Dance Review: Inferno, Or To Hell With Ballet

November 2, 2021

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Inferno // Choreographed by Mario Gaglione // John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


To pack a 14,233-line epic poem into a mixture of ballet and contemporary dance that doesn’t take up a whole weekend takes some doing. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy is one of the most important literary touchpoints in history – not so much for its content, which reflected much of the religious thinking of the day, but for its impact on language and culture.

Choreographer Mario Gaglione keeps the structure of this work, commissioned by the Italian Institute of Culture in Pretoria, relatively simple, splitting his version of the narrative into six character-led segments. Interest and complexity is added by the translation of passages from the poem from the original Italian into Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa and Afrikaans alongside the more expected English – their presentation alongside each other certainly a world first. However, it’s innovation that, in the absence of surtitles, doesn’t help to keep the storyline clear for audience members who only speak one or maybe two of the languages involved.

Still, in this kind of production, movement holds more sway than words, and, in this one-off performance in front of a largely Italian or Italian Institute of Culture-connected audience, most viewers would have been familiar with the original text to a greater or lesser degree.

The segments into which the choreography is broadly split – The Dark Wood, The Three Beasts, Charon, Paolo and Francesca, Ulysses and Lucifer – allow an almost exclusively male lead cast to give life to some of Alighieri’s major characters. This is not the norm for a production in which ballet dancers – the bulk of the cast is drawn from the ranks of the Joburg Ballet company – are play most of the roles, and the male dancers involved are likely to have enjoyed the opportunity to express themselves in a different way to their work in the classical canon. The flip side of that opportunity is that the likes of Nicole Ferreira-Dill, a principal dancer at Joburg ballet, are mostly relegated to hovering around the main characters as Damned Souls, the suffering masses on the fringes of all Alighieri’s drama.

In the feature roles, there are two standouts. As Ulysses, Ruan Galdino plays against type and nature, setting aside his usual cheerful buoyancy to play angsty and serious as a great hero who was also a famous fraudster. And, in easily the best costume in the production – some of the others make it unclear whether the source material was Italian (Roman dress) or Greek – Gabriel Fernandes takes the piece to a resounding crescendo as Lucifer.

Given the investment (money, rehearsal time, costumes and production) involved in the creation of the piece, its short running time – 40 minutes or slightly less – and the one-night run raise questions about the full range of intentions behind its commission. Whatever the thinking was, though – beyond the stated marking of 700 years since Alighieri’s death – it’s great that a new work has been created, combining fresh ideas with established platforms and source material. Here’s hoping that the work is given further runs or included in repertoire at Joburg Ballet or elsewhere and given a chance to develop and expand further – as mentioned above, Alighieri’s poem has reams of other themes and scenes to contribute to Gaglione or any other choreographer who may get involved down the line.

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