Thomas Adès’ “Inferno,” the first half of what will eventually be a full-length Dante ballet, makes an uproarious heaven of hell. An equal-opportunity score, it offers wry reasons for celebrating our vices — be we among the selfish, gluttonous, suicidal, deviant, papally pretentious; be we illicit lovers, pollsters (the fortune-tellers), hypocrites, thieves, lost souls of one sort or another, satanic majesties or, yes (thanks for thinking of us, Tom), critics.
It proved the most ambitious and electrifying of more than five-dozen commissions celebrating the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s just-completed centennial season and a bonanza for choreographer Wayne McGregor. In an exceptional collaboration among the Royal Ballet, the L.A. Phil and the Music Center, the staged “Inferno” had its premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion over the weekend in a production for which celebrated British artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean created the design. The composer conducted with the L.A. Phil in the pit.
But since the second half of Adès’ “The Dante Project” isn’t expected until the L.A. Phil’s 2020-21 season, the 45-minute “Inferno” was preceded by two other McGregor-Adès dances, both concertos that happened to be earlier L.A. Phil commissions. “Outlier,” a 2010 work for New York City Ballet, uses the violin concerto “Concentric Paths.” Like “Inferno,” “Living Archive: An A.I. Performance Experiment” is new, and its score employs “In Seven Days,” a surreal piano concerto that follows the biblical story of creation and was originally meant to accompany video art. Not skimping on anything, the L.A. Phil invited stellar instrumental soloists for the concertos — violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist Kirill Gerstein — hidden away, though they were, in the pit.
Well, there was some skimping, and it was on the program notes. I doubt that very many in the audience had the slightest idea of what we were seeing or hearing, spectacular as that could be. All the works are sectional and programmatic. Adès has written cogent program notes for them, but they weren’t included. McGregor kept the dance and stage relatively abstract.
McGregor’s style, though, fits Adès’ well. The choreographer’s characteristic mix of fluid movement and sudden change of direction for this limb or that, effortless lifts that suggest flight, limn the bigger gestures of the music. In “Outlier,” outstanding dancers from the Company Wayne McGregor and the Royal Ballet emulated the solo violin as it orbited the orchestra, added extra layers of counterpoint and, in the last movement, lassoed rhythmic ecstasy. Josefowicz, who played with stunning brilliance, might well have been given a perch onstage, her high-voltage presence being as striking as dance.
Much of the publicity for the evening had been the experiment in artificial intelligence, buzz-wordy A.I. being an optimal search engine phrase. Google’s reach, though, was even more invasive. McGregor made his dance with a choreography tool developed by feeding a ton of data into the Google Arts & Culture Lab. Out popped, in a manner not entirely clear, the goofy result.
The dance had nothing to do with Adès’ seven days or its imagery — say, the glittery piano solo in which Gerstein wondrously heralded the stars above our head. A.I. instead produces its own predictive creation story. Each next step is a best guess based on the last one.
Still, the computer ruled. Its glitter came by way of projections of code flashing manically behind dancers employed to produce acrobatic stunts, some silly, some striking. As experiments go, this one might have produced new avenues of movement for McGregor to explore, but the DNA pool is only his, so his options remain insular.
“Inferno” proved, in many ways, the most conventional dance, and surely intentionally so. The ballet score begs spectacle. It begs color. It begs humor and surrealism and irreverence, a dollop of wackiness even. McGregor had a taste for little of that, but he did have a taste for Dante-esque gloom and flexible movement.
Dean’s cavernous black-and-white backdrop was remarkable for its ability to change character through inventive lighting design (by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison). Uzma Hameed was credited for the dramaturgy, although little was offered in the way of information about who occupied what levels of hell the 13 sections represented. I know only that Dante was the dancer in turquoise (Edward Watson) and Virgil the dancer in orange (Gary Avis) from seeing identifications on their photographs. The remaining 33 Royal Ballet dancers were dressed in similar black unitards sprayed with splotches of white chalk (Dean’s idea of sins being transferred from one to another).
But each movement has a vivid musical character, with Adès’ flamboyant and whimsical take on Liszt and Tchaikovsky appearing to be what interested McGregor most. The dance itself, though, tended toward the serious, with gracefully fraught solos, a traditionally apprehensive pas de deux for the adulterous Paolo and Francesca, and all kinds of creatures in various states of fanciful torment. The wildly galloping thieves at the end were a showpiece of whirling dervishes transformed into rocket-propelled worms.
It was only on May 10 that Gustavo Dudamel conducted the rapturous premiere of this score across the street at Walt Disney Concert Hall, hardly giving McGregor time to reinvent the choreographic wheel unless he had wanted to also turn this over to A.I. That the Royal Ballet could master and exult in a ballet of this size and virtuosity in such a short time was a feat beyond imagining. But maybe the ballet worked as well as it did, because the dancers knew from whence they danced. They likely found themselves in their own private circles of rehearsal hell over the previous nine demanding weeks.