Reflection: Why Wayne McGregor & Virginia Woolf Work – Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works

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Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works: doing with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Wayne McGregor, as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer revives his award-winning 2015 work based on her writings. Why Virginia Woolf? McGregor argues for the way ‘she really reinvented the way you read a novel‘, and dramaturg Uzma Hameed discusses the ‘tension in Woolf between narrative and abstract‘; substitute ‘read a novel’ with ‘watch a ballet’ and ‘Woolf’ with ‘McGregor’ and its observable and wholly understandable why Virginia Woolf and Wayne McGregor work. McGregor does with movement as Woolf did with words, and his triptych Woolf Works, with acts inspired by Mrs DallowayOrlando, and The Waves, pushes the boundaries of the balletic form beyond what is expected, taking its inspiration from the revolutionary effect Woolf’s own boundary-pushing writing had on the narrative form.

The piece opens with ‘I now, I then’, a breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful embodiment of Mrs Dalloway, and this part of the Works‘ centre, as with much of Woolf’s, is the passage of time. From Max Richter’s music with its rhythmic ticking to McGregor’s movement: a simultaneous pendulum-style swing into six o’clock penchés for Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli – faint impressionist memories of two of the novels’ protagonists, Clarissa and Peter – and the slightly-out-of-sync steps in the canon choreography with Francesca Hayward’s Sally, which after a kiss fall effortlessly in time. Following the heart-wrenching, homoerotic pas de deux between shell-shocked Septimus – a wonderful Edward Watson, the image of the walking-wounded weighed-down with gravity and grief – and Calvin Richardson’s Evans, one of the wars’ inevitable victims, Septimus’ boundary-pushing balances finally overbalance and he falls, as if into the void, as Richter’s music builds and theres bombs and blasts and then: black. This immensely haunting moment evokes the end of Mrs Dalloway, as Septimus, stricken, sterile – emotionally, artistically, and, much to his wife Rezia’s (Akane Takada) anguish, actually – and suicidal, can’t ‘assemble’ – illustrated in those beautifully bittersweet off-centre balances in the pas de deux – and falls, fatally, from the window. Only after does Richter bring in the soft sound of bells: perhaps, as in the novel, the bells of Big Ben; chiming in time to call Clarissa back from her own second of lost hope, but too late for Septimus.

As his same-sex partnered pas de deux evidence, McGregor embodies the modernist ideal, devised by poet Ezra Pound, of ‘making it new’, but it’s an ideology that he demonstrates in more than just dance. As Resident Choreographer for over ten years, there is often much talk about how crucial McGregor is to the future of the company and hand-crafting roles for new principals, but in Woolf Works, he creates the greatest role for an older one, which, in an art-form that favours the youth, is perhaps the most revolutionary act of all. Alessandra Ferri, now in her fifties, performs the dramatic role of Mrs Dalloway with the gentle fragility and decorous grace of Clarissa in the novel, but also with a poignant longing to return to her past as she watches her younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) – a wish McGregor awards her that most of us are never afforded. The seemingly impossible interweaving of past and present, the younger and older, in characters and cast – completed by Gary Avis as Mrs Dalloway’s present-day husband – is a response not only to Woolf’s writing, but to real life: as Ferri summarises, ‘Mrs Dalloway was my age […] but in her memories she was a teenager. But so am I, [and] so is everyone‘.

There’s something multi-dimensional about McGregor’s method – Ferri’s Mrs Dalloway is also a reminder of Woolf herself – and it’s no more obvious than in the second piece, ‘Becomings’. Based on Orlando, it’s a fast, flashy and technically-faultless fall through time and space from the Elizabethan to a busy, futuristic existence. Natalia Osipova appears to be the eponymous Orlando, the Elizabethan page who metamorphoses into a female body and lives for centuries, but the beauty of McGregor’s production, in a reflection of the novel’s fluidity, is that any of the dozen dancers could be Orlando, so fluid are the identities, the dance and the design. For a usually decidedly-gendered discipline, ‘Becomings’ disregards all rules of classical ballet: the male dancers wear dresses, dance with each other and execute the same elevated extensions usually reserved for women, and it proves there is nothing reserved about this piece. Even in the parts with fewer bodies on stage, especially Francesca Hayward’s impressive solo, the effect is still as viscerally powerful as the busier moments, particularly the fast-moving finale as the dancers move across spotlights on the floor as if falling, faster and faster, through the sands of time.

