Speed reading novels by Virginia Woolf is not something I never thought I’d find myself doing, but life is nothing if not surprising. However, I couldn’t have predicted that the Royal Opera House (ROH) would mount a production called ‘Woolf Works’, a triptych based around three separate Woolf novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to read all of them (by a fair way). Credit where credit’s due, though, all of Mrs D and three and a half chapters of Orl ain’t too bad.
The programme is pretty interesting in how unlike the standard ROH format it is. There’s a fold-out insert in the middle, with a detailed, though visually inexplicable, timetable of Woolf’s life and works. The ROH have also canvassed opinions on Woolf’s importance for individual lives, with some interesting responses printed up. The ever-excellent Dr. Susan Jones (St. Hilda’s, Oxford) also makes a welcome comment.
Like other ballet fans my of my generation, Alessandra Ferri remains a kind of hero. Her entire body bespeaks dance – all of her musculature is readied for the art form. Perhaps because of my problems with mine, but I have always loved Ferri’s arms. The expression seems to originate by her neck and come right through the shoulder, down the elbow, forearm, wrist, fingers and onwards. She remained a classic Juliet, dancing the role of the lovesick teenager well into her 40s. To have her back performing in England, out of dance retirement to dance en pointe at 52, is quite simply amazing (not to mention a coup for our age-resistant society).
I Now, I Then (from Mrs Dalloway)
I don’t know what I was expecting from this, but it more than delivered. Also, I’m extremely glad I managed to read the novel in time, since this piece largely follows the narrative in structure. My only reservation with ‘I Now, I Then’ is that it seemed a little overdetermined: not only were we using music and dance, but also square frames, period video footage and modern footage (of, presumably, Woolf’s garden) to tell the story. That’s a lot to throw into the mix. I appreciated most of it, but the garden footage was out of place and disturbed the otherwise period aesthetic of it.
This movement is prefaced by Woolf’s famous quotation about how words ‘are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally’. She notes how certain words/phrases instantly recall other usages by Shakespeare, or other literature so embedded in the readerly consciousness. Memory in literature is my day job, and on this evening out I thought more about how true this is for dance, also. Certain movements/positions recall those from ballets past. In my (likely impoverished) memory, I saw in ‘I Now, I Then’, a MacMillan lift position (from a Manon pas de deux?), Julie Kent’s lunge from James Kudelka’s Cruel World pas de deux, a drop from Anthony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading pas de deux, and a possible allusion to Puck (of Ashton’s Dream) in the way the character of Evans span in and out of view. I’m not saying that McGregor consciously referenced other works, but that certain steps/positions are so encoded within the context in which one originally saw them, that it can’t help but revive memories of previously-witnessed dance. Also, because this is a literary adaptation – to a certain extent – it also recalled MacMillan’s Winter Dreams (based on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters), especially in the relation of the older Mr. Dalloway figure (all tweed-suited like Antony Dowell’s character in WD) to the younger, more sprightly Peter Walsh figure, threatening to draw Mrs Dalloway’s affections. In the presentation of Dalloway and Walsh’s remembered youth, too, there were undertones of Ashton’s A Month in the Country! All in all, this offered quite the connections for the eager audience member.
Ferri was sublime as Clarissa Dalloway (the elder version), but if anyone could threaten to overtake her in sheer dramatic and anguished portrayal, it was Edward Watson as Septimus, the shell-shocked and all-round mentally-troubled ex-WWI solider. Long may choreographers continue to create literary roles for Watson to portray – Wheeldon’s rendering of Leontes for him in The Winter’s Tale was stunning, to say nothing of the critically-acclaimed Metamorphosis (Arthur Pita), and there are plenty more characters that are just begging for Watson to embody them.
Septimus and Rezia (his wife) worked together well to show the torment both of the madness-tempted husband and the wife who cannot help but cannot help but try to. There were a few touchstones to the narrative, with Rezia (Takada) constantly trying to change the Septimus’ (Watson) focus, even going so far as physically to try and turn his head away from Evans’ haunting (Dyer). This took me straight back to the “Look, look, Septimus!” and “Look […] Oh look,” she implored him’ of Woolf’s text. Indeed, Woolf’s constant use of the verb ‘implore’ in relation to Rezia came out in both the choreography and Takada’s performance.
A powerhouse of flexibility and psychological insight himself, pairing Edward Watson with Ferri is a gift I think we were all waiting for. Putting these two dramatic gifts together is possibly the best reason one could have to deviate somewhat from Woolf’s plot. Had the programme offered only ‘I Now, I Then’, I couldn’t have said it wasn’t worth the ticket. It left one awash with thoughts, emotions that couldn’t quite be articulated as thoughts and physical sensation – as art should.
