Woolf Works – The Royal Ballet, 20th May 2015

Quite who suggested the subject matter of Virginia Woolf for a new ballet, and quite why they did so, is anyone’s guess*.  Still good art can come from unlikely places, or can be sourced from curious themes, and McGregor’s art suceeds: this Woolf works. It sketches powerful moments – indeed in some places, it achieves a rare beauty all of its own. Parts I and III of this triptych are by far the strongest. Part II feels like the campest thing ever committed to stage. (More on that later.)

The first and last pieces situate Woolf inside her own artistic creations: sometimes Alessandra Ferri is Woolf, and sometimes she is Mrs Dalloway. (In Part III she most certainly is only Woolf.)

Part I, I Now, I Then takes its inspiration from Mrs Dalloway. The piece takes place against a backdrop of very large revolving wooden squares (Ciguë, I think) and some video projections, all of which probably cost a bomb.

There is much to admire though, even for anyone who doesn’t have a familiarity with Woolf or some of the works refracted through McGregor’s lift-intensive, whirlwinding choreography. Not knowing who many of the Royal Ballet’s fine dancers are supposed to be in the pieces, isn’t too great an impediment to enjoyment.

Dalloway's dance: Bonelli, Stix-Brunell, Ferri, Avis in McGregor's Woolf Works (c) Tristram Kenton

Dalloway’s dance: Bonelli, Stix-Brunell, Ferri, Hayward, Avis in McGregor’s Woolf Works (c) Tristram Kenton

In any case, cast slips are unhelpful, listing just dancers’ names. Most featured: there’s some guy in a suit (Gary Avis/Mr Dalloway) a very beautiful older lady (Ferri, Dalloway/Woolf) a young girl with a weird headdress (Francesca Hayward’s Sally Seton) and a very beautiful young lady (Beatrix Stix-Brunell/Woolf/Dalloway). The tone is elegaic throughout.

Central to all, is Alessandra Ferri.  I Now, I Then starts with a lyrical solo for her: her expressive line sings across the years. Her Dalloway yearns for a lost past, and reaches for connection. She finds it: she pairs with Gary Avis for one of the most ravishingly gorgeous pas de deux  I have ever seen. As a pairing, true magic.

True magic: Avis and Ferri (c) Tristam Kenton

True magic: Avis and Ferri (c) Tristam Kenton

Avis himself was expansive in gesture and form, portraying ardour and longing in skilled equal measure. Ferri showed wonderful abandon and trust throughout: love was writ on both their faces. Ferri’s start caught my breath, and the duet held me fixated.

Here, and throughout the entire time she is onstage she barely touches the ground. (She is truly swept off her feet). Lifts, poses, presentations, manipulations, all are worked on her. As the time goes on, one does begin to feel that McGregor is looking to impress with permutations of lifts. (One feels that McGregor is deep down, a frustrated aerialist.) And yet, the entire approach is literal and romantic and pleasantly watchable but, those of a more modern politics may find McGregor’s cloyingly traditionalist, perhaps even sexist.

Frederico Bonelli has a turn with Ferri too in Parts I and III. In both movements the pairing is exquisite and deeply heartfelt. McGregor’s writing is assured, fully in service of his intentions, and notably fine.

The language of that writing abruptly changes in the first part with Edward Watson’s tormented Septimus, who is haunted by memories of war. He checks himself for lice. He encases his feet in imagined puttees, he limps at first, as if carrying physical wounds yet we know his injuries are mental. The duet here with Tristran Dyer‘s Jones was not as strong as I had hoped, but Akane Takada as Septimus’ wife impressed greatly with her acting. To see her love denied was heartbreaking.

Ferri’s duet with Septimus was polar opposite to with Avis. Despair and resignation gripped her body. Here it is more Woolf herself and Septimus (her creation) dancing – two depressives on the road to extinction.* Instead of abandon, abandonment of will to live; Woolf limp, not limpid. At the end of the duet she is carried in a pose as if crucified, lain supine with Watson, left alone.

Francesca Hayward’s Sally Seton gambols gaily throughout, and shares a sapphic kiss with Ferri’s “Dallowoolf”. She’s well cast, and eminently believable as a bon vivant wild child, though the kiss felt slightly gratuituous.

Voices play over the proceedings near the close of the first piece, bringing to mind Elliot’s Waste Land where they “do the police in different voices”. One recalls the hubbub of his metropolis, the pub (“Time gentleman”) and the night: voices which wake us, until we drown.

A clock ticks inexorably. The playground of memory then crowds. All characters join each other for a pas de cinq and converge: McGregor’s movements start to look a bit messy. No neat geometries here, this is almost quantum, not classical ballet – geodesics, not straight swan lines.

