Woolf Works opens with a recording of Virginia Woolf herself reading from her lecture On Craftsmanship, “Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations …”. If the purpose of ballet is ultimately communication, Wayne McGregor has set himself a problem: how is it possible to add to what Virginia Woolf has already said with words in the three books that inspire the ballet? The depth and density of Woolf’s writing as she moves in and out of the minds of her characters cannot be directly replicated in dance, but by taking themes in the novels as a jumping-off ground, McGregor and his dancers are able to use movement to delve into the human psyche.

The first act, I now, I then, inspired by Mrs Dalloway, is the least successful of the three, falling somewhat uncomfortably between a narrative and a purely expressive approach. Although according to the cast list the dancers are not cast in particular roles, it is impossible for anyone who has read the book not to think of them in terms of particular characters. The thoughts and memories of Clarissa (played by Alessandra Ferri) are embodied by other dancers. Francesca Hayward lights up the stage as Sally Seton, Gary Avis as Richard Dalloway epitomises a certain kind of dull British self-restraint, and Edward Watson’s extraordinarily supple body conveys the anguish of both Woolf’s and Septimus’ mental illness, but McGregor has not found a way to tell us about Septimus’ wife Rezia through movement, or to explain that the point about Evan’s death is that Septimus cannot feel its tragedy, rather than that he can. In the cinema, I now, I then seemed almost like a ‘chamber’ piece, as the camera focussed on first one and then another dancer or couple, but when I saw the ballet on the stage, I realised that McGregor’s choreography is so intense and detailed that screen director Ross MacGibbon had found the best way to show the dancers as they moved in and out of the huge ‘pages’ that form the set.

The second act, Becomings, based on the outrageous adventures of Orlando, returns to more familiar McGregor territory. It feels like a different ballet. The outstanding cast, which for both of these performances included Sarah Lamb, Stephen McRae, Natalia Osipova and Eric Underwood, gave breathtakingly exciting virtuoso performances. The scene opens in darkness, before lighting designer Lucy Carter uses a shaft of yellow light to pick out each dancer or small group in turn, and they embark on a glitzy parade of black net, gold lamé, ruffs and cross-dressing through time and gender accompanied by Max Richter’s dazzling score. There are allusions to history, such as the Great Frost, conjured up by the reflections of the dancers on the stage as they seem to skate on black glass, but the shift from narrative to abstraction frees McGregor up to create extreme and exciting dances. The act ends as a thrilling cats’ cradle of white beams of light shoots across the front the stage.

It is in the third act, Tuesday, which draws on The Waves, that this structurally flawed ballet comes together. Woolf’s final message to her husband, read by Gillian Anderson, reminds us that Woolf herself is our subject matter, as much as her novels. Ferri has said that McGregor told her that he needed ‘the soul of Virginia Woolf’ from her, and in this act, it is as if she has found it. Ferri seems to tread water slowly and gently in her pointe shoes, her arms almost floating in front of her, before she leans to her right, resting her weight on Federico Bonelli, who carries her in a series of rotating lifts, rolling her over his back like the waves of the sea. There are fleeting references to Woolf’s novel, such as the six children who play with a rope, and perhaps Ferri is both Woolf and Rhoda, who by the end of The Waves has died without explanation, but the narrative is not an obstruction. McGregor uses the movement of bodies to show the movement of the sea, which seems to lift the dancers as first Ferri and then others, repeat slow ronds de jambe en dehors à terre, carrying their arms over the head and taking an eighth of a turn into a lunge in first arabesque, rising and falling like the ocean.

At the end Ferri, now barefoot, lies on her back on the stage and she makes us believe that the waves are washing over her. Both performances left me with an overwhelming awareness that Ferri is a very great artist. She fills the most apparently inconsequential movements with meaning and there is a powerful stillness at the heart her dancing. By bringing Ferri back to Covent Garden as a mature dancer in a role created for her, McGregor and the Royal Ballet have given us all a wonderful gift.

Maggie Watson

18 February 2017

There was the same dance cast for both performances, apart from one change in the third act.