It might seem an odd notion to base a dance performance on three novels by Virginia Woolf, but Wayne McGregor is a choreographer who makes his own rules. He proves that great prose can inspire and captivate in the same way that the rhythmic flow of lyrical poetry can.
Woolf Works was premiered to huge acclaim in 2015 and is divided into three sections: ‘I Now, I Then’ is based on the themes in Mrs Dalloway; ‘Becomings’ takes its cues from the surreal wit & vitality of Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ is inspired by The Waves, Woolf’s most experimental novel.
This final section is also named after the heading to the suicide note Woolf left for her husband. This letter, which begins “I feel certain that I’m going mad again”, is beautifully read by Gillian Anderson as a preface to the profoundly moving conclusion.
The revival of these pieces was a hot ticket at The Royal Opera House but has now reached a wider audience thanks to a live worldwide broadcast in over 1,500 cinemas and more than 35 countries on February 8th 2017.
McGregor makes this awkwardness part of the performance. After this, I saw a thrilling live performance of MacGregor’s Random Dance company at the Ravenna Festival in 2011. Here again the dancers looked like they were expressing something personal; telling their own stories.
McGregor says there is no such thing as abstract dance, insisting that there is always some form of narrative; a story to be told. It therefore makes perfect sense that he should be drawn to the fiction of Virginia Woolf and explains why he set himself the challenge of presenting key elements from her novels through the wordless medium of music and movement.
The choice of score helps brings a special dimension to the work. I have loved Max Richter‘s music since his second album The Blue Notebooks in 2004. This featured beautiful yet haunting piano based ambient pieces interspersed with short readings by Tilda Swinton taken from Polish poet Czeslaw Miloss and Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Then, as now, Richter’s compositions frequently begin as quiet minimalist pieces before slowly building to create a richer and more complex tableau.
This is not the first time Richter has worked with MacGregor but it must surely rank as the highpoint of their collaboration so far. His music perfectly complements the vibrancy and fluidity of the body language while being constantly underpinned by melancholy refrains. The contrasts match what we know of Woolf’s character. In her writings she could be free and fearless yet in conventional society she often appeared nervous and ill at ease.
Virginia Woolf’s novels and essays retain a contemporary significance even though they were written almost a century ago. She had an intuitive insight into the fears and foibles that make us human; showing how true strength stems from a recognition and acceptance of our weaknesses.
Water held a particular fascination for her, in both a physical and metaphorical sense. The ocean is the backdrop to two of her most celebrated and complex novels – To The Lighthouse and The Waves. A tragic footnote is that she chose to end her life by drowning.
I found the ‘Tuesday’ section of Woolf Works the most powerful. A slow motion black and white film of stormy waves provides a huge backdrop to the dancers which includes both adults and children. In spite of this, the focal point is always that of Alessandra Ferri as the body and soul of Woolf.
Ferri says that it seemed appropriate to play this role given that, at 59 years old, she happens to be the same age as Woolf was when she died. Her graceful body language and expressive face brings genuine depth to the part. Aging and death is at the heart of the closing section and recalls the opening in which Perri is also surrounded by younger, more agile dancers, notably the strikingly beautiful Beatrix Stix Burnell.
In ebb and flow of Richter’s score, the brilliance of the choreography together with the stamina and technique of the dancers all combine to bring real drama and poignancy to this memorable production.