Dante's "Inferno" is the ­ultimate midlife crisis story.

The Italian poet's 14th-century epic confronts the dangerous path toward personal ruin but also rails against piety and greed in a fiery commentary, still relevant today, on the corrupting forces within religion, business and politics.

On Friday night, James Sewell Ballet flung open the gates of hell and let its depraved denizens run wild at the Cowles Center. Who knows how Dante might have envisioned his poem brought to life, but this interpretation captures its disquieting spirit.

Choreographer James Sewell, in collaboration with the dancers, dramaturge Dane Stauffer and production designer Fritz Masten combine forces to create an onstage world worthy of Dante's most famous line: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Chris Hannon portrays the hapless Dante appropriately as a man suffering a private turmoil and Stauffer is his one-liner-spouting underworld guide Virgil (the ancient Roman poet). At one point the latter warns, "hell is full of unitards" but at least the ones on display in "Inferno" are quite artistic thanks to Masten's vision, which hints at Nicholas Roerich's 1913 designs for the Ballet Russes' "Rite of Spring."

There are clever moments including the descent into hell via New York City subway with damned souls as straphangers, a barb against resident Ayn Rand ("nobody likes her") and the swirling dances of those doomed to an eternity living out their lusts (this is an R-rated show by the way).

But the evening really belongs to Kelly Vittetoe and Anton Harrison LaMon, both in their first seasons with Sewell. They are the demonic tormentors who literally tower over the others in KISS-like boots. Sometimes they even dance in a stop-motion manner similar to Ray Harryhausen's special effects for the mythological monsters in the 1981 film "Clash of the Titans."

Sewell Ballet's "Inferno" has its faults. The work stalls at times in its journey through the nine rings of hell, dwelling too much on a desire to shock that it forgets the most resonant imagery is so subtle that it burrows into the subconscious. That's Dante's message after all — often we are the source of our personal torments, even as the actions of others contribute to the repository of pain. Whether we can survive and find our way to paradise is the ultimate question.

Caroline Palmer writes about dance