Woolf Works
The Royal Ballet in “Woolf Works” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Tristam Kenton

Dancing Virginia Woolf

The Royal Ballet's “Woolf Works”

Broadcast
The Royal Ballet: “Woolf Works” by Wayne McGregor, filmed in 2015
Words
Róisín O'Brien

I was so excited to see “Woolf Works” when it first premiered in 2015. Alessandra Ferri, Wayne McGregor, Virginia Woolf, Max Richter: an irresistible collision of the new with the old, a meeting of talent and history. I had been studying in London for a few years. £5 seats up in the gods at the Royal Opera House were a regular, somewhat guilty, indulgence (the opulence both beguiling and entrenched). In those trips, I got to ‘know’ the current company and found favourites: Edward Watson, Natalia Osipova, Eric Underwood. Already that is a snapshot in time, a constellation of people and experiences that no longer exists (Underwood has since left the company, for instance).

“Woolf Works” captures perfectly so many of the themes Woolf worked with in her prose: time, memory, loss; the ripples of pain and scarring through society after the First World War; and the limiting expectations held for women. In watching Ferri dance the role of Clarissa Dalloway in the first act (“I now, I then), and Woolf herself in the last act (“Tuesday”), a texture of association occurs: an older dancer gracing the stage (and what a privilege it is, and how sad that it feels so rare), dancing the role of Clarissa reminiscing on her youth, all amidst a whirl of overlapping relationships that echo those of the Bloomsbury Group. The resonances add to rather than limit what’s on stage.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in “Woolf Works.” Photograph by Tristram Kenton

McGregor and dramaturg Uzma Hameed approach Woolf’s works and the hegemony of the three-act (narrative) ballet by not only focusing on three different texts (rather than laboriously stretching out one story), but also on three different approaches. “I now, I then” follows the events of Mrs Dalloway: it’s a tapestry of nostalgia and longing made physical through the intertwined duets between older and younger dances. Behaviours or missed opportunities are relived or allowed to be played out: the young Clarissa shies away from a fleeting kiss with a female friend, while her older self searches for it with joy.

Act 2, “Becomings,” takes its departure from Orlando. Here we see McGregor on home turf: beamed lasers and shifting fog hover over the dancers, who seem to scuttle under the auspices of some older, eternal presence. “Tuesday” achingly concludes the ballet, beginning with perhaps the most beautifully, painfully written suicide note: Woolf’s final words to her husband, Leonard.

Max Richter’s emphatic score weaves together threads of histories and inevitable outcomes. At its best, and most specific, the score sees time marching inexorably on, violins building to unimaginable crescendos, while something always pulls back. In “I now, I then,” there’s a bittersweet violin motif that yearns for the past, while during Watson’s portrayal of traumatised veteran Septimus Warren Smith, resounding timpani underneath the swell of strings hauntingly recall the sounds of the trenches, always present.

McGregor’s self-defined “alien” movement often sees the Royal Ballet dancers staying on their toes longer than you expect, switching position mid-balance, or having their legs scissored overhead.

McGregor’s self-defined “alien” movement often sees the Royal Ballet dancers staying on their toes longer than you expect, switching position mid-balance, or having their legs scissored overhead. They walk with purpose to meet each other, then launch into a wiggle, dive, or flurry of fluttering hand gestures: the dance becomes a conversation, an insistence to communicate. In the final part of “Becomings,” the dancers lunge, leap, and sashay through the multiplying circles of light on stage, wanting that moment in the spotlight: they are moments in time, a succession of eras, inhabiting one world out of many possible other worlds.

Lucy Carter oversees the lighting design; architecture and design practice Ciguë create the set for “I now, I then,” while collective We Not I (also an architectural practice) do so for “Becomings.” In all acts, the dancers are not dwarfed by but are nonetheless defined by these allegorical sets and lighting states. Ciguë’s hollow architectural squares function as the streets of London before becoming bleak, cavernous spaces on a blood red backdrop during Septimus’ horrified recollections. In “Tuesday,” a large, slow moving clip of waves designed by Ravi Deepres is projected on the back wall. Coupled with the dancers constantly shifting through different configurations and Ferri’s mournful portrayal, you sink into an indefinite present, the solemnity of Woolf’s last words hanging over the choreography.

“Woolf Works” will probably date: the swells of Richter’s score, as much as I love his music, now seem annoyingly present in other works to the point of numbness. I’m sure the sombre, earnest feel of the production will be seen as part of a stylistically darker turn in contemporary dance that we seem to find ourselves in this the last decade or so. But I, too, will age, and I will always remember this performance and my time in London with fondness.

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