01
Jul
17

Woolf Works

 

Woolf Works

Royal Ballet

QPAC Lyric Theatre

June 29 – July 9 2017

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

Memory is the seamstress and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needles in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the ink stand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting…

Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)

 

Don’t think of the shapes…think of the transitions. That is where dance happens.

Wayne McGregor, Resident Choreographer, Royal Ballet, cited by Drusilla Modjeska

 

The Waves

Tuesday

 

This is what I imagine drowning to be…

 

Perhaps there is terror and panic too, and pain and sorrow, but mostly this peace and gentle release.

We know Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse, the one death she acknowledged she would never describe, but when the third act curtain goes up on Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works we’re struck with the immensity of the sea, as if we’re on the deck of a great ship surging forward, or standing on the shore watching it go. Wave after wave crashes towards us in slow motion, in a prelude to the dancers’ lane work, spanning the entire length of the Lyric’s back wall, with everything stripped from the space, leaving only lighting, the sea above and at first, the one tiny dancer below (Ravi Deepres Film & Daniel Brodie Projection). The continuous slow motion of the waves is mesmerising, and the dancers emerge from that eternity.

 

 

The sea – a man (Federico Bonelli) – appears from the darkness to embrace the woman, Virginia Woolf (Alessandra Ferri) and supporting her, he takes her deeper and deeper into her death dreams. The children she never had jump rope and skim stones, their movements are the essence of innocence and the sense of play we lose. They dance to cleverly tie reef knots in their ropes to join them, holding them aloft, encircling her, and disappearing from sight…

A desire for the children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the senses of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily…

The company of dancers, the sea, wearing barely-there, incredibly delicate coral designs over their faces to make the milliner friends nod in appreciation, and zippered collared vests or long sleeves of fine transparent black, in a stunning ensemble sequence that plays out like a highly sophisticated open Viewpoints session, filling the space around her, surging and spilling across the stage – and if we’re watching a particular sequence it seems to be repeated, and then not – the dancers are in continuously changing configurations, pairs and trios, rolling and dipping and diving and floating and lifting, supporting. Always supporting, making death by drowning the most beautifully paced, poetic and protected way to go, as long as you’ve had it choreographed by McGregor and directed by Kevin O’Hare.

The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me…

I feel like that moment is actually in the score, after a powerful climax that literally dissolves into the sound of waves and a single searing violin over the repeated notes, repeating and repeating… And then suddenly, but not unexpectedly, just as death might come, nothingness. The movement swells and dissolves with it. I exhale softly, slowly. There’s a truly magical collective moment of complete stillness before thunderous applause breaks it, and we become part of the sea on the other side of the curtain, out front; a full house on their feet for the company and creatives of London’s Royal Ballet.

 

 

Max Richter’s 21-minute composition echoes the earlier sounds of In the garden and Meeting again (from part 1 of the triptych), and Gillian Anderson’s voice, reading Woolf’s final words, brings to the work the immeasurable sadness of the strings before they are reintroduced into the score. It’s so difficult to express the surge of feeling brought about by this piece in particular, the eerie, exquisite sadness of a solo soprano voice soaring over the relentless, sweet and sweeping melody, and yet, undeniably, there is bliss at its core, and at the centre of this work, which sees the life-death-life cycle of a woman, but also of the collective creative energy of all the disparate parts of a show, perfectly – actually perfectly – realised on stage.

 

Orlando

Becomings

Again, a voiceover sharing Woolf’s words sets the middle piece in motion, a single searchlight dances over androgynous individuals in gold and black; Baroque puffed pants, the top of a farthingale – is it a wheeldrum? – at some waists and ruffs at some necks. The overall appearance (Moritz Junge Costume Design) is of the most beautifully carved and polished and cherished chess pieces in the multiverses.

 

 

Richter’s score takes a sci-fi turn, with 80s-until-forever electronica and epic strings to take us through time and space, as the 1993 film did. This is rich, detailed, apparently typically McGregor choreography (I’ve not seen his previous work), dabbing and flicking and leaping. To my delight the same sassy motif, quickened, returns at times throughout the piece. There is a sense of urgency juxtaposed against the elasticity of time, and power and fragility, however; it’s not at all fragile. The choreography for Becomings is a new set of creative contradictions. Unlike the more narrative works that bookend this one, it’s an exploration of a more angular and frenetic physical vocabulary, of exciting ways to transfer bodies through space.

