By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance
Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novels, letters, essays and diaries, Wayne McGregor, the resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, conceived a full evening work called Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet commissioned the German-born British composer Max Richter to create a new score for the ballet. McGregor engaged Italian prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri to dance the lead, as he envisioned her specific qualities of dance as the”soul” of Woolf. Following is a video explaining the inspiration of the choreographer, composer and ballerina.
Many who are new to ballet find it easier to engage in dance based on literature - particularly story ballets (for example: Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) – that are literal translations from text to dance, based on a plot that leads the audience by hand. Often describing things as she thought they ought to be, rather than how they are, Woolf wrote in many different styles. In some ways, her storytelling is about what happens in between the sentences. In a similar vein, choreography is often about what happens between the steps.
Woolf Works is complex, layered, powerful and mesmerizing. The ballet consists of three sections, based on Woolf’s writings: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and Tuesday: The Waves. They are presented in the order in which they were written. Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about relationships and takes place in one day. Orlando takes place over three centuries and involves the main character changing gender. The Waves, perhaps Woolf’s most experimental work, spans the characters’ lives and is about growing up and letting go.
McGregor empathizes that the ballet he created is not a literal rendition of Woolf’s writings. What he wanted to convey is the feeling that you get when you read Woolf – not simply recreating the narrative. In her writing, Woolf was not a believer of having a beginning, a middle and an end. Her work was more about essence, and that is exactly what is beautifully captured in McGregor’s choreography. McGregor expresses that “it’s about feeling, exploring her work…making text with the way physicality operates in a space. If you think of Woolf as a stream of consciousness, that is what happens in the studio during the creative process.”
In Woolf’s writings, she has thought about the present, the past, and again the present, creating a back-and-forth, in-and-out current of thoughts that ebb and flow, much as the rhythm of waves. “Life,” she says, “builds up, tumbles, then creates afresh.” In keeping with the motif of water, there are depths of feelings which are rarely revealed. Emotions remain submerged.
The main characters from Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa and Septimas, are intense and sensitive, and their perspectives of the world represent the sane and the insane. They each have a different idea of what truth and reality are. Ferri, in describing what happens in the rehearsal process, claims that “there is truth in movement when it matches your inner state.” Following is a video of the creative process and rehearsal directed by McGregor, Ferri and her partner Federico Bonelli.
The third section, Tuesday: The Waves, opens with the voice of Woolf, reciting a letter to her husband, exclaiming how much she loved him, and that if anyone could save her, it was he. Throughout her life, Woolf experienced mental instability and ultimately committed suicide by drowning. But as McGregor states so beautifully, his choreography does not express Woolf’s ending her life as an act of depression or hopelessness. Rather, he sees it as “a moment of collective energy being atomized and being delivered into the universe, a sense of freedom.”
Music is integral to dance, and this new composition was not Richter’s first collaboration with McGregor. The complete score was released on Richter’s eighth album, entitled Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, which features classical and electronic sound as well as an original voice recording of Woolf herself.
Woolf Works premiered in May 2015 at the Royal Opera House and the following year was recognized with the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Ferri would also be recognized with a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for her performance in Woolf Works.