Saturday, 18 February 2017

'Woolf Works' at The Royal Opera House

Two weeks ago we went to see the thirteenth performance of 'Woolf Works' by Wayne McGregor and the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. This is the first revival of the production that I first saw in 2015 (which was the sixth ever performance). Four days later we also went to see this production at the cinema as it was broadcast live and co-hosted by Darcy Bussell. Yes, it definitely is worth seeing a mere days later and it was a pleasant surprise to see so many close-ups on the big screen.

'Woolf Works' was the first production I saw at the Royal Opera House and my introduction to the Royal Ballet and holds a very special place for me. It also features Alessandra Ferri, who helped create the leading role with Wayne McGregor in 2015. Alessandra is one of those rare creatures, a Prima Ballerina Assoluta. And, of course, she trained with the Royal Ballet and danced with it in the 1980s. She has astonishing poise and skill and is a joy to watch.

'Woolf Works' is a series of three ballets based on three of Virginia Woolf's novels, in order, 'Mrs Dalloway', 'Orlando' and 'The Waves' and named 'I now, I then', 'Becomings' and 'Tuesday'. The programme opens with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about the English language and words in the only recording of her voice with words projected on the screen and coalescing into her portrait as the curtain rises.

'I now, I then' opens with Alessandra Ferri standing still on the stage with three huge rectangles of wood slowly turning on the stage, sometimes in unison and sometimes at different speeds, and Clarrisa Dalloway is there amongst the sounds of London as the music starts. We see Clarissa as a middle aged woman and as a teenager with friends Peter and Sally, dancing their joys, and sometimes the older Clarrisa gets lost in her memories as she prepares for her party. We also get Septimus and Rezia, and even Evans who died in the trenches who does a dazzling solo as he spins round and round the stage at great speed, vanishing into the shadows at the back of the stage. Septimes's death is quite a shock as he falls from the window and the lights go out.

It's lovely to see the young Clarissa and Sally dance their joy, occasionally joined by the young Peter and, once, by the older Clarissa in memory. The music is perfect for this romantic and quite narrative dance and it was lovely, seeing it on the big screen, to see how they looked at each other as they danced. Sally in all her flighty blondness flitting around the stage, fearless and full of life, the love that Clarissa couldn't marry.

It really is a gorgeous ballet I want to see again.

'Becomings' is a different creature entirely but still telling the tale of Woolf and her worlds. Orlando was born male in the time of Elizabeth but wakes up one morning as female and immortal as she travels down the centuries. The book has been described as the longest love letter, from Virginia to Vita Sackville-West, and while there are some slow and tender moments in the ballet, I remember speed and movement, lasers and electronic music, shiny costumes flashing and lights darting as the maze of dancers spin around and leap and glide.

In several places the action takes place in the spotlight, with dancers leaping into the spotlight to take their turn and then leap out for others to take their place, constant movement, constant sharing of the stage and all impeccably done. And we had Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb dancing together in a world of their own.

One thing that stunned me was that at several points it seemed that everyone on stage was moving to their own dance, moving and twirling across the stage in different formations. How can they maintain such concentration that the movements of the dancers beside them don't affect their own dancing. This isn't just physically rigorous, but mentally rigorous too. This is why these are some of the best dancers in the world.

The stage had a covering of some shiny material during 'Becomings' to create a mirror image to most of the dancing and it was terribly effective - not the whole stage, simply the middle half so the reflections didn't outstay their welcome. And neither did the stabbing spotlights or the lasers that shot out around the auditorium (something we didn't see in the big screen version).

The final ballet was 'Tuesday', based on 'The Waves', with its backdrop of slow motion waves projected on the back of the stage and the constant movement of the dancers. This ballet was preceded by Gillian Anderson reading Virginia Woolf's suicide letter to her husband, Leonard, which got rapt attention in the auditorium. Once again, Alessandra took the lead role in this ballet, with Federico Bonelli and Sarah Lamb.

The constant movement, imitating waves on the seashore, keep the whole piece flowing and moving. Early on, the children from the Royal Ballet School joined their heroes on stage to play on the beach  with shrieks of laughter mixing with the seagulls as they played on the shore. And then the waves crashed again and the dancers appeared out of the shadows.

The repetition was mesmerising, almost transcendent as the dancers moved and created patterns on the stage, appearing and disappearing into the shadows at the back of the stage under the projection of the waves.  You know the tide has changed when the dancers started forming patterns based on waves as they sweep into the shore and then back again into the shadows , time and again as the tide goes out and fewer dancers grace the stage, then fewer still. And night falls.

'Tuesday' is a lovely, gentle ballet with some romantic movements and some narrative twists, that creates a marvellous experience, perfectly matched by the music and lighting on that simple and bare stage.

'Woolf Works' is a marvellous exercise in dance and marries together the music by Max Richter, the lighting and staging. It works as a whole with each element complementing the next. Most of the music is available on CD from Max Richter, 'Three Worlds' and I'm listening to it as I type.

I think 'Woolf Works' is included in the programme of ballets on the Royal Ballet's summer tour this year so see it if you possibly can. I will patiently await it's next revival and will be there to see it at the Royal Opera House. I wonder if Alessandra will take her role again in that revival? I do hope so.

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