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Mapping intimacy

Posted on November 2, 2021

Sarah Lamb and Edward Watson in The Dante Project The Royal Ballet ©2021 ROH. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski
Barbara Newman sees Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell and Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project

Have you noticed that nobody imitates Matthew Bourne? Choreographers don’t hesitate to produce their own take, respectful or not, on Martha Graham or Pina Bausch. With an affectionate nod to Jerome Robbins, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo neatly skewered Dances at a Gathering under the title, Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet.

Bourne is himself in the business of reimagining and often spoofing well-known creations, most notably Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and as they say in show biz, “Nobody kids a kidder.” If his talent were purely choreographic and focused on the shape of familiar works, another dancemaker might be tempted to go one better and comment on his comments. Yet Bourne’s interest lies less in form, which can easily be identified and satirised at the same time, than in attitude and manners, which are hard to establish in the first place, never mind once removed. 

Over the years, Bourne has shifted subjects with remarkable courage, swinging from gentlemen’s underwear ads to Romantic ballet to sinister films. Emerging from a thorough study of its subject, each piece displays his gift for illuminating subtleties of emotional behaviour within an atmospheric theatrical frame, and how many choreographers could you name who can manage that?

His latest work, The Midnight Bell, thrusts us among the riffraff who patronised Soho’s run-down pubs in the 1930s, the barflies, drunks, prostitutes and slick grifters too low on the social ladder to prey on anyone but each other. Drawn from the period novels of Patrick Hamilton, who documented this sad, soggy underworld many times, these louche characters define themselves the moment they appear on stage through their posture, their pace, their hands and eyes and glances. They meet accidentally at the pub, then deliberately elsewhere, gradually revealing their private desires and disappointments. 

The barmaid falls for a regular customer, who’s clean and polite, a cut above the others; he might even hold a secure job. A dapper spiv seduces and fleeces a lonely spinster, who can’t resist his insistent attention. A chorus boy picks up a quiet working-class stranger and finds he’s sleeping with the enemy; his new lover is a policeman.

Bourne maps their intimate exchanges so clearly that two couples can play out their romances simultaneously, pivoting in turn around the same bed without confusing us. Lez Brotherston’s evocations of the time and place pare them down to a few shabby rooms and flashing neon signs. Luring us into the action, Bourne’s choreography, for which he also credits the company, paints the characters with similar economy and even more precision. Every gesture counts, the casual encounters are meticulously controlled, and because individuals are more complicated than stereotypes, we can’t assume anything.

You would recognise these people if you saw them in the street, and without judging them, Bourne leaves us to decide whether we’d want to buy them a beer or avoid them.


Pictured: New Adventures in Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell. Photographs by Johan Persson.

Wayne McGregor has loftier ambitions than Bourne, regularly choosing to aim his dances at abstract concepts rather than social interaction among humans. Created in close collaboration with the composer Thomas Adès and the artist Tacita Dean, his new work for The Royal Ballet, The Dante Project, links itself to Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by adopting its narrative structure. The three acts trace Dante’s progress through the afterlife from Hell to Purgatory and Paradise; the clear result of a mutually supportive partnership, the brief choreographed episodes reflect the dynamics and dramatic tones of Ades’ richly varied score.

At the start, McGregor introduces two men, representing the pilgrim Dante and Virgil, his guide, as the central characters. For most of the evening, as interchangeable couples grapple with each other and crowds drift on and off, these two wander among them, observing the activity while keeping pretty much to themselves. The danced vignettes they oversee seem to follow Adès’ commanding music, replacing one another quickly – a pair of lively men succeeds a corps of angry women – in movement that’s expressive only of itself.

McGregor’s fascination with new technology has led him to explore the relationship between creativity and artificial intelligence. In association with the Google Arts and Culture Lab, he has developed an AI tool called Living Archive that has learned his style by analysing video recordings of his repertoire. Sharing their abilities, that algorithm and the dancers in his own troupe can now generate new movement. McGregor has explained, “I wanted to make use of this massive archive of work in an interesting way… It all comes down to the same question that is crucial in choreography: how do you keep creating fresh content.”

If you’ve seen McGregor’s work before, the vocabulary in The Dante Project will be entirely familiar to you. Its physical demands on the performers provide plenty of reasons for watching them, as always, but none of the movement distinguishes this piece from any of his others. Does the ballet contain fresh content, or are we watching McGregor recycling himself? Though it may be the most inventive response to Dante he could muster, I couldn’t discern much in the way of personal interpretation. It looked to me like one artist hitching a ride on another’s masterpiece for his own intellectual satisfaction and to test his theories. 


Pictured: The Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project. Photographs by Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.


Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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