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Woolf Works

New York Premiere

Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York

The Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. Photo: Asya Verzhbinsky.
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Woolf WorksNew York Premiere

Concept, Direction, and Choreography by Wayne McGregor
Music by Max Richter
Design by Ciguë ("I now, I then"), We Not I (“Becomings”), and Wayne McGregor (“Tuesday”)
Costume Design by Moritz Junge
Lighting Design by Lucy Carter
Film Design by Ravi Deepres
Make-Up Design by Kabuki
Dramaturg: Uzma Hameed
Sound Associate: Chris Ekers
Associate Lighting Designer: Simon Bennison
Staged by Amanda Eyles, Mikaela Polley, and Antoine Vereecken

Running Time: 143 minutes

Wayne McGregor’s award-winning ballet triptych Woolf Works re-creates the emotions, themes, and fluid style of three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. With inspiration also enmeshed with elements from her letters, essays, and diaries, Woolf Works expresses the heart of an artistic life driven to discover a freer, uniquely modern realism. It brings to life Woolf’s world of “granite and rainbow”, where human beings are at once both physical body and uncontained essence. Created for The Royal Ballet in 2015, Woolf Works is an ambitious, brave, and thoughtful ballet set to challenge our expectations and take us to exhilarating new places.

Woolf Works has received notable recognition and outstanding critical acclaim. The full-length contemporary ballet won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, and McGregor was awarded the Critics Circle National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography for the work.

This production contains references to suicide. Lasers will be projected into the auditorium.

Woolfian Perspectives

by Uzma Hameed

When Woolf Works was announced back in 2014, a question that many people in the dance world seemed to be asking was, ‘Why Virginia Woolf?’ Why would a choreographer like Wayne McGregor, whose work is more often associated with futuristic technologies and emerging developments in neuroscience, choose the novels of an early 20th-century literary heavyweight as inspiration for a new full-length ballet? But for McGregor and myself, immersed as we were in her writings, the really astonishing question was: ‘why hasn’t it been done before?’

For one thing, Woolf herself was fascinated by dance and absorbed aspects of its language into her own creative process to generate writing that was rooted in feeling and the body, as much as in the brain. She famously wrote parts of The Waves while listening to Beethoven on the gramophone and, writing to Vita Sackville-West in 1922, she argues that literary style is ‘all rhythm… Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far far deeper than words’.

Then, of course, there is the way that her fiction shifts the focus from the outer details of life to the rich inner narrative unfolding continuously within the mind; she plunges us into a world in which events are strung together thematically rather than chronologically, and the fabric of emotion and sensation appears denser than the brittle world of objects. All of this might be seen as the natural territory of dance. ‘The “book itself”’, Woolf argued, ‘is not form which you see, but emotion which you feel’ – and it is certainly true that no other writer’s work reads, sounds or feels like hers.

And therein lies the challenge and, perhaps, part of an answer as to why Woolf ballets have not appeared more often. For Woolf’s distinctive voice comes from her lifelong experimentation with form. As a modernist, she strove to divorce literature from the outdated certainties of the late Victorian era and make it fit for the profoundly differing realities of the 20th century. Her work is sometimes perceived as difficult, obscure or even – particularly in the decades after her death – irrelevant. For McGregor, of course, it is the focus on invention and innovation which makes Woolf potentially a very interesting subject. The long-standing concern of his work with what dance can (be made to) do – what subjects it can embrace with authority – is very close to Woolf’s own literary preoccupations, and her search for a language subtle, dynamic and various enough to encompass the many dimensions of modern experience. Add to that shared territory the fundamentally divergent vocabularies of literature and dance plus a century’s difference in perspective, and the possibilities are tantalizing…

Woolf’s modernism, moreover, was founded on a deep engagement with other art forms. Apart from dance, she drew on painting, photography, music, film, even astronomy – and it is partly this multi-dimensionality that lends her writing its apparently limitless virtuosity, and makes her world so heightened, vivid and all-encompassing.

Artistic collaboration is, of course, a keystone of McGregor’s practice too and, from the outset, he envisioned a response to Woolf which came from a similar ‘collision of ideas’, the opportunities for startling Woolfian juxtapositions or synaesthetic metaphors arising from the co-existence of different formal languages on stage. Enter an amazing collective of creative artists: Max Richter, composer (who also worked with McGregor on Infra and Sum); architectural practices Ciguë and We Not I; also sound designer Chris Ekers, make-up designer Kabuki and long-time McGregor collaborators Moritz Junge (costume), Lucy Carter (lighting) and Ravi Deepres (film).