I Now, I Then ends with a video projection zooming out of a house (which reminded me a little of the Big Breakfast tv show) but was really meant to be Woolf/Dalloway’s memory.  All told, a very fine thirty minutes of dance.

I had heard that Act II (Becomings, after Orlando) was less good and so it proved. With music sounding as if Mr Richter had just discovered Fruity Loops (and specifically, the arpeggiator plugin) and with characters dressed in bizarre quasi-Tudor costumes by Moritz Junge, complete with gold eyeshadow, and what with lasers all over the place lighting up the entire auditorium, it was all very odd. No wonder two ladies near me left during it. (One might compare this with their reaction during act I, where they seemed genuinely moved.)

Natalia Osipova performed extreme contortions, Edward Watson gave a fine solo, many other dancers variously cavorted, got lifted and lifted, twiddled each other around, chucked each other to each other, and became human pretzels whilst Lucy Carter‘s lasers bifurcated, bisected, shone and the music ceaselessly arpeggiated. It rather resembled an Olympic closing ceremony*.


Osipova and Watson in McGregor’s Becomings (c) Tristram Kenton/ROH

At one point too many people were doing too much at once and my sensory input system got a bit overloaded. I came away from it only remarking to myself how bendy Osipova was, and how muscley her legs are.

That said, the girls performed an excellent piece in unison, with Sarah Lamb a highlight for her fleet dancing and for quick, precise handwork.

Unfortunately the arpeggiations turned into semi-Vangelis and then (after having spent about ten minutes doing nothing but listen to piped-in music) the orchestra actually played something (one bass player was I saw, happy at last to take his finger out of his ear and put bow to string) which music, although quite nice, was only more of the same same-y Vangelis-esque music. Soft strings ostinato-ed all over, and it all began to sound like music from a nature documentary where there is shown, (e.g.) birds soaring, eagles swooping, whales slowly swimming, animals migrating. It aimed for majesty and awe but came across sounding generic, a bit dull, disposable: Muzak.

Where Orlando was in this, I was hard pressed to say. Eric Underwood showed up in a gold dress and Steven McRae was clearly in his element, but Orlando him/herself was ill-defined, not purposefully but because poorly written here. And yet, this received hearty cheers, where Part I did not. All around me were puzzled glances, shrugs, a fug of “oh, well that was….different.”

An interval came, and then started the glorious, sustained beauty that was Act III’s “Tuesday” based on Woolf’s novel “The Waves”.

We are here primed to be moved by Gillian Anderson’s reading* of the desperately poignant, painfully self-wounding and letter which Woolf wrote before killing herself.

Waves break in sound and slowly on video on the backdrop. The waves are of course prophetic. Ferri emerges from the gloom alone: Woolf walks. Children gradually appear and begin to play in the surf with rope. Woolf becomes drawn into their world, becoming almost one of her own creations as she moves about them.

Tuesday's almost classical

Tuesday’s almost classical “révérences” (c) Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The writing here is almost wholly classical, except for the lifts of course: which here find themselves not egregious, but instead genuine expressions of liberation and release. A fluid flow of grace informs the whole movement. Sustained supported pirouettes, which draw slower and then die, lifts which simulate being wave-tossed and carried by eddies, all reinforced by Ferri’s remarkable investment of self in the role, and sheer conviction: never anything less than beautiful. This was poetry, but also intimation of death. (And, pleased to report: The music here was actually beautiful and rightly fitting.) I have rarely heard a greater hush in the Opera House.

In a wonderful moment “Virginia” kissed Lamb’s character on the head, as a mother does a child. Tears threatened at my eyes, and here too upon recollection. One always realises when reading Woolf just how much sympathy she bears for her creations, and how much love she bears for them. Her emphatic gifts were almost a millstone. (How keenly she must have felt for those she knew in reality.) One senses that her characters were her dearest creations, who could live as she did not, love as she could not, who could be parts of her which could not speak, these vivid names and other selves which at root are beautiful and humane – and only Woolf. Rather than kill her darlings, which she could never bring herself to do, she chose instead to end her own existence. And so too, at the end of the ballet she is drawn down, borne to death by two dancers, to fade, to die. There was great applause at the end, and deservedly so.

In her works and now here, Woolf subsists imperishable: alive wherever she may be read or indeed now, wherever this work may be seen. I hope it finds a revival with an equally gifted cast soon.

Twitter roundup:

Many more tweets are the same, and fittingly so.


*looking for clips of the ballet, I discovered Richter saying it was McGregor’s idea.

* Apparently, first drafts had Clarissa Dalloway kill herself too.

* I think I stole this comparison from somewhere.

* I wonder why they chose Anderson,  who erred into an ever so slightly mid-Atlantic accent in places.



A transcript of and link to the recording of Virginia Woolf herself speaking, which is heard at the start of Woolf Works.



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