How might a novel be expressed through dance? That is the challenge posed by choreographer Wayne McGregor’s reimagining of Virginia Woolf in Woolf Works. Given the sheer diversity of style and scope in her oeuvre, this aim is an ambitious one which raises high expectations, especially after its earlier success in 2015.
So I was excited this week to see the compelling ballet led by Marianela Nuñez. The Royal Opera House held this discounted performance of Woolf Works on 8th March for Young ROH members (their access scheme for 16-25 year olds, which can be signed up to for free on their website). This meant that my friend and I were able to get tickets at a quarter of their usual price for our first time watching ballet there. Since Woolf is one of my favourite writers, I was looking forward to the staging of Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves in this ballet triptych from a literary perspective. It’s safe to say that McGregor’s layered meditation on memory and time did not disappoint.
The ballet opens with a recording of Woolf’s talk ‘On Craftsmanship’, originally made for the BBC. Its reflection on how ‘Words, English words, are full of echoes’ resounds into the performance, itself an enactment of their memories and associations. The performance is impressionist and often abstract, evoking Woolf’s own experimental use of form. The first act, an interpretation of Mrs Dalloway entitled ‘I now, I then’, steps from this speech – almost literally, as Nuñez (playing both Woolf and Mrs Dalloway) walks into the rippling screen of Woolf’s words that cascades upon the stage, her presence becoming their embodiment.
McGregor’s layered meditation on memory and time did not disappoint.
I loved this act for its sensitive poignancy and its soft transitions between Mrs Dalloway’s narrative and that of the shellshocked Septimus. Peter Walsh and Sally also intertwine the performance in Clarissa Dalloway’s nostalgic musings on her past loves against the tolling of a bell. A younger Mrs Dalloway dances with a joyously fearless Sally, who kisses her in a fierce embrace. The Septimus narrative also draws from queer readings and the choreography is heartbreakingly sad, with Septimus buffeted by the distorted voices, falling repeatedly only to be caught by the dead soldier Evans, before taking his final fall into darkness. These patterns anticipate Leonard’s support of Virginia in the last act, and the ambiguous boundaries between her and Mrs Dalloway highlight the biographical resonance in these portrayals of fragile mental health. Meanwhile, the staging is minimalist – three oblong wooden shapes in which characters perch, hide, or reappear, conveying questions about identity and presence. There are the shadow selves, waiting in the wings or just beyond the frame.
Orlando came next, with a strikingly different, almost frenetic mood, complete with electronic music and costumes of black and gold. Having seen Emma Corrin’s playful performance of Orlando in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation last year, I felt that this section (‘Becomings’) lacked the emotional force of the novel, which Nigel Nicolson once called ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’ and, despite all the flashing lights, some of its mischief. Nevertheless, it is clever and self-consciously modern, with its eye-catching laser projections underscoring the transgressive aspect of Woolf and making a case for her enduring appeal that invites further reinterpretation.
A recording of Gillian Anderson reading Woolf’s suicide note introduces the final act (‘Tuesday’), inspired by The Waves. This is a powerful line to take, though perhaps morbid – the extent to which Woolf must be defined by her death has always been problematic, although the note draws together earlier themes of grief and loss. Max Richter’s haunting score comes into its own here, supporting the water imagery conveyed by a background projection of turbulent seas, as well as the fluid waving motions of the dancers.
The Waves – Woolf’s radical ‘play-poem’ – is perhaps the work that most rewards an abstract reimagining and its motifs, such as circles and shapes suggesting flowers or petals, figure prominently in the choreography. At one of my favourite points, the dancers gather near pale circles of light, leaping into them in turn, as though each is striving to fulfil their transitory moments and yet reaching for something just beyond. McGregor emphasises his weaving of biographical aspects into this reinterpretation of her works and, having presented her struggle with ‘madness’, the last image lays her gently down upon the floor. This is drowning, we know, yet one can hope this may be dreaming too.
Staging Woolf in ballet is a difficult endeavour, but one that this performance executes with confidence. This is Nuñez’s debut as Woolf/Mrs Dalloway, and she brings a melancholy hopefulness to the role(s) that gradually gives way to quiet despair. We left the theatre feeling dazzled and moved, if rather confused about some of the references in the second half. My friend’s impression was perhaps more intriguing since she was unfamiliar with Woolf. As a photography student, she admired how the fractured video montage (by Ravi Deepres) of London scenes in the Mrs Dalloway section keyed into themes of everyday fear and disillusionment.
For me, Woolf Works expressed the innovative spirit of Woolf, though at times I wished it had just a little more heart. It is well worth a viewing, if only for the adventurous and interesting ways in which this ballet illuminates Virginia Woolf.