Review: Royal Ballet - Woolf Works - Royal Opera House

Performance: 11, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 23 26 May 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 12 May 2015

Royal Ballet 'Woolf Works' Edward Watson & Akane Takada. Photo: Tristram Kenton, ©ROH, 2015

Performance reviewed: 11 May

Woolf Works (described as A Triptych) is a full-length programme directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor, thematically attached to the life and selected works of Virginia Woolf. The three separate ballets stand alone just as distinctly as the three novels that inspired each of them. A triptych consists of three panels connected by a hinge and if Woolf Works has ‘hinges’ then they are screwed into place by a metaphor that links the virtuosity of McGregor’s steps to Woolf’s poetic use of words.

The first ballet (I Now, I Then, inspired by Mrs Dalloway) opens with an image of words multiplying on a screen accompanied by the only extant recording of Woolf speaking (made by the BBC, in 1937) talking about language and the crafting of words. Her voice is strained; her accent, the clipped, cold tones of middle-England. It is not quite what we expect of a woman who wrote with such poetry and passion.

In this recording, Woolf argues that “you cannot use a brand new word in an old language”. How life has changed in the 79 years since her speech was captured. Now, we invent new words by the day and, each year, many are accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary. Her “old language” is being continually refreshed. Is that not also true of the classical idiom in ballet. At the time that they were spoken, her words could have been applied to the discipline of classical ballet (Woolf was, herself, a balletomane). Yet the language of ballet is also now subject to new steps and McGregor’s choreography extends the envelope of new movement further than anyone. As I watched Woolf Works unfurl, I became progressively more fascinated by the juxtapositions of Woolf and her words with McGregor and his steps: both, in their different times, considered to be at the extreme cutting edge of their art.

The third part of McGregor’s trilogy also opens with Woolf’s words, spoken by the actress, Gillian Anderson. These were the last words that Woolf wrote (actually, her third suicide letter but the one that was to be for real) before loading her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse, to drown. Watery allusions are ever-present throughout Woolf’s writing. In the aforementioned BBC recording she spoke of words having “sunken meanings…lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river”. It might appear as if Woolf always knew that the river bed was to be her destiny.

That final handwritten letter was headed simply “Tuesday”, which became the title of McGregor’s final episode (also inspired by Woolf’s novel, The Waves), which I see as his finest work at the Royal Ballet for many years. Clever, courageous and poignant (adjectives which could be applied to the author); it provided an absorbing and arresting finale. I believe that anticipation is all and those of us who remained in the auditorium during the interval before Tuesday had our senses heightened through the subliminal background sound of the ebb and flow of waves.

McGregor pushes almost all the sensory alerts. If anyone ever makes a “smellorama” ballet then the first scratch-‘n-sniff will surely be designed by someone in Wayne’s World. The collaborative skills needed to bring this multi-sensory collage to fruition are considerable; far too many to list but including no less than eight different design inputs. The involvement of two architectural firms (Ciguë and We Not I) brought a strong structural form to the first two parts, reminiscent of John Pawson’s set design for Chroma, McGregor’s first major success at The Royal Ballet. Ciquë’s revolving box frames for I Now, I Then had a similarly profound impact.

The superlatives for Woolf Works are jointly owned by many collaborative talents but it is the veteran ballerina, Alessandra Ferri – now 53 – who deserves the major accolade. Whether as the thoughts of Mrs Dalloway or the suicidal Mrs Woolf, Ferri retains an astute sense of theatre and a commanding stage presence. I last saw her on this stage as Juliet, a decade or more ago, and this very satisfying return was topped off by a solo curtain call and a richly-deserved standing ovation.

I was less convinced by the soundscape, which mixed Max Richter’s eclectic score with everyday noises curated by Chris Ekers. The neoclassical lusciousness of Richter’s filmic themes for the various pas de deux were excellent but the throbbing insistence of repetitive motifs building to a crescendo came to seem like a persistently-annoying neighbour clamouring for attention. Clocks ticking, helicopters whirring overhead, the subterranean rumble of a train and the inaudible murmurings of a crowded place came and went periodically, preparing us for any eventuality such that when a nearby audience member dropped something metal that rolled and oscillated noisily to a full stop, it seemed to be part of the intended design.

Lucy Carter’s lighting reiterated McGregor’s predilection for laser beams in the second (and weakest) of the triptych, entitled Becomings (from Orlando, the closest that Woolf came to writing a linear narrative). This piece reminded me of William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar, partly through Moritz Junge’s bold and colourful costume designs; but mostly through the stark deconstruction of space created by Carter’s scything light beams, creating a virtual roof above the dancers and sending straight lines out into the auditorium. The architectural forms created from just the light were impressive.

Despite showcasing the sumptuous skills of Natalia Osipova, Sarah Lamb, Edward Watson, Steven McRae, Eric Underwood (in an amazing costume, as Orlando), Melissa Hamilton and Akane Takada, this mid-section was over-long and cumbersome. Becomings did not live up to the early promise of I Now, I Then, perhaps because the lighter narrative of Orlando sat uneasily between the life and death of the first and last parts.

The most pleasant surprise of Woolf Works is that it presents choreography that breaks the mould continually reaffirmed through McGregor’s repertoire over the past nine years. He has always seemed more comfortable creating movement on individual bodies rather than articulating pas de deux in a balletic language. Here, however, there are are several duets of great passion and expression, involving Ferri, Gary Avis, Watson, Takada, Bonelli, McRae and Osipova, the very best of which was a ravishing pas de deux between Bonelli and Ferri that dominated Tuesday’s opening. This is the best neoclassical ballet choreography I’ve yet seen from McGregor. It’s almost as if the decade of experience as Resident Choreographer with The Royal Ballet has been shuffled into this winning hand.

I had originally felt that McGregor had taken a massive, if courageous, risk in setting a ballet to the subject of a complex author, who wrote in detail about life’s minutiae, and who suffered with an unsound mind (one she herself described as “diseased”). And, I thought it was a punt that was doomed to fail.

Well, give me a spoon, a big slice of pie and make it humble! Because, make no mistake, this is one of the cleverest and illuminating biographies imaginable. Woolf’s aforementioned BBC recording was part of a series entitled Words Fail Me and McGregor has created a biographical account of a literary giant in steps that certainly don’t fail him.

Continues on 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 23 26 May at the Royal Opera House

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

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