Tacita Dean on Turning Her Hand to Costume and Set Design for the Dante Project

Artists don’t just make art: They venture far and wide. And few of these forays have been more fruitful than when they take them to the stage. The history of painters and sculptors designing sets and costumes for opera and dance is exceptionally rich. Impresario extraordinaire Sergei Diaghilev set the tone at the turn of the 20th century for Les Ballets Russes by bringing together Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso with the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. Countless others followed, among them Sonia DelaunayDavid Hockney, and Henry Moore.

Tacita Dean’s collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Thomas Adès on The Dante Project is inscribed in this lineage. First presented in full at the Royal Opera House in London in 2021, the dance piece is a reinterpretation of Dante Alighieri’s epic medieval poem the Divine Comedy (c. 1308–1321). It follows the young Dante as he journeys through hell, purgatory, and, finally, paradise, guided by the classical poet Virgil and his ethereal muse Beatrice.

Tacita Dean on Turning Her Hand to Costume and Set Design for the Dante Project
Left: Tacita Dean by Jim Rakete. Right: Tacita Dean, The Wreck of Hope (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

The Dante Project is Dean’s first venture into the world of dance. The artist, who is best known for her love of analog media, has just opened a show of new works at La Bourse de Commerce in Paris. ‘Geography Biography’ is the latest in a string of prestigious exhibitions that have marked her 30-year career, from London’s National Gallery (2018) to Paris’s Centre Pompidou (2018) and New York’s New Museum (2012). One month before the launch of ‘Geography Biography’ at La Bourse de Commerce, The Dante Project opened at Opera Garnier, also in Paris, where a new cast performed the initiatory journey under Marc Chagall’s iconic painted ceiling. The piece will soon come back to London, where the Royal Ballet will revive it at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, from November 18th to December 2nd, 2023.

In this interview – the second in a new series that revisits the Art Basel Conversations topic of ‘The Artist as …’, which looked at artists’ activities beyond the visual arts – Dean delves into her collaboration with McGregor and Adès.

How did The Dante Project come about? At what point did you join the team?

Wayne invited me. He and Tom had decided to explore an idea based on Dante’s Divine Comedy – and because it was Wayne and Tom, and because it was Dante, I said yes. So, I have been involved from the beginning, more or less.

Did they come to you with the music and the choreography?

Oh no, there was nothing at first. In fact, I created my designs before seeing any choreography or hearing any music.

You’d never done stage or costume design before, and you had very little to go on apart from the Divine Comedy itself.

Yes – and I was lost. Most designers work with an existing score but, in this case, Tom was still composing the music while I worked on the set. Choreography generally comes last. In the end, I found my feet just by sticking to my own approach and not trying to imagine how a scenographer would go about it. I made what I wanted to make as an artist: a drawing, a photograph, and a film.

Edward Watson and Fumi Kaneko in The Dante Project © 2021 ROH. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski.

In the first act, Inferno, the set is an enormous chalk drawing. Then, in the second act, Purgatorio, there is a photograph of a tree. The final act, Paradiso, features an abstract film. The three pillars of your visual art practice unfold alongside the choreography itself.

I decided to use different media because I wanted each of the parts to be very different visually. The three acts have distinct identities in terms of design, music, and choreography.

How much of a brief did you have?

The brief was, simply, ‘Dante.’ Originally, Tom was commissioned to write Inferno as the first act and Purgatorio and Paradiso as the second act. But I really thought it was important to have Purgatorio as its own act. Originally, I proposed to Wayne having silence for Purgatorio – just a moment of silence. Then, we discussed it with Tom, who suggested recorded sound. In the end, Tom used recorded sound as well as composed music for Purgatorio, which is a very important act.

In that way, it connected with the experience of the pandemic. For some people, it really was hell, but for most of us, it was a sort of purgatory. When the show eventually opened on October 14, 2021, we finally came to the release of paradise. It was an incredible feeling of freedom after the previous two years we’d all had.

How does one design art for moving bodies?

That was also a huge learning curve. I began in a completely different place and gradually became more minimal. In the end, chalk and chalk dust became my metaphor. The entire concept starts in the negative and transitions to the positive through Purgatorio, which represents a transitional negative-to-positive state. In Inferno, the costumes are black sprayed with white chalk, resembling blackboard drawings. Sin is white, so the more a soul has sinned, the whiter they become – contrary to the Western cultural tradition, where sin is often depicted as black. By the end, the dancers transform into glorious silver/gold souls: they go from sinners to penitents to souls.

The characters of Dante and Virgil also start out in costumes that are the negative color of their traditional depictions. In illustrations by Sandro Botticelli and William Blake, for instance, Dante is always shown dressed in red while Virgil is always in blue. I used the negatives of the exact colors Botticelli used in his drawings: the negative of Dante’s red is a turquoise blue and the negative of Virgil’s blue is a dirty yellow.

Joseph Sissens, Matthew Ball and Ryoichi Hirano in The Dante Project © 2021 ROH. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski.

Did you feel like this invitation gave you some freedom – or a relief, perhaps – from visual art as you’ve been practicing it for the past three decades or so?

It’s been completely thrilling to do this – and a little exhausting. But, yes, utterly thrilling. As is evident even from early works like Foley Artist (1996), I’ve always loved being backstage; the behind-the-scenes has always been interesting to me.

This project completely changed your relationship to your audience. As a visual artist, you are always presented front and center. Here, your work literally takes a background role. It’s also being seen by people who have probably never heard of your practice before.

And I’m sure they don’t know who I am now! When the curtains first raised in Los Angeles [where the first act, Inferno: Pilgrims premiere at the Music Center in 2019] and the audience saw the blackboard drawing, there was an audible gasp. This was the best moment. But it has been a full gamut of everything. When we were rehearsing at the Palais Garnier, I’d be getting notes about hair and hairdos. And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about hair or make up!’ Having to be the person responsible for that was hard.

What was the biggest challenge, looking back?

The first challenge was solving how to even begin to think about it. And I just avoided it for very long time. Wayne sent his design associate, Catherine Smith, to help me in LA. She was really helpful because she knows about elevations – how this works, how that works – I hadn’t got a clue. The ignorance side of it – just being so much of a duck out of water – was tough initially. But Catherine really helped me figure out how what I wanted to do would work on stage.

The second challenge was designing the costumes, and I got a lot of help from Fay Fullerton, Head of Costume at London’s Royal Opera House. She’d say: ‘I know you don’t know what you want, but you do know what you don’t want.’ I loved it. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, though.

What can a visual artist bring to a theatrical project that a professional stage designer or costume designer can’t?

Maybe the answer is ignorance. You do things without being limited by your training. That’s freedom, isn’t it?

Installation view of Tacita Dean’s exhibition ‘Geography Biography’, Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Tacita Dean is represented by Frith Street Gallery (London), and Marian Goodman (New York, Paris, Los Angeles).

Tacita Dean
‘Geography Biography’
Until September 18, 2023
Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris

Coline Milliard is Art Basel’s Executive Editor.

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