Carter’s laser beams cut through the haze, creating sky and sea and oil and water in a heady swirl of changing coloured lights, and delineating dance spaces to show us the Great Hall of an ancient-contemporary court. The flurry of more angular, geometric movement patterns creates the illusion of many more bodies in the space than there could possibly be, and the piece finishes with a Royal Court dance that could almost sweep us away and into the midst of it.

 

 

Like the voice of the cello in Richter’s The explorers, once again we are struck with the importance of genuine connections, however momentary, and the necessity of sitting with feelings of inexplicable loss before being lifted into another dimension, the sounds reverberating, echoing, the dancers appearing and disappearing, spinning and bending and over-extending between channels of shimmering light… I tell Poppy and Veronika, it’s Tron Wizard Chess, complete with frickin’ laser beams. They get the Harry Potter reference. Oh well. It’s the most abstract of the three works and it’s exhilarating, although not to everyone’s liking, if we’re to note the boredom and frustration of the eighty-something sir sitting beside me.

 

Mrs Dalloway

I Now, I Then

 

She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged.

 

The sound of waves and the sounds of the city merge into a single memory the next day.

We hear Virginia Woolf’s voice (yes, it’s her voice, recorded in 1937), “splendid”, speaking about words, as we see words and words and words, handwritten, projected across the space, foreshadowing images of the city and its flawed characters… Alessandra Ferri, a lithe beauty in her fifties, absolutely exquisite, clad in delicate gold lace, is Mrs Dalloway, on the eve of her party, moving between memories, her younger self (Beatrix Stix-Brunell) dancing out the daydream of a love affair with her friend, Sally (Francesca Hayward), which was never allowed to blossom as we see here that, under different circumstances, it might have.

Richter’s In the garden is sweet and sonorous, featuring piano, cello, violin; the voices of the innocent, the young and joyful and unaffected, and the older and pensive, perhaps regretful, perhaps hopeful, but not. Under the baton of Tom Seligman, the artists of Queensland Symphony Orchestra have outdone themselves, and if there were no ballet, we would be transformed just listening. We would close our eyes and let our minds wander, and let our hearts rest. At some stage, when QSO repeat a performance of this score, you must be there to experience for yourself, the magic of music of this intricacy and gravity, played by musicians of this calibre. The second International Series work, The Winter’s Tale, will have at the helm, QSO Music Director, Allondra de la Parra.

War anthem is sombre, desperately sad, offering us the story of war-ruined Septimus Smith (Edward Watson), who teeters between life and trauma, and finally, at the edge of his window before leaping to his death, having loved and lost Evans (Tristan Dyer). Their pas de deux demonstrates the strength and vulnerability of the human body, the heart, the spirit, and reminds us that deep connections are worthwhile, despite the inevitable pain when connections are lost. We hear this moment too, before the clock strikes and the characters from Woolf’s memories convene, and sway and twist and move together, in and out of time. A gorgeous sassy move continues to be repeated now and then, bringing the same sense of playfulness and sensuality from the opening sequence to the simple act of being and breathing together in the end.

Incredible design by Cigue places three towering and independently revolving shadow boxes on stage, through which the dancers move, and stop in repose and watchfulness at times. Lucy Carter’s golden lighting, cast across the architectural structures, and creating cold shadows in this segment, is so starkly different to the laser beams of the second piece, that it could be the work of another creative. But as the production demands, these creatives have moved fluidly across the literary works, and Becomings is something entirely new and different.

Dramaturg, theatre director Uzma Hamed, never lets us get entirely lost, though we may wander between our own memories, and remembrances of Woolf’s works, and simply appreciate Becomings for the abstract beauty that it is. You must read Hamed’s notes, included in the best-value-for-money souvenir and literary/history lesson masquerading as a program ever to be offered in a foyer, which explain the answer to the original question asked when this production was announced in 2014, ‘why Woolf?’

– because she renders, like no one else, the insoluble paradox at the heart of our human existence: life and death, body and spirit, ‘granite and rainbow’.

Uzma Hameed

 

Woolf Works is superbly realised, beautifully crafted and delivered, and sees us reconsidering the power and splendour and possibility of text-inspired narrative dance.

Our outstanding Australian dancers in this production are:

Steven McRae, Alexander Campbell, Benjamin Ella, Calvin Richardson and Harry Churches

 

Production pics by Darren Thomas

 

If you are int he UK or if it interests you to find a way to watch online, Woolf Works will be broadcast on July 9 on BBC Four.

 

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