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Woolf Works – Our House to Your House, The Royal Opera House

Reviewer: Helen Tope

 Director and Choreographer: Wayne McGregor

 A ballet told in three parts, Woolf Works melds together Virginia Woolf’s biography and creativity, bringing the woman and her fiction to life.

Directed and choreographed by the Royal Ballet’s Wayne McGregor, Woolf Works uses three novels – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves – to explore the issues that shaped Woolf’s writing.

The ballet begins with Mrs Dalloway. Told in the space of a single day, the novel outlines Clarissa Dalloway’s life as she prepares for a party. Her friends Sally and Peter are invited, and Clarissa starts to reminisce about their younger days. An interplay of sexuality; Clarissa, Peter and Sally dance across the stage, playful and teasing. They are watched from the shadows by Alessandra Ferri, who takes on the role of Virginia Woolf herself. Woolf is invited to join them, and Woolf becomes lost not only in the youth of her characters, but her own. Born into a bohemian elite, Woolf’s life promised to be endless summer days. But after being sexually abused by her stepbrother, and experiencing the early death of her mother, Woolf had the first in a series of breakdowns.

In exploring the impact of trauma, McGregor’s ballet weaves together Woolf’s real and imagined worlds. We meet another character, the war veteran Septimus Smith (played by Edward Watson). Experiencing PTSD, Watson illustrates this with stretching, frantic movements. Woolf watches; numb, catatonic. She knows only too well that Smith is caught in a cycle he cannot break out of.

The ballet not only looks at Woolf’s mental health. Emerging from a damaged childhood, Virginia lived and wrote in a bubble of artists and creatives that existed outside of society’s norms.

In Act II, Orlando begins with the scratching of a pen. Woolf’s novel – a tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West – sees her main character defy mortality. Moving from Tudor England to the Roaring Twenties, the ballet dares to imagine a place for Orlando beyond the confines of the book. Natalia Osipova dances onto a black stage, with just a streak of white light running across it. A pure beam of thought – Orlando’s journey through the centuries. Max Richter’s score moves into pounding electronica as the choreography shifts into contemporary shapes and expressionistic lines.

We join Orlando in Elizabethan England, and Moritz Junge’s costumes show a golden Tudor aristocracy moving into avant-garde automaton, as the ruffs and doublets give way to a more androgynous look. In the novel, Orlando changes sex, becoming female. Woolf insinuates that neither sex for Orlando is a perfect fit. S/he is elsewhere. As the dancers begin to blend with each other, the ballet suggests that while Woolf may not have had the terminology to hand, what she created in Orlando was a non-binary character, travelling through time and space.

McGregor finishes the triptych with Woolf’s novel, The Waves. Her most experimental work, Woolf’s novel blurs the line between poetry and prose. We move into a looser, elegiac dance as Gillian Anderson in voiceover reads the suicide note left by Woolf in 1941. Ferri dances one last time with her husband and her younger self. Ferri’s characterisation of Woolf – a woman longing to be in the centre of things, but always on the edge of life – is beautifully realised. The company swirl around her, as a watery projection plays on a screen behind them.

Danced by some of ballet’s biggest names – Watson, Hayward, Lamb and Ferri – McGregor’s starry triptych dazzles completely and convincingly. But more than that, Woolf Works illuminates the heart of the novels. Fiercely intelligent and darkly complex, the ballet explores the emotional gaps in Woolf’s writing: what was never fully articulated.

In its linking of mind and body, creativity and doubt, Woolf Works shows us how Woolf used writing to make sense of her fractured world. Woolf understood the value of art and its ability to transform. For her, art was not an irrelevance, a commodity or indulgence. It was a lifeline.

Available here until 10 July 2020

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A starry triptych

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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