Hanging upside down, draped over Federico Bonelli’s back, the fragile-looking Alessandra Ferri piped up, offhandedly: “I think you have the other leg.” 

There then ensued a conversation over whether Bonelli should have wrapped his arm around her upstage leg. “I thought you bent it so I could get through to the downstage leg,” he explained.

Watching the two work it out, choreographer Wayne McGregor mused: “Perhaps it’s a good thing they’re not married.” The audience of about 100 in the Royal Opera House’s intimate Clore studio chuckled. 

Wayne McGregor in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House © Johan Persson
Wayne McGregor in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House
© Johan Persson
In a fascinating conversation immediately post-rehearsal, Ferri described the process of establishing trust with her partner: “Within two minutes of feeling Federico’s hands on my body, I know he’s a good partner for me. So I let go. I haven’t worked with Wayne before, but Freddie knows Wayne’s language very well. So together we go into his world.” 

It was a rare opportunity on Wednesday night to watch three of the world’s greatest dancers – including Edward Watson, who rehearsed a solo earlier in the evening – shape a new full-length work with McGregor, his first for the Royal Ballet. Woolf Works, inspired by three of Virginia Woolf’s novels, will première on the Royal Opera House’s main stage on May 11th. 

In a way, McGregor seems the perfect choice to translate Woolf’s non-linear, stream-of-consciousness writing into movement. Her often breathless stacking of images, dense, long-winded sentences, sudden shifts of voice, frequent interior monologues, and fiddling with time, all seem a good match for McGregor’s speedy, angular, cerebral, often fractured and dizzying style of movement. 

During the open rehearsal, McGregor explained that he has structured Woolf Works in three acts, to an original score by Max Richter. 

A quiet, elegant, sort of chamber piece for Mrs Dalloway

An epic, cinematic score with heavy electronic instrumentation for Orlando (he is titling this Act “Becomings.”)

Waves will begin, as the novel does, with the sound of waves crashing against rocks. We watched him take Ferri and Bonelli through the first three minutes of the opening pas de deux, full of languid, swooping movements and whirling lifts – restrained, not virtuosic, requiring a great deal of control from both dancers as they managed the intricate weight shifts. They stopped frequently to examine which of them should initiate a movement or lift. McGregor counselled the two to “keep it silky, soft. Smoother, less mechanistic. Less effort. Less push.” 

McGregor – whose most recent creation for the Royal Ballet, Raven Girl, earned decidedly mixed reviews – warned us not to expect a literal story-telling of the three novels: he aims to represent “the spirit of her writing rather than the drama of the text.” He saluted dramaturg Uzma Hameed, whose “encyclopedic knowledge of Woolf, her way of reading, gives [him] so much context. Then, in the studio, watching rehearsal, she notices parallels and convergences and points them out.” The process of making Woolf Works involved much give and take between the two. 

Hameed explained that Woolf “talked about writing to a rhythm, not a plot” and Bonelli commented that, when working with McGregor, he “thinks more about movement quality, not the movement itself.” 

The lithe, diminutive Ferri, in comeback since her 2007 retirement, appears to be in spectacular shape, with finely sculpted legs, poetically arched feet, and delicately rippling arms. McGregor talked about wanting her for this project specifically because “she imbues movement with emotion.” As she surrenders to the rhythm of the waves, her eyes occasionally closing in rapt concentration, she seems ageless – her hair in a simple ponytail, in practice clothes, her delicate patrician face free of makeup. Pleased with a run-through, her face lights up and she assumes a triumphant, mildly cocky stance, hands on hips.

Moderating the post-rehearsal conversation, writer and broadcaster Bonnie Greer noted how McGregor accompanied his instructions and feedback to the dancers with a rapid-fire sequence of “primal sounds,” a chanting of syllables, that McGregor acknowledge are meant to convey the kind of energy, the materiality he wants from movement, and to encourage the dancers to bring out the richness in transitions. 

For Orlando, the satirical tale of an aristocratic Elizabethan poet who swaps gender, he tried to find a highly charged physical vocabulary for Watson. We watched, electrified, as Watson zoomed around the floor, flinging arms, legs and head in unexpected directions, frequently off-kilter. “Ed has an amazing facility to make shapes,” he noted. “But my choreography is really a process of creating transitions between shapes.” 

He chases Watson around the floor, explaining that he prefers to do this rather than sit in one spot downstage: he likes to get a sense of how the movement looks from different angles, and will often change the orientation of a dancer’s movement if he sees something richer emerge from a different vantage point. 

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening emerged not during the rehearsal itself, but toward the end of the conversation, when Ferri unassumingly peeled off her pointe shoes and slipped on a comfortable pair of booties. An audience member spoke up to confess that he found that image entrancing. With a rueful smile, Ferri acknowledged: “On pointe, I feel very protected. But at the end of Mrs Dalloway," she divulged, “We needed to find a way to change the feeling of the movement. So, at the end, I take off my pointe shoes. It makes me feel naked, vulnerable. And so, the quality of my movement changes.” 

A collective sigh emerged from the audience at this quiet revelation. 

Woolf Works opens on May 11th, 2015, with a dedicated student amphitheatre performance. It runs through May 26th, with a large cast that includes Ferri, Bonelli, Watson as well as principals Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Marianela Nuñez, and Steven McRae.