Saturday, 23 May 2015

'Woolf Works' at the Royal Opera House

'Woolf Works' is the latest production from the Royal Ballet being staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. That's a lot of 'royals' in one sentence. I'm not a big fan of ballet but, following on from the exhibition about Virginia Woold last year at the National Portrait Gallery, I wanted to see what they would do with a Woolf-themed ballet. And they did wonderfully well!

A lot of money has obviously been spent on the Royal Opera House. It has great access, thick carpets, great lighting and stairs, an incredibly light and airy champagne bar with an arched glass roof and, from my experience last night, some excellent staff (well done to whoever deals with customer care). It was a delight to be there (and I don't say that of every theatre I go to!). The main theatre space is equally impressive with seats with lots of leg room and, at least where I was sitting, great sight lines to the stage. Gosh, this is fun, I thought as I waited for the show to begin, having absolutely no idea what to expect other than there were three ballets and two half times. And that was part of the joy, the not knowing.

The lights went down and a voice starts talking about words, about how the English language is old and all the words have been out and about and used so often… and that was Virginia Woolf speaking, a recording from a radio broadcast she made in the 1930s. For there she was. Virginia was with us. Her handwriting was projected onto the stage that then coalesced into the classic portrait of the young Virginia Stephen in the National Portrait Gallery. This was replaced by old photos of London, starting with the street sign for Dean's Yard and moving up Whitehall and we were into 'Mrs Dalloway'. What a stunning and imaginative way to start.

The first performance was 'I Now, I Then' about 'Mrs Dalloway' with a bare stage with three giant wooden squares slowly, ever so slowly, rotating on their own axes. And on comes the 50 year old Clarissa waiting for her party and joined by her younger self, dancing together and apart. We meet Peter Walsh, again an older and younger version and, of course, Septimus and Rezia all taking turns centre stage, dancing in-between the turning buildings with lots of walking and moving around London as in the book. And what a joy to have Sally Seton bound onto the stage to interrupt Clarissa's dance with her younger self, the elfin free-spirit that is Sally. We don't see the mature Sally, the mother of five 'strapping boys', she is always the girl who stole a kiss and created possibilities.

Round and round they go, the clock ticking and the music carrying them forward. Septimus dances with Rezia but then his old army comrade appears, his dead comrade that only he can see, and the tone changes. Sweeping on and off stage, keeping the tale moving, going on towards a party because there is a party y'know. Old and young Peter taking their turn, with older Peter wearing a jacket so he has a pocket to keep his pen-knife in. And still the giant wooden squares turn and the clock ticks and London life continues as it always does.

And the lights went out and the curtain came down and I clapped and clapped, waiting for those magical creatures on the stage to come out for their rightful applause. The curtain stayed down so we headed to the big bar (obv).

Half an hour later we were back in our seats for 'Becomings' or the tale of 'Orlando'. Orlando is a young man who turns into a woman against an Elizabethan backdrop of courtly intrigue and opulence, frost fairs on the Thames and Russian aristocrats dropping pearls like lice. Orlando wakes up as a woman and travels through the centuries, immortal and eternal. Most of the dancing is in male/female pairs, showing the duality of nature, sometimes energetic and wild and other times slow and stately.

The music was excellent in this section, mixing classical and electronic with one movement building to a crescendo that I could feel in my stomach and made me look around expecting the plaster to start dropping from the ceiling and walls. It didn't. But as the play progressed the dancers wore less and less, moving from the gold Elizabethan costumes to wearing grey body suits.

Time passes and there are star bursts on the stage with high spotlights shining down from the stars through which the dancers leap and pose in a  wild frenzy, quicker and quicker as you try to take it all in and utterly fail. It was most spectacular and a great way to send us out for another 30 minute interval while the stage was reset for the final ballet.

'Tuesday' was the final section and was from 'The Waves', a bare stage with a big image of waves crashing onto the shore above the stage. The constant movement of this section, along with the music, imitating the movement of waves crashing and lolling about, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, doing as they please and as the tide dictates. Dancers slowly emerging from the darkened back of the stage, dancing and interacting before moving back and disappearing into the dark. At one point the stage was full of children playing in the sand and surf and then they move on to be replaced again by waves.

It was the shortest of the three ballets but possibly the most affecting due to the constant wave-like movement that sticks in the mind. The dancers running out in a raggedy line and the slowly moving backwards a few steps, just like waves, as the tide gradually recedes and the dancers move two steps forward and three steps backwards, gradually disappearing in the gloom at the back of the stage. It was mesmerising. And then it was over and time to clap clap clap as we were finally allowed to pay tribute.

Wow. I was stunned. I was drawn in in a way that doesn't often happen in the theatre but these folks did it. I was thinking this morning on the way to work, to the mundane after the magic of last night, what is ballet? It's dancing, obviously, but it's so much more. It's the entire experience of being in that theatre at that time with all those people both on and off the stage. It's the scenery and staging, it's the costumes that illustrate the story, it's the lighting and music that help to transport you… and the dancers.  It's everything put together in the right measures and that is Art.

I loved the whole thing. The first thing I did on getting home was to go online to see if there were tickets for future performances and sadly (for me) there aren't. It's sold out. But I'm pleased to be able to see that I saw the sixth ever public performance of 'Woolf Works' by the Royal Ballet - yes, the programme is that detailed. It was choreographed and directed by Wayne McGregor and the excellent music was by Max Richter and I will be watching out for them in future. Thank you.

I saw magic in that there Royal Opera House and I will return.

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