Becomings (from Orlando)
Having ploughed my way, rather roughly, through 3 1/2 chapters of Orlando did little to help me understand this piece. Thinking there might be lasers involved in a Virginia Woolf novel is the kind of thought projection only Jeremy from Peep Show would manage. But lasers there are, many lasers! And a lot of gaudy gold costumes: Woolf has caught a severe case of The Shinies in ‘Becoming’ this version of Orlando. The way that the lasers can draw along the floor, or extend vertically in space is impressive, certainly. I think, though, that I appreciated ‘Becomings’ more as a light show than a ballet. In fact, it reminded me, with pleasure, of Light Show at the Hayward Gallery (2013).
I was at first intrigued by the Elizabethan-style costumes and static positions on the stage, wondering if the choreography was to look at restricted movement, movement codified by gender norms, perhaps, or even harking back to the courtly origins of ballet at Louis, ‘The Sun King”s court. None of these happened. Not much of Orlando happened, either, really. This looks a lot more like a lot of current ballet choreography: rapid flexibility and punctuated movements, all constant and all over the stage. Nothing wrong with it (although the ‘gymnastic turn’ in ballet is not for me) but not what I would particularly choose to go and see. There’s something about this style which makes me hear my Granny’s voice in my head: “I mean, it’s very nice that you can open your hip joint up like that, but why are you doing it?” A fair question.
Steven MacRae’s precise allegro was, though, as ever, impressive and detailed to watch. Also, there was the complementary pairing of Sarah Lamb with Eric Underwood, which I haven’t seen live since Electric Counterpoint in 2010; they really bring out greatness in each other.
Richter’s score (which I’m mainly not mentioning for good reason) reached breaking point in this movement. I had to stop myself from laughing when, at a particularly still moment a glockenspiel just struck out a few notes. It could have been effective as an eerie infantile throwback for a horror movie, but here it sounded like the precursor to an awkward conversation between conductor and percussionist beginning “now Bernard… we talked about this. You promised you wouldn’t hit the glock. You absolutely promised!”
Unusually, the company’s synchronicity was off on Friday night, which didn’t help matters. If this style of McGregor’s demands anything, it’s a rigorous adherence to the tempo. Otherwise, the audience can distinguish too easily between better and improving dancers. The ending, with two enlarged spotlights and individual dancers running through them looked more like an A Level devised piece rather than the artistry we know and love of the RB. A shame.
The most arresting moment for me was when a lone female dancer took centre stage in a nude unitard, moving as if discovering her body. This seemed to suggest the man-to-woman change at the heart of Orlando, but it wasn’t made pivotal enough to assure one of that. Since the performance, a friend has suggested that the shiny strip at the centre of the stage might have been representing the frozen Thames. I hadn’t thought that at the time, but I hope that is true, because there was an odd lack of representation of the changing state of water, so important to Orlando: ice so solid that body heat can’t melt it, to water so powerful you wish for Noah’s vessel.
Tuesday (from The Waves)
‘Tuesday’ is beautiful, moving and heartfelt. It is the sort of experience one hopes to have from art. However, I have one moral objection: the piece opens with Gillian Anderson reading from ‘a letter’ written by Virginia Woolf. It is not a letter, it is her suicide note and, as such, it is not an art work to be used to heighten aesthetic effect. The fact that this note has been often used before does not, for me, make it any more ok. Yes, it was effective – and affective – but just because something is effective doesn’t mean it should be implemented. Maybe it’s because I just finished a book on J. Robert Oppenheimer, or recently saw The West Wing for the first time, but this argument bespeaks boardrooms and bombs to me.
The background video of the sea – in black and white and considerably slowed down – made for a calming and meditative constant, which went well with the small repertoire of repeated steps. Having RB dancers eventually take over from Royal Ballet School dancers showed just how well-trained those little ones are.
‘Tuesday’ is much more biographical – about older Woolf – than a narrative version of The Waves (she says, having consulted a plot summary and talked to people who have read it). It feels like a swan song, not least because of the focus on the lone figure of Ferri/Woolf. The uniting and repeated step of the rond de jambe a terre (arms in fourth) into a semi-curtsey, which begins with just Ferri but gradually attracts the entire company, was an appropriate use of basic ballet vocabulary. As every ballet class ends with the reverence (as death comes, sometimes, with last words) there are codified ways to say goodbye.
Although ‘Woolf Works’ has its problems, I’m so thrilled that the Royal Opera House continues to commission new work. I went to see Oppenheimer in Stratford recently, too. As money continues to be diverted away from the arts, it is events like these which remind us that audiences appreciate seeing new work (the cheers were *deafening*). Also, I always remember Kevin McKenzie (Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre) saying, on an interview segment as part of what was then American Ballet Theatre Now (1998), “if we don’t create the mirror to hold up to the audience, what happened, you know? It’s our duty to do it.” Absolutely. And the ROH are fulfilling that duty well.