Every new ballet is a cause for celebration: even more so when it’s a full-length show. Many companies will only produce one every few years: but we’ve been lucky to get a regular feed of them here in London. This year the Royal Ballet has programmed a real treat: a full length ballet by Wayne McGregor inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf. For McGregor, Woolf Works represents a first full-length ballet work – meaning that for the Royal Ballet this represents a real risk, most poignantly financially. For us readers – and, practically, for the Royal Ballet’s audience as literate Londoners – it represents an opportunity to see a well-loved artist’s legacy reflected through another person’s eyes (and other bodies). But this again is a risk. So I say they’ve programmed a treat, but oh the potential for disaster! But one thing I think everyone agreed on: the topic was worth the effort.
As presented, Woolf Works focuses on three of Woolf’s books: Mrs Dalloway (“I Now, I Then”), Orlando (“Becomings”), and The Waves (“Tuesday”). Deliciously, each section (and the whole production) is approached in McGregor’s usual collaborative, gesamtkunstwerk style, so the sets/settings and lights are richly evocative but also extremely modern. We start with Woolf herself speaking while an animated graphic of her words rains on a scrim … a beautiful effect to take us into a world in which bodies, movement, light and sound attempt to recreate the internal effects of reading Woolf.
“I Now, I Then” is the most realistic and, I think, mostly closely pinned to Woolf’s actual writing: nearly a straight narrative of people remembering their younger selves and dealing with their (less glamorous, less happy) current selves. It introduces us to Alessandra Ferri, as Mrs Dalloway, but also as a representation of Woolf herself – Ferri is no longer the fresh young thing and is thus able to more physically embody the regret of the character she plays. The emotions raised by this section were overwhelmingly of longing – sometimes for the past, sometimes for the attention of/affection of others – with shimmering moments of joyous memories rising like koi from a murky pond. This feeling of looking painfully on the past slides us perfectly to the final section, “Tuesday,” which, while seemingly about The Waves, is much more of an exploration of the mental landscape of a deeply depressed person – one who sees fit to throw herself beneath the waters we see constantly roaring above her. It ends the evening on a heartbreaking note.
In the middle, though, was my favorite section: “Becomings.” I looked forward to it for the chance to see my three favorite dancers – McRae, Watson, and Osipova – on stage together, but also had the joy of McGregor’s oft-used pairing of Lamb and Underwood (why does Underwood never get such excellent choreography in other dances?). We started with dancers emerging from the shadows in stylized Elizabethan court dress – lots of ruffs and gold lamé – but with the gendered versions of the costumes not staying fixed. Eventually, as the lights from the side began to appear shining down in bars, I felt that we were moving forward in time, with somehow a core personality for each performer staying put while the physical manifestation of their existence morphed and wobbled. Then, in the end, as tiny LEDS lit up the arches of the layers of the seating at the Royal Opera House, it felt like we had got to a point where we were beyond gender. Then it was one step further forward so that we simply existing as glittering points of consciousness – and the lights went out. I had been smashed in my chair by the forces of acceleration and then was suddenly floating in space. We had just gone on an adventure beyond the ultraworld. I can hardly imagine a better adaptation – we, the dancers, and Woolf had all been transformed. I can only hope that somehow I can have a chance to see this again before it ends.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. It continues through Tuesday, May 26th.)