Even so, how could an evening of ballet – albeit a full-length ballet – satisfactorily address the depth and variety of Woolf’s writing? Early discussions centered around the question of whether to create a production based on a range of works (a daunting prospect,) or to stage a continuous danced narrative from a single iconic novel – but wouldn’t the latter be to misunderstand a writer whose style is, in fact, more akin to collage? And who longed for the liberating possibilities of simultaneous action and multiple perspectives available to theatrical performance? In a diary entry of 1928 she states:

What I want to do now is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.

Given that aspiration, and dance’s unique potential for the direct expression of heightened, even sublime states through the body, would Woolf – had she been a choreographer – been content to stay within one story? Wouldn’t her narratives, already shifting and non-linear, have dissolved into something even more abstract?

Although the decision to draw on three of her most loved novels – Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves – was undoubtedly ambitious, the strict time constraints of a three-act ballet demanded a rigorous process of selection, a paring back of detail to what might constitute the essence of each work. An exercise, in fact, of the kind Woolf defined as critical in the pursuit of modernity. ‘Our ambition’, she writes in 1910, ‘is to put in nothing that need not be there.’

What then, of the novels, does need to be there? And how might it be communicated? When stripping narrative back to its bare bones, how does one ensure the audience will not be lost? How does one, like Woolf, provide just enough detail to allow the viewer to orientate him/herself, yet remain in the sentient ‘undermind’ – open to abstract, even mystical states? Most importantly, how does one maintain depth and richness? More than anything, we wanted watching the ballet to feel like reading Woolf – to convey the luminosity, sonorousness, and poignancy of her world, the absolute freshness of her vision. To return to the original question: ‘Why Woolf?’- because she renders, like no one else, the insoluble paradox at the heart of our human existence: life and death, body and spirit, ‘granite and rainbow’.

What excited us were the opportunities available to dance for economical and highly gratifying solutions. Take, for example, the dilemma between past choices and present reality in Mrs. Dalloway. Writing, no matter how fluid, can only voice one character at a time. At best, as in Woolf’s ‘psychological realism’, the illusion of simultaneity is created by rapid, and apparently seamless, point-of-view shifts. By double-casting Clarissa Dalloway, however, we can enable both the younger and older woman to be present in the same moment – a potent visual shortcut to one of the novel’s key themes. And dance, of course, allows both Clarissas to ‘speak’ at once without becoming confused.

On the other hand, staging has its own inherent problems. Stop writing a character, and she disappears; we, however, are left with a physical body in the space – not always conducive to light touch, stream of consciousness style presentation…

Orlando, in contrast to the melancholy, interior perspectives of Mrs. Dalloway, has many of the qualities of magical realism or even science fiction – extravagance, fantasy and time travel – as its protagonist speeds through 300 years of history, transforming effortlessly from male to female as he/she goes. Of the three novels, this is the most linear in plot, the most heavily laden with exterior period detail. Whisking the figure of Orlando past such a lavish yet rapidly changing backdrop, enables Woolf to generate a sense of time, and space endlessly reconfiguring around a plastic ‘self’, which is also continuously shape-shifting. The novel is a breathless, virtuoso dash, reminiscent of Woolf’s famous comparison of life to ‘being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!’.

Yet linearity and exteriority are not natural fits for the spatial, allusive, poetic medium of dance. The challenge here was to find ways of splintering the narrative of Orlando into its disparate components, and find equivalents for those in choreography and staging. What expression could be given to Woolf’s fascination with the idea of multiple selves co-existing, her lampooning of the limited constructs of gender identity? And how could we convey the cosmic gaze of this novel, the vastness of time and space against which human existence takes on the fragile brevity of insect life?

The Waves, of course, is the most consciously poetic of Woolf’s work. Conceived as a response to the fierce maternal instinct experienced by her sister Vanessa – she herself was to have no children – it sets the life cycle of six little human beings from early childhood through to death against a backdrop of the impassive, ever-returning sea. In it, realistic detail is minimal, the exterior world barely maintaining contact with the continuously globing and expanding inner life. Of all the novels, it seems most open to free and abstract dance interpretation – and, at first, that’s how we envisaged the final act.

But Woolf is a writer whose life permeated her work; was, in its unflinching search for authenticity, inseparable from it. The more we submerged ourselves in the world of The Waves, the more we found ourselves moving towards elements of her biography. Could the novel’s juxtaposition of personal and universal be expressed through Woolf’s own story? And, as in The Waves, could the end of that story, and the well-known fact of her suicide, be made to suggest not only loss, but emergence and continuance?

The bars deepen themselves between the waves. The film of mist thickens on the fields. A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window… Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.

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