Be like a jellyfish, Wayne McGregor said, undulating his upper body expressively.
The dancers on the darkened stage of the Royal Opera House on a recent afternoon looked at him for a moment. Then as one, they practiced being like jellyfish. McGregor, the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, laughed.
Gorgeous! he said, moving off to talk to a stagehand who was adjusting artist Tacita Deans huge monochrome backdrop, used in the first part of McGregors new and long-awaited Dante Project.
The dancers were incarnating the tormented souls of Inferno, the opening section of the full-length Dante Project, which is to have its premiere Thursday. With a new score by Thomas Adès and design by Dean two of the most important artists of their generation it is among the Royal Ballets most significant commissions in recent years, as well as its first coproduction with the Paris Opera Ballet. Expectations, already high, have been amplified by the multiple cancellations and reschedulings since its May 2020 premiere was swept aside by the pandemic.
McGregor began to work on the ballet well before the pandemic arrived. (Inferno, was performed in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in July 2019, with the LA Philharmonic, a co-commissioner of Adès score.) But he was struck, he said, by the relevance of its themes for right now.
The Dante Project is almost like an allegory of our times, McGregor, the Royal Ballets resident choreographer, said backstage. Some people have literally been through a personal hell, and weve all gone through this period of purgatory, of stasis, of not knowing. But also of introspection born out of crisis, working out what it is we want to do next, and hopefully making decisions that will bring us joy and light.
The idea of making a ballet of The Divine Comedy came from Adès, whom McGregor approached in 2014, after using his music for two dance works.
I want a massive piece, three acts, McGregor told him.
In a telephone interview from Paris, Adès said he was immediately intrigued.
The great thing that Wayne offered me was a large amount of time, which is more usual for opera commissions than ballet, he said. After batting around various ideas, Adès thought of The Divine Comedy.
It came into my head and wouldnt go away, Adès said. It goes back to my childhood; I didnt read it in a scholarly way, but it went right into me then; the physicality of it, the geographical scale of hell. It was quite frightening.
McGregor, whose movement style is often characterized by hyperkinetic complexity, extreme limb extensions counterpointed against buckling torsos, said that when he read the poem, he was drawn to its vivid physical imagery and beauty.
It offered so many ways in without having to do a direct translation of Dante onstage, he said. The poetry is incredible, but dance doesnt do the words.
McGregor contacted Dean, whom he had previously approached to work on Woolf Works. He is drawn, he said, to her use of different media she is an accomplished filmmaker as well as a visual artist but, as with Adès, he didnt make any suggestions or impose any parameters when she accepted.
You dont tell Tacita Dean or Tom Adès what kind of work you want; its not that sort of service arrangement, McGregor said.
Dean, who hasnt previously designed for the stage, said her initial source was Dantes text, but she also drew upon visual representations of the Divine Comedy by Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Gustave Doré and Robert Rauschenberg.
Initially, I possibly went in the wrong direction, imagining making something for a stage, she said. I was trying to build something in the middle, then realized it was dance and Wayne needed an empty floor!
She returned to mediums more familiar to her drawing, photography and film to characterize each act. For Inferno, she drew negative images on blackboard, portraying the ice and wastes of hell in shades of gray and black (not easy) rather than white.
I was working on it for months, writing names on the canvas while listening to American news and Brexit negotiations, she said. The corrupt politicians in the ninth circle of hell, they are all in there!
For Purgatory, she used a photochemical process to transform the negative of a photograph of a jacaranda tree, looming over a Los Angeles streetscape, into a positive, turning it an unearthly green. And for the final act, Paradise, she has created an entirely abstract and extremely colorful film.
McGregor said he worked hard at evoking characters in Inferno, which has 13 musical vignettes, portraying different groups of sinners: adulterous lovers, hypocrites, thieves, gluttons and Satan, among others.
Dante describes tortured and tormented bodies, in extreme states of awful physical affliction, and these are amazing anchors for a physical vocabulary, he said. How do you make a dance where you have a body with two heads, or show Satan, or the story of the lovers buffeted by extreme wind? Thats been really new for 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, into Purgatory, and has depicted the changing relationship between Dante and Virgil.
Edward Watson, a principal dancer who has long been a central figure in McGregors Royal Ballet work, postponed his retirement to dance the role of Dante, with Sarah Lamb as his Beatrice.
What Wayne does is give you the range of meaning to find for yourself, through gesture, stillness, fluidity, even a spirituality in the third act, he said.
Musically, Adès said, he wanted completely different sound worlds for each section. For Purgatory he drew upon musical material he had long wanted to use: a special form of prayer that is done before dawn, originally from the Syrian Jewish community in Aleppo. Now it can only be heard in the Adès synagogue in Jerusalem, which was founded by the composers forebears.
Paradiso, he added, is a leap into another world, the world of nature, like one big spiral that keeps going higher and higher until you hear the voices of the angels or in this case, the London Symphony chorus!
Writing music for dance, he said, had made him aware that while the mind can move in mercurial, intellectual directions, the body is very different.
There is a fluidity, more connection, we are not machines; I had to find a music that thinks like a body, not a mind, he said. You allow it to breathe; its a very graceful thing to do as a composer, to go in one direction as long as you like.
Besides, he added, the dancers have to get across the stage and back.
At the rehearsal, the dancers, dressed in Deans chalk-sprayed unitards (the first time Ive designed costumes, she said, not a place of safety!) were doing just that, sketching out their steps, getting a sense of the space.
The dancers have spent so many months not touching each other, not being onstage, its a reminder we took all this for granted, McGregor said. Its fascinating to me that the horrific things inflicted on the body in Inferno have in many ways happened to people who had COVID. We think about our bodies in a different way now, as a battleground of space and touch.
But by the end of the piece, he added, we have come a very long way from abandoned hope.
'The Dante Project'
Through Oct. 30 at the Royal Opera House, London, roh.org.uk. A rehearsal will be streamed live on World Ballet Day on Oct. 19. The ballet can be viewed online from Oct. 29 on ROH Stream.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times