Friday, May 22, 2015

Review of Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, May 13, 2015

Word: Gesture: Language: Dance

I’ve been reading all the reviews I can find of Woolf Works, the new ballet by Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet (see list of links to reviews below), and while they teach me much about the music, sets, and chorographical style, the one thing they do not seem to encompass fully is the relationship of the dance to the works of Virginia Woolf.  I had the pleasure of seeing the ballet Wednesday, May 13, and have been thinking about it ever since.  Talking it over with my friend Ellen McLaughlin, who accompanied me to the performance, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a thoughtful and detailed interpretation of Woolf, one which Woolf scholars and aficionados can celebrate and even learn from.

The ballet is a triptych: the first movement, “I Now, I Then,” responds to the narrative structure of Mrs. Dalloway; the second, “Becomings,” is a phantasmagorical riff on the many selves and genders invented and parodied in Orlando; the third, “Tuesday,” weaves a series of choruses in and out of the rhythm of The Waves towards the ultimate cessation of death.  Despite several reviewers who claim the dances are largely unrelated to each other, the trilogy is united by a series of subtle themes, all well-known to dedicated readers of Woolf: the relationship between past and present, the simultaneity of different versions of the self, the variability and reversibility of genders and relationships between genders, and perhaps most importantly a subtle over-arching understanding/ testing of the parallels between words and language, gesture and dance, emotion and motion. This last represents a serious philosophical contribution to an understanding of Woolf.

The first movement on Mrs. Dalloway provides an easy entrance to this new way of seeing Woolf through dance. Announcing the thematic centrality of the motion of words and of movement as a kind of vocabulary of emotion, the curtain opens with Woolf’s voice reading an excerpt from her essay on “Craftsmanship” about how words are stored and storied with a multitude of meanings built from association with other words over time, paired with a series of images of deletions from Woolf’s holograph manuscripts: words crossed through and therefore not said, which fly like birds into patterns that briefly coalesce into what one critic calls a “pointillist” vision of Woolf’s face, a breath-taking first glimpse of the delicately accurate impressionism of what will follow.

The scrim then rises to reveal a single dancer holding attention center stage: is it Woolf or Clarissa? Alessandra Ferri’s tensile strength and flexibility, her fragile and eloquent expressiveness are the polar star around which the entire triptych swings, the astonishing fact that she is 52 only adding to  the depth and resonance of her portrayal. She drops her coat to reveal a vaguely twenties style, transparent, embroidered dress.  What follows is a series of shifting pas-de-deux between different characters: Clarissa and Richard (or is it Leonard?); is it young Clarissa and Sally Seaton? Septimus and Evans, Peter and Sally, or is it the young Clarissa? And finally Septimus and Clarissa/Woolf. Photographic images of London are projected on large empty wooden squares, which turn into columns, stairs, rooms, or frames, suggesting a continual shift of perspectives and locations. A sudden tunneling into an image of the garden at Monk’s House prepares us for the shift back in time to the “I Then." I thought immediately of the passage from “A Sketch of the Past” where Woolf speaks of the past as a long avenue at the end of which lie “the garden and the nursery”; later I found the exact quotation in the Program, suggesting the evocation was deliberate. This kind of delicate and wide-ranging knowledge of Woolf is everywhere apparent in the play. One of the most breath-taking examples is at the beginning of the dance between Septimus and Clarissa where he supports her body, hanging from his arms like a tree with spread branches, while a misty image of tree leaves is projected behind the two of them, evoking the passages where Clarissa thinks of being “laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist” (MD 9) and where Septimus feels “the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body” (MD 22).*

Perhaps the most moving moments of the first dance have to do with Septimus.  Ed Watson’s rendition of trauma through the fragmentation and dis-articulation of movement is brilliant and heart-wrenching. As with many moments in the dance, I found myself reciting words from memory: in this case T.S. Eliot’s “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” The duet with the uniformed Evans figure adds a dimension of physical tenderness to the presentation of the relationship in the novel, which seems like a completely appropriate extension of the text, an intimate portrayal that will forever deepen and enrich my reading.  At the same time, like the female-to-female pas-de-deux between the young Clarissa and Sally, this dance plays with the heteronormative conventions of classical ballet, preparing us for the explosive pan-sexuality of the next dance.  The tenderness between the two men and the exuberance between the two women are eloquent variations on gender expectations.

The second dance, “Becomings,” departs from the narrative conventions of the first composition to emphasize the sheer stylistic exuberance and historical reach of Woolf’s novelized biography, Orlando.  The curtain opens on twelve figures, dressed in metallic, vaguely Renaissance doublets. As the spotlight moved from figure to figure, I thought of the passage where Orlando’s narrator muses on the great number of selves we all have and thought, ah, they are ALL Orlando.  Although traces of the narrative remain – a commanding black male dancer reminds us that it is Othello that is being performed during the Great Frost; a few passages across the stage remind us of skating across the ice – for the most part “Becomings” is about how “in every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what is above” (O 139).This fanciful mediation on sexuality is aided by the brilliant costuming: sheens of gold and black reflective fabric double as armour or silk as the dancers twirl and transmute themselves, female dancers leaping into sword fights, male dancers pirouetting high on toes and falling into arms, strength and grace catapulting from gender to gender. The flamboyant extensions and twists are lit by shifting rays of lasers in different colors, combining and refracting, the wooden boxes of the first dance now liberated into the insubstantial geometry of pure light. As the ballet comes to its pounding, climactic end, the lasers fan out into the audience: in a gesture similar to the end of the play in Between the Acts, we are included in the present moment.

After this display of sheer athleticism, “Tuesday,” the final movement, shifts into a softer lyricism inspired by The Waves and the inevitable associations with Woolf’s death engendered by the reading of her suicide note to Leonard.  Performed by three choruses of six, including one group of children as well as the principal dancers from previous episodes, this piece is a profound study of the rhythm of repetition and variation which provides a visual rendition of the musical form of The Waves, an eloquent and informed interpretation of her masterpiece.   Gestures – like physical words – are tossed from the Woolf figure to the various choruses who repeat and change and elaborate on them. The background image of waves in such slow motion that you can barely sense the passage of time emphasizes how the language of gesture from the previous ballets is here extended and modulated into a meditation on connection and disconnection.  The presence of the dancers from other episodes enhances the continuity of the triptych, perfectly evoking the autobiographical elements of Woolf’s novel and weaving it back into the fabric of her other works.   As the background motion of waves moves incrementally towards real time, the swayings and leanings, lifts and supports of the choruses enclose the central figure, carrying her into the waters of her imagination; many of the dancers are draped with shiny traces of kelp as they lower her under the waves and let her go, a gentle counterpart to the eviscerating moment of Septimus’s death in the first act.

This sketch of the dance can only catch and highlight moments of the complete performance, multidimensional in its masterful integration of sets, lighting, costumes, music, and choreography with a sensitive and intelligent understanding of Woolf that teaches us new ways to read her in motion and in time.  I am so grateful I had a chance to witness this and can only hope the Royal Ballet will make it a featured piece in its repertory so that more Woolfians can have a chance to experience this exuberant new reading.

*All quotations from the Harcourt Annotated editions of Woolf.




·      Edward Watson Rehearsing Septimus:
·       Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli rehearse Woolf Works:
·       A Conversation abt Woolf Works:

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