Woolf Works, a triptych of ballets based on three of Virginia Woolf’s best-known novels, is the Royal Ballet’s pièce de résistance of the current season. Designed by multi-award winning choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose recognitions include a CBE, a nomination for Olivier awards and a nomination for the Grammys, Woolf Works is comprised of three mini-ballets, each of approximately thirty minutes, with two half-hour intervals in between.
Known for his highbrow, science-inspired works, incorporating multi-disciplinary art forms and including virtual dancers, McGregor’s work fuses the traditional with the contemporary to create a singular and distinctive style. Woolf Works continues this tradition, seamlessly interweaving the physical dancers on stage with projected backgrounds and laser lights.
Audiences looking for a narrative ballet will be disappointed; McGregor’s intent is not to tell the stories of the novels (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves respectively), but to capture their essence. The opening act, I Now, I Then, is a feast of pure pleasure for every sense. Alessandra Ferri dances the middle-aged Dalloway with elegant pathos, gazing into the past and a parallel world, where her younger self dances with the girl she loved, and her husband with his veteran comrade. Becomings, in contrast, is a whirl of bodies and techno, with androgynous dancers in alternately sumptuous, stark, historic dress and tutus, orbiting through laser beams and delicately lit mist. Natalia Ospinova and Stephen McRae are the first of Woolf’s time-travelling lovers, and are nothing but a joy to watch; the pairings that follow, which are tender, strong and subtly erotic, are similarly delicious.
The Waves is simultaneously the safest and most daring act. Opening with an extract from Woolf’s suicide note which is read with understated anguish by Gillian Anderson, it is a bewitchingly sad beginning, and one can only wonder what can follow. What does is a simple but effective – and affecting – dénouement, as bodies mass to form rolling, mesmerising waves, bearing down upon Ferri’s drowning figure.
Woolf Works is not perfect, with occasional moments of fraction that break the spell, but the charm that is woven through the hypnotic elegance and strength of the dance and Max Richter’s exquisite score is entrancing and delightful, and McGregor succeeds in his brave new venture. This is an intoxicating take on the three-act ballet.
Woolf Works is at the Royal Opera House until 26th May, for further information or to book, visit here.