the stage, then tilting them forwards in a ‘Michael Jackson lean’. And for the wild, Lisztian galop of Thieves, 11 male dancers display showmanship in spades, spinning ever faster until, swathed in smoke, they crawl off on their bellies. Throughout, Dante – danced with commitment by Edward Watson (his final role before he retires) – is an observer, but when Fumi Kaneko’s temptress of a Satan arrives and they dance intimately, we sense a shift. A single beam of light appears from overhead, beckoning Dante to the next world.

Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson in The Dante Project
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

For Purgatory, the stage is brightly lit, illuminating Dean’s hand-printed photograph of a tree. Adès’s music incorporates old recordings of songs from his synagogue, reflecting the narrative of Dante unearthing distant memories. Dante, whose turquoise smock is now ombré, is surrounded by penitents in pastel-coloured unitards, incorporating the expressive hand gestures and flexed feet of traditional Jewish dance. Around them, two younger versions of Dante and Beatrice dart about, Francesca Hayward displaying exactly the right Juliet-like innocent exuberance as the middle Beatrice. The Yiddish scale passes from voices to orchestra, past meeting present. It’s lovely to see Watson depart from his familiar tortured facial expressions as he flirts with Sarah Lamb’s Beatrice – though, frustratingly, she keeps him at arm’s length, and the stage feels underpopulated, only half-heartedly evoking the bucolic market scene suggested by the music.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Dante Project
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

There’s an Orlando vibe to Paradiso, a cosmic universe where celestial beings (in shiny white unitards, hair slicked back) spiral beneath Dean’s video projection to Adès’s hypnotic score, the string section punctuated with woodwind and harp flourishes. Eighteen dancers surround Watson’s Dante (now in red), Natalia Osipova coming into her own as she embraces McGregor’s trademark leg extensions and torso undulations. There’s some fearless partnering from Watson, channelling his inner Prince Rudolph – a testament to the great physical shape he’s still in.

Lilac light bathes the dancers before dispersing into a rainbow of colours, as if refracted through a prism, bouncing off bodies and reflecting back. Lamb, elegant and ethereal, finally falls into Dante’s arms, and an offstage choir begins to sing. Dante is left alone as a dazzling white light floods the stage. Has he reached paradise? Possibly, but for this writer, hell seems a lot more fun.