REVIEW: Woolf Works

We were so excited to be able to attend opening night of this special season (thanks, QPAC!). Performing in Australia for the first time in fifteen years, the Royal Ballet was always going to be spectacular. Wayne McGregor is well-known across the world for his contemporary choreography, often integrated with film and visual art, and it was such a pleasure to experience his unique creative work.

The first Act – I Then, I Now, based on Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway – opened with a swirling visual of words playing across the scrim and a recording of Woolf’s voice, reading from her essay Craftsmanship. The tone of the piece moved across the spectrum, from playful to sober to harrowing, and juxtaposed love, war and passion. Simple, slowly rotating props that the dancers interacted with brought an extra element to the piece, as did the sporadic video that played over the top at different times throughout.

Renowned prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri was, unsurprisingly, the standout dancer in this piece as Clarissa, although the others certainly held their own against the technically flawless star. Many ballerinas retire well before their mid-50’s, and while Ferri did retire temporarily in 2007 she has been performing again since 2013. A legend whose performance well and truly lived up to her reputation, she danced with incredible emotion and stunning classical technique. Edward Watson also shone in this piece, dancing with amazing expressiveness as the shell-shocked Septimus.

Act 2 was a change of pace – Becomings is based on Woolf’s Orlando, in which a poet changes sex and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history. Edgier, and with a distinctly futuristic, even dystopian, feel, Becomings utilised smoke effects and neon laser lights as the dancers performed the sharp, almost erratic movements of the demanding choreography. Black, gold and flesh costumes changed as the piece progressed, leaving the audience feeling that they were somewhere between Elizabethan England and an inner city nightclub…in a good way.

The third and final Act, Tuesday, was supposedly based on Woolf’s most experimental work, The Waves, and began with another recording – this time, Gillian Anderson reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note as the scrim rose. The dancing itself showed the central character – Alessandra Ferri, returning to the stage and impressing once again with perfect poise and emotional movement – experiencing wave after wave of other dancers, supposedly representing Woolf’s life flashing before her as she drowns, while a film of waves breaking in slow motion played in the background. With more dancers on stage at once than in the previous two Acts, McGregor’s choreography created exquisite moments of stillness even within the seething mass of movement, a scene of chaos in which everything went exactly to plan.

I was, to be honest, a little disappointed at the use of Woolf’s suicide as a seeming focal point of the third piece, when up until that point the focus seemed to be more on her work (although both previous pieces touched on elements of her life, especially I Then, I Now). For a woman who is considered to be one of the greatest writers of her time and left behind an impressive body of work, it is a shame that the focus always comes back to the fact that she took her own life.

It is always a special joy to see a ballet performed with live music – Max Richter’s original score was performed beautifully, as always, by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Koen Kessel, the Royal Ballet’s Music Director.

Woolf Works is a visual feast for the audience, although Woolf enthusiasts expecting something more true to her novels may be disappointed in that sense. The triptych treads a fine line and ultimately maintains the perfect balance of experimental contemporary choreography, executed with the high level of classical technique that audiences would expect from a company of such high calibre. I would certainly go and see it again!

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