Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ has been set to ballet. It won’t meet your expectations (in a good way).
I now know why I am not a composer or choreographer. As the first major movement of “The Dante Project”—a three-part adaptation of the Divine Comedy I saw performed in London by the Royal Ballet in October 2021—reached its infernal climax, I envisioned what we would hear and see when Dante and Virgil meet Satan. In the poem itself, Satan is famously depicted as colossal, encased in ice, and eating for all eternity the bodies of the supreme betrayers Judas, Brutus and Cassius. For this event, in an original orchestral composition and ballet, I expected a music of wrenching, cacophonous dissonance and some all-but-literalization of these figures and these actions.
I was, thankfully, completely wrong.
Instead, the composer Thomas Adés created a sense of eerie, unrelenting insinuation, while Wayne MacGregor, the choreographer, arranged only two dancers: Dante and Satan. The directness of this encounter was all the more striking because of Tacita Dean’s set design for “Inferno”: dark, scaling, jagged and cold in tone and texture, the photo-negative of a mountainside. Those two dancers, Dante and Satan, wearing close-fitting blue-black garb, move around each other closely, very closely. Dante’s struggle is clear in the movement of his body, in his back-and-forth steps: He wants to join Virgil so that they can climb out of hell “to see again the stars,” as “Inferno” ends, and he wants to give in to temptation, to give himself over to lithe Satan’s relentless, velvety pull.
After what began to feel like a dangerously long time, Dante breaks free, staggers a little, and then dash-dances towards a distant shining light, toward purgatory and beyond.
Salman Rushdie once observed that we should appreciate what is gained in translation, as opposed to lamenting what is lost in translation. The same holds, I think, for a ballet adaptation.
Salman Rushdie once observed that we should appreciate what is gained in translation, as opposed to lamenting what is lost in translation. The same holds, I think, for adaptation, especially when it comes to an ambitious and bold reimagining and retelling, in two different artistic mediums brought together, of a defining work of world literature. This is what “The Dante Project”amounted to in its recent, limited run at London’s Royal Opera House, following a pre-pandemic presentation in 2019 of its first part in Los Angeles. (Here’s hoping for future performances on both sides of the Atlantic.)
To be sure, for seven centuries and counting, other writers—as well as painters, composers, sculptors, filmmakers, comic-book artists, video game makers and fashion designers—have been creating new things in response to Dante’s Divine Comedy. That said—and having spent the past five years working very closely with the poem myself in relation to my new novel, a Dante-fueled fiction—I am hard-pressed to think of a recent artistic response greater in intention and execution than “The Dante Project.” In making the poem into a ballet with original music, much has been gained, both for the stand-alone significance of the original new work and for making possible a fresh appreciation and engagement with its source.
Consider again the vast difference between the simplistic folly that this non-composer, non-choreographer imagined would be manifested when Dante and Virgil meet Satan at the end of “Inferno,” versus what Adés, Macgregor, Dean and their collaborators and the dancers offered. We experience a dramatic duet that encapsulates the entire first canticle’s enactment of Dante being lost in the middle of the journey to the point of mortal, even eternal peril; it is his difficult, educative struggle through hell itself, with its many temptations to stay and hear, see and experience more, instead of believing, knowing and moving away from evil toward the greater good, as he does on page and stage alike.
In making the poem into a ballet with original music, much has been gained, both for the significance of the new ballet and for a fresh appreciation and engagement with its source.
The comprehensive success of “The Dante Project” owes much to the confident decisions that guided the adaptation itself, some of which prove immediately clear, like the interplay of enactment and witness. Dante and his guide, Virgil, move through the poem’s three realms meeting sinners (whose bodysuits are marked with chalk in specific places and ways to reflect their specific sins), penitents and the saved. All the while, they watch the trajectories of hundreds of afterlives.
In the ballet adaptation, those popes Dante controversially consigned to Hell for their earthly corruption are pointlessly self-striving buffoons crashing into each other, while Ulysses, who strove beyond limit and convinced others to join him in a failed, mortal voyage in Dante’s rendering, is a showboat of a dancer, bragging with his body and encouraging others to join him. In both cases the musical arrangements—overdone and slapdash for the popes, driving and demanding for Ulysses—both match and sustain the dancers’ movements.
Other decisions of adaptation were harder to understand, initially. Rather than repeat the same kind of arrangements in “Purgatory” as in “Inferno,” Adés, Macgregor, Dean et al incorporated material from Dante’s early work La Vita Nuova as a major part of the ballet’s second movement. In that work, Dante tells the interconnected story of discerning his vocation as a poet and discerning Beatrice as the object and subject of his writing, all while he, as a young man in Florence, admired her from afar in the lead-up to and aftermath of her untimely death.
