REVIEW: Go to ‘Royal’ hell, in Wayne McGregor ballet

Dance · Reviews
edward watson & artists of the royal ballet, photo: cheryl mann

In the first of my two viewings of choreographer Wayne McGregor‘s explosive and brilliant dance collaboration with composer Thomas Ades and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “The Dante Project Part 1 [Inferno]” danced by The Royal Ballet as a world premiere for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, I got it wrong. Or did I?

I took my Row H seat at the Chandler for Inferno — a ballet evocation of the famous first section of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy — without so much as knowing the ballet’s title. This second program of contemporary dance the Royal presented in tandem with Company Wayne McGregor; the first offering was last weekend’s Mayerling. These two seductive evenings of ballet celebrated The Royal’s first visit to our city in 24 years. (Two works in the contemporary program were world premieres.)

Edward Watson

Within moments of principal dancer Edward Watson’s arrival on stage clad in turquoise Hades-fighting gear, McGregor’s balletic outpouring to Ades’s passionate score transfixed the room. (It’s a pretty big room; the Chandler has 3,000 seats.) The composer, conducting the L.A. Phil, gave full-throttled delivery of his symphonic score sprinkled with solo forays, memorably one for xylophone, another for piano.

Matthew Ball, Francesca Hayward

Inferno‘s lengthy and scintillating spiel toured its whopping cast of 36 through many choreographic permutations. It was 45 minutes of angst-driven solos; Tweedledum/Tweedledee pairings of women with women and men with men; group-marches in which Royal’s delicate-but-steely female corps, dressed in clinging grey unitards, stuck pointe shoe to stage. There was a dragging queue of dancers in spindly, deep lunges that converted humans into scorpions. This fulsome pageantry McGregor capped with a whirlwind fusillade of bravura male dancing, the fantasy of any balletomane and the envy of all choreographers: a stageful of skyrocketing air turns, ripping pirouettes, and dervish-style spinning tops with a single leg stretched to the side. That barrage of human gunfire Mr. Ades instigated with a runaway snare drum layered onto what sounded like circus music. Wicked. And, wowee!

But at first viewing, my uninformed eye interpreted production designer Tacita Dean’s craggy backdrop, in hues of mystic blue and grey, as waves brimming in foamy white brine. The Chandler stage I saw as the rock bottom of an ocean kingdom. And the dancers I saw done up as fish in that dank sea. Believe it or not, this worked! I saw an environmental ballet in which a single lost soul, Watson, returns to his primal beginnings — submerged in water. And watching this, feeling it, and thinking about it felt oddly soothing.

The ballet ultimately concerns not (callow) fish, but a suffering human being on a tour of hell. And that theme is so fitting today. McGregor, Ades, the Music Center CEO Rachel Moore, et al picked the right nation to premiere this work. For many of us do feel we are living in a daily hell of our society’s own making.

Edward Watson, Fumi Kaneko

For its successful interweaving of narrative, poetry, music, character, and stagecraft, most notably for its close hewing to its score, this ballet strikes me as a ‘throwdown,’ auguring new possibility for classical ballet. At the same time, Inferno has a marvelous retro feel. Even lighting designer Lucy Carter’s boldly dark stage hearkened murky ballet photos from the ’40s — an era predating the kind of performance shots I am publishing on this page. I half-expected Alicia Markova, or Zorina, or Baronova, donning one of those gorgeous unitards, possibly as a mermaid, to pop in, partnered by Anton Dolin or Frederic Franklin or Hugh Laing.

McGregor’s two planned follow-up sections, Purgatorio and Paradiso, are now in the works, and will form a trio for The Royal’s season next May, The Dante Project. Part of me thinks McGregor could quit while he is so resolutely ahead, with this, his blazing Inferno. But another side is shopping for flight tickets to go ‘Dante-whole-hog’ next spring in London.

arts·meme founder/dance critic Debra Levine authored this review.

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