Woolf Works: Royal Ballet

Once again, I am so behind in posting this review. I actually saw Woolf Works – Wayne McGregor’s triptych of Virginia Woolf ballets – on 11th February, and I just haven’t found time to write about it. Disgraceful.

The other problem is – and I’m ashamed to admit this – I feel awkward about what I’m about to write. So I’d best get it over with.

I wasn’t mad about Woolf Works. I mean, I didn’t hate it – but I also didn’t melt into a puddle with five stars in my eyes at the end (unlike pretty much every dance critic when it premiered last year). All the hype had built up my expectations so that ultimately, I was disappointed.

As a whole, McGregor’s choreography is as expressive, free and dynamic as Woolf’s writing – a fitting tribute. But split into their separate parts, the three ballets vary in their dialogue with and communication of their source material.

First up is I now, I then, a beautiful work steeped in nostalgia and romance that’s based on Mrs Dalloway. The stunningly elegant and talented Alessandra Ferri dances the central role, with Francesca Hayward and Beatriz Stix-Brunell putting in sparkling and energetic turns. Clarissa Dalloway’s world is created through projections of flowery gardens and crowded London streets onto the giant, slowly rotating frames of the set. The happy interplay of these three characters contrasts starkly with Edward Watson’s character, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The narrative conveyed by these interactions is, however, frustratingly vague – McGregor’s intention may not be to literally translate the works into dance, but I found myself wishing that I’d read Mrs Dalloway or at least a substantial programme synopsis. Of course I could appreciate the dancing and the production value, but the sense of a story was tantalisingly out of reach.

I initially thought I would have more luck with Becomings, based as it was on a Woolf work that I was familiar with – Orlando. It starts in promisingly striking fashion, with a spotlight ranging across a darkened stage, the bright beam of light illuminating the dancers in their shiny gold Tudor costumes. Unfortunately, what follows does not draw on the work’s themes of gender, identity, history or love – instead it’s a Tudor rave, with lasers intersecting the auditorium and increasingly futuristic costumes. The energy and athleticism of the dancers is incredible – particularly that of Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova – but it’s hard to stay engaged with something that stays exactly the same for 35 minutes.

The evening did pick up though – Tuesday, the concluding piece, is by far and away the best. It opens with a recording of actress Gillian Anderson reading the suicide note that Woolf wrote to her husband, setting both scene and tone for an incredibly powerful, poignant and moving work. Ferri returns to the stage, her hair loose, first dancing a farewell duet with Federico Bonelli and then removing her pointe shoes to walk by the water (a clever echo of people removing their shoes before they commit suicide). As children happily play nearby, she slowly paces the stage and then quietly lies down as the lights fade – a simple but highly effective finale.

There were plenty of things that I admired and enjoyed about Woolf Works – not least the chance to see so many fabulous principal dancers in one cast – but I doubt that I’ll see it again. I will, however, be reading Mrs Dalloway soon.

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