I was lost for words when Owen told me he had booked tickets for the Royal Ballet's WOOLF WORKS at Covent Garden. I just couldn't grasp it... three short ballets based on MRS DALLOWAY, ORLANDO and THE WAVES? How could this be? What can there be of Woolf without her writing, it's rhythms and the power to connect moments of her life with ours. How could this succeed robbed of her words? It was with this air of quiet bafflement that I took my very good seat in that most sumptuously decadent of London auditoriums and the light lowered as the curtain raised...
Within seconds my central question was resolutely answered. Virginia's voice sounded out, steady and strong in her only recorded piece for the BBC in 1937, talking about the difficulty with trying to find new forms of writing when English words are so over-familiar through being used again and again. As we listened, her writing appeared on a screen, meshing and re-forming into a likeness of Virginia then coming apart again. It was as if choreographer Wayne McGregor was saying that if words have lost their imaginative use then their must be other ways.
The first in the triptych was I NOW, I THEN based on the main characters in MRS DALLOWAY and the atmosphere and mood of the story. Again after a few minutes not only did the penny drop but I found myself deeply involved. This was helped by Lucy Carter's sombre lighting, the hazy video projections of London as seen through a dream and the striking set design of Cigué, 3 wooden oblongs that rotated slowly to open up new vistas and configurations, occasionally revealing a new dancer as if from nowhere.
The hypnotic Alessandra Ferri, returned from retirement, danced the role of Clarissa Dalloway and as the title suggests, she was joined onstage by Francesca Hayward as the younger Clarissa who danced with Beatriz Stix-Brunell as the quicksilver Sally Seton and Gary Avis as the younger Peter Walsh, the older Peter was danced by Federico Bonelli. Max Richter's intriguing score kept returning to the chiming of Big Ben, ticking clocks and watches, all suggesting Woolf's subject of time, the past and memory.
Edward Watson enthralled as he interpreted McGregor's disjointed choreography as the shell-shocked Septimus Smith partnered by Akane Takada as his despairing wife Rezia. In a marvellous visual cue, the stage was bathed in a warm reddish light when he danced with Tristan Dyer as Evans, his dead friend from the trenches.
What was good about WOOLF WORKS was that each of the three sections felt totally different, the only connection being the source novelist. Totally different in tone was BECOMINGS, the second of the three and based on ORLANDO. Twelve dancers appeared on a darkened stage as an overhead spotlight searched them, their golden costumes gleaming as it swept around them as if trying to find a single person. It finally alighted on one and the dancers soon started dancing in pairs, male and female, again suggesting Woolf's theme of gender confusion.
After a second interval - each about the same length as the actual dance pieces themselves - oh and after a second wild strawberry champagne cocktail (I LIKE Covent Garden), it was time for the last of the three, TUESDAY (based on THE WAVES) as the curtain rose on a bare stage apart from a long screen on which a slow film of crashing waves played.
Gillian Anderson was then heard reading Virginia's heartbreaking suicide letter to Leonard and, as usual when confronted with it, I soon had tears running down my face. Beautifully read by Anderson and with nothing on stage to distract from the words it was incredibly powerful. It affects for many reasons: the private nature of a suicide letter to a husband by a writer who always strove to find new ways of describing life, the sheer beauty of the writing even though the content is so tragic, that in describing all she knew she shared with Leonard was not enough to stop Virginia from doing what she did to end her losing battle with her insanity.
Alessandra Ferri was magnificent as the spirit of Woolf, painfully moving through her duet with Federico Bonelli, his attempts to hold her and keep her aloft ending with her escaping away, her sheer force of personality filling the auditorium. They were joined on stage by children dancing with Sarah Lamb, again Ferri interacting with a dancer playing her younger self, for the children to vanish into an ensemble of dancers who filled the stage with slow, sinuous movement which culminated in Ferri joining them, at first moving on her own but slowly becoming one with their repeated moves, as if subsumed by the rhythm of the waves.
Slowly the ensemble pulled away, moving forward and back, forward and back as Richter's moving composition for strings reached it's climax as Bonelli carried Ferri for the last time to slowly lower her on to the stage to retreat away with the others. It was powerful, emotional, impossibly moving. She deserved every minute of her extended ovation, as indeed did her fellow dancers.
At the start of this year, Owen suggested that this should be a year of discovering new cultural things to see and on the back of this visit, Owen has indeed booked to see two more non-Matthew Bourne ballets. I suspect however that nothing will come close to the emotional tour-de-force of Wayne McGregor's WOOLF WORKS.