In place of Dante meeting a succession of penitent sinners in the middle section of “The Dante Project,” selections from La Vita Nuova become a series of sequenced memories of younger, brighter-garbed versions of Dante and Beatrice meeting each other. The dancers’ tentative-to-impetuous and playful movements, set to warmer, richer-toned if wistful music, are suggestive of both the scaling excitements of youth and of young love, and also of longing for past things and finally of the need to move past them.
The dancers’ movements are suggestive of both the scaling of young love, and also of longing for past things and of the need to move past them.
As this section progresses, on a stage whose scenery is dominated by the image of a great jacaranda tree full of flowers, present-day Dante’s movements are repetitive, but with crucial differences. This is a brilliant chorographical embodiment of the major idea of “Purgatory,” that this is a place for the body to learn the right way to move before it can go elsewhere, or, as Virgil tells Dante at the end of Canto 27: At this point in Dante’s upward, transformative journey, “Your will is free, upright, and sound.”
One of the most striking passages in the entire Divine Comedy takes place only three cantos later. Dante has reached the summit of Purgatory, the garden of earthly paradise, and at last sees Beatrice, who arrives as the main attraction in a grand proto-heavenly pageant. The pomp and circumstance make sense: it was her intercessory concern for him, from heaven, that led to Virgil’s first finding of Dante lost in a dark wood and bringing him through hell and purgatory to meet her.
Having come this far, Dante turns to share his joy, but his beloved Virgil has disappeared without a word. He is a pagan, after all, and can only get so far in the afterlife. The believing poet wants to make clear there are more important demands on his art and ideas, and on our attention, than an extended goodbye for a non-Christian character, no matter how loyal and admirable.
“The Dante Project” offers a concise and moving version of this logic with Dante’s searching in vain for Virgil, the principal dancer staggering diagonally into the darker depths of an empty stage in search of his erstwhile guide and companion, in vain. At this point in the poem itself, Beatrice says to Dante “do not weep for Virgil; I will give you the true cause for tears.” This proved the only occasion when something was lost, not gained, in the course of adaptation, across the nearly three-hour performance.
In “Paradise,” the music itself is decisively harmonious, as is the dancing; so too the dancers with the music; the dancers with each other; and the dancers with themselves.
In the poem, Dante is upbraided by Beatrice for all the mistakes he has made by midlife, both against his professed commitments to her and against others and himself and God. In the ballet, in sound and movement Beatrice comes across as sensuous and triumphant, more the prize gained after the struggle than the person profoundly aware of the stakes of life and death and eternal life with which Dante had been too careless. The rationale for this depiction of Beatrice does not become clear until too long afterward, thereby losing the shocking harshness of that long-sought reunion from the poem itself. Instead, we go with Dante and Beatrice to Paradise, manifest as Dante’s ascendant journey into the cosmos.
“The Dante Project” winningly conveys all of this in warm reds and other strong colors for Dante and the others, and also cinematically, as a series of planet-like variegated circles projected onto a screen raised above and behind the dancers, suggesting both Dante’s movement through the starry heavens and also the shaped perfection of eternal life with God. Meanwhile, the sights and sounds on the stage convey harmony upon harmony, making all the clearer the preceding conflicts and tensions, breakages and gaps, from “Inferno” and “Purgatory.” In “Paradise,” the music itself is decisively harmonious, as is the dancing; so too the dancers with the music; the dancers with each other; and the dancers with themselves, all before the climactic ending, where Dante approaches God through an extended duet with Beatrice.
Immediately, Dante’s dance with Satan comes to mind. Here, though, the two of them are in sync rather than in struggle. The duet itself is sensual, up to a point when, instead of trying to detain him as Satan did, Beatrice physically sends Dante forward to God. Never in my time of reading Dante—including a canto a day for the past five years—have I felt so fully the right-ordered relationship between Eros and Agape that the poem proposes and relies on for its shape and dynamism.
The fundamental good of Dante’s love for Beatrice is its way of leading him to know God, “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,” as Paradiso ends. At this moment of ultimate knowledge, “The Dante Project” projects a piercing beam of white light from the stage, at Dante and at all of us. Before such an overwhelming presence and power, Dante tells us in the poem, his “exalted vision lost its power.” There is only gratitude in this admission, given what—who—radiates and shines upon us: a person and presence greater than even the greatest of poets and poems, which this gainfully great adaptation brought to fresh and memorable life on a starry night in London.