Reviews Dance Published 14 May 2015

Woolf Works

Royal Opera House ⋄ 13th-26th May 2015

Death and the author.

Verity Healey

Virginia Woolf never felt compelled to seek critical praise. She didn’t find her voice until she wrote Mrs Dalloway, at the young age of 43, a post WW1 chronicle of a fractured London, an interweaving of several internal monologues where its characters, behind the vast fabric of their inner lives, achieved mystical unions with others, although, more often than not, were left isolated and alone. Europe was shattered, Woolf needed to find new ways of expressing and understanding emotions, putting things at ‘angles’ to the self.

Angles, cutting into things, loneliness are all featured themes in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works– a cacophony of dance, light and sound that celebrates the writer and her ‘most loved’ novels Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. The traditional 3 act structure breaks each work down into almost expressionistic tableaus, but taken as a triptych, its message is one of contradiction and juxtaposition: forever in the balancing act between Wayne McGregor’s choreography, Max Richter’s at times pulsating melodies and Lucy Carter’s extraordinary corridors of light, is the tension created between inward stasis and immutability and external universal transfiguration and reordering.

I now, I then swings haltingly on an axis of perpetually moving squares, the dancers stepping through or on them as if giant framed hearts to other worlds. Ballerina Alessandra Ferri seems to mutate between a haunted Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf. Max Richter’s music begins like a John Adam’s cityscape but through a haunting viola solo, blossoms into a tapestry of strings, a quartet of narrative voices which mirrors the expressive multiple body monologues onstage.  The interlocking almost erotic male dance between Septimus and Evans, his soldier friend, is the beginning of the piece’s move towards madness. You have to ask

Who am I?

And what do I know?

But is the answer words – written on and by the body as well as on film maker Ravi Deepres’ screen, blurring to form the 3 pillars of the squares? ‘We are as we are now and that is all there is?’

Becomings introduces the themes of gender and space bending with the scratch of a pen and a beam of blue light splicing the stage in half. The space is filled with doublets, leotards, ruffs, men and women wearing all in a manic homage that feels more like Sally Potter’s Orlando than the novel itself. Here the choreography cuts the air as if the dancers want to bend space with their hands, with their bodies. Yet, it is all against time, Richter’s solo cello moving against an electronic score, introduces the ticking of a clock which seems to beat almost in parallel with the movements of arms and legs and against which the dancers fade away, like shadows.

The theme of solitude and the flamboyant acts of human lives in their shout out against the inevitability of death on the vast canvas of the universe, is continued in the last piece Tuesday. Again Alessandra Ferri stands alone yet proud as Gillian Anderson reads Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter. ‘I can’t fight any longer’ slowly loses volume against Richter’s undulating flutes and clarinets and Ferri is caught between the almost static swells of Deepres’ waves and the continuous rise of the human ones that break and fall around her. As children play, giving us the kaleidoscopic structure at the heart of The Waves, she is moved like an undercurrent by the other dancers, passed between them like a tumultuous wave until we realise that Wayne McGregor might be painting a visual translation of the hidden psychologies in Woolf’s work- the tiny threads of inner monologues, thoughts and feelings, splintering out like cracks in ice to link up with a universal life force. The movements mirroring that of the sea, are body thoughts.

Depicting depression, internal worlds, inabilities to communicate one’s own experience set against vast universes, what is left one may ask? Well Virginia Woolf’s authorial voice is a continuing presence, and ladders set on the sides of the stage with lights atop, never lets us forget, in Tuesday at least, that this is a performance too. So this is what is left, the innumerable multitudinous ways to capture and express life. Suicide and madness maybe a prevailing theme, sadness one of the underlying emotions, but in the end the overall message is one of courage- of light into dark, sound into silence, movement against stasis, word set on blank page and life where there is death.


Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

Woolf Works Show Info

Produced by Royal Ballet

Directed by Wayne McGregor

Choreography by Wayne McGregor




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.