McGregor’s work is often collaborative in influence and creation, and, like Woolf, he works with and around creative groups that are growing ballet, and his body of work, in new and innovative ways. Woolf was a figure in the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of creatives – from artists to intellectuals – whose influence, intelligence and innovation united by the arts shaped and evolved the forms each worked in. Later embodied in his 2016 work Multiverse, ‘a landmark collaboration between leading innovators from three disciplines of contemporary art‘, ‘Becomings’ is a collaboration that uses dance, music, and design as counterparts, not competition. The beats, beeps, static, and razor-sharp strings of Richter’s score complement lighting designer Lucy Carter’s laser beams of light, and Moritz Junge’s ever-changing costumes, deconstructing and reconstructing versions of ostentatious Elizabethan dress – from black ruffs to fitted bodices to full skirts – reinforce the gender-and-genre-less form.

And, finally, we wash up on ‘Tuesday’, the closing piece of the triptych which returns to Ferri’s character, now more Woolf than Dalloway, and floats on the influence of Woolf’s The Waves. As the voices in The Waves, the large company of dancers are distinct individuals, but they unite as a central consciousness in the complex port de bras, moving like crashing waves at first in sync before falling out of line, like the stream of consciousness of Woolf’s writing style. Yet, ‘Tuesday’ doesn’t just stream, it pours: the dancers empty themselves into an emotionally moving sea of movement, and Richter’s music ebbs and flows and falls and grows until it feels almost overwhelming; almost as if we’re drowning.

This feeling is layered with further poignancy as the piece opens with a reading of Woolf’s own suicide note, addressed and left to her husband, Leonard, before her untimely demise, dying by drowning herself in the River Ouse. For all Woolf’s novel and experimental style, her suicide note is exposed, stripped of pretence, and sincere, and it feels like Ferri is also stepping back from ballet’s formalities towards pure emotion as she steps out of her pointe shoes and is left barefoot, perhaps the most exposed a ballerina can be. Bonelli returns, now, like Ferri, more likely a real life iteration of her husband than a fictional one, and lifts Ferri above the waves as the music builds, reflecting the love the Woolfs had for one another in the note: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier […] if anybody could have saved me it would have been you‘. ‘Tuesday’ is so moving that, like most of Woolf’s works, you have to stop looking for meaning, and just let it wash over you.

Woolf Works’ three acts are a balanced marriage of everything Wayne McGregor brings to the Royal Ballet, and everything they bring to him: ‘I now, I then’ is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful ballet, ‘Becomings’, with its collaborative cleverness, is a spectacle as cerebral as it is visceral, and ‘Tuesday’ is achingly haunting, hugely affecting, and a fitting finale to a piece that, like Woolf’s works, explores and pushes on the boundaries of its form. The work opens with the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf as she muses how ‘words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations […] so stored with meanings‘, and it’s a sentiment McGregor seems to share. Despite earning acclaim as a more abstract choreographer, his belief is that ‘all dance is narrative’, imbued, like Woolf’s words, with meanings and memories; the pas de deux, pointe shoes, and port de bras from classical ballet are still there, but, like Woolf’s words, they are revitalised by a new visionary. 

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 8th February 2017, broadcast on BBC4 9th July 2017, cast includes Alessandra Ferri, Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Federico Bonelli, Steven McRae & Edward Watson, picture by Tristram Kenton, click for link to Woolf Workat roh.org.uk

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