The vestibule of La Scala buzzed with electrified fever on a Sunday evening, a most unusual time for a national premiere. Despite de rigueur formalities, the air of anticipation and emotion enveloping the return of Alessandra Ferri to the prestigious Italian stage was palpable.. pleasantly half-cracking at the seams of rigid Milanese protocols. Although the Prima Ballerina had been Juliet here for one night in 2016, it is with Wayne McGregor – her “partner in crime” and fruitful collaborator in this new, revolutionary chapter of her career – that she makes her proper comeback, in a multi-sensory “emotional biography” of Virginia Woolf whose uniqueness and potency lie, among other things, in the mutual exchange between ballerina and choreographer. While Ferri has gained freshness and impetus from the originality of McGregor's language and his peculiar abstractism stemming from honest emotions, the latter seems to have learned one of Woolf's main lessons via the former's chiselled nuances: the importance of understatement, declined in the utmost moving, fluttering and contrasting delicacy.

Alessandra Ferri in I now/ I then
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

As the main curtain goes up, a rare 1937 recording of Woolf's own voice reading On Craftmanship, visually matched by words rapidly taking form and dissolving, fleetingly cluttering and decluttering against a see-through second curtain, magically echoes in the theatre; a powerful testament to the writer's need for new forms of language (whose true realm is the mind) to render many-sided beauties and truths, as well as a crystalline picture of McGregor's own endeavour to give kinaesthetic substance to the modernist's world, capture the lightness of her 'collage' style and expand on the Woolfian notion of saturation of every atom in his triptych. In many ways, Woolf Works is the luminous junction between two universes – Woolf's and McGregor's – that profoundly correspond to each other, in their rhythmic and harmonious contrasts constantly pushing boundaries and in their approaches to multiple realities. Woolf declared she had the “gift of another reality”; the choreographer here pays justice to that thought and transposes the essence of its carved-out “caves”, in Woolf's conscience as well as in her characters', by simultaneously staying true to his idiosyncratic choreographic vision and revealing its unprecedented potential unclenched by entering the enriching Woolfian poetry.

Thus, in the opening act I Now/I Then, a voyage through the genesis of Mrs Dalloway , McGregor plunges in a sensory, multi-dimensional world where eventful connections are thematic rather than chronological, and the only relevant dimension is determined by characters' reactions. In partnership with the bright dramaturg Uzma Hameed, he incisively reproduces the ensuing sense of intersecting emotional dimensions that is typical of Woolf's writing.

Timofej Andrijashenko and Martina Arduino in I now/ I then
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

As soon as Ferri emerges, her lace-embraced figure, minute and lithe, magnetises with legendary lines and iconic, exquisite arched feet. However, it is the dancer's sidereal interpretative intelligence that enthrals. Embodying both the older Clarissa Dalloway and Virginia Woolf in an ethereal flux, blurring boundaries between the two, she choreographically remains central, traversed by a stream of “moments of being”, through which memories of ancient nostalgia meet regrets and present heaviness. Characters and author, old and young selves, men of the present and figures of the past coalesce and cross paths, sometimes meeting, more often entering into synaesthetic resonance. Thus, the older Clarissa can converse with the younger one (a statuesque and gracefully fresh Caterina Bianchi), as she re-dances the happy moments of her youth; the melancholic, physical awareness of the former intersects the juvenile, plastic dynamism of the latter, not in dark pensiveness but in a bittersweet yet joyful celebration of luminous, fleeting moments. This first tableau already reveals, therefore, an astonishing ability to reproduce the levity of Woolf's stream of consciousness and capture the complexity of her oeuvre, particularly its “granite and rainbow” nature (in Woolf's own words). Pebbles of remembrance can also be moments of magic, in which past and present amalgamate via interwoven bodies holding hands for a split second of cherished ephemerality, under Lucy Carter's suffused lights and chiaroscuro, surrounded by Max Richter's rippling score. Towards the end of the section, comes the “granite” previously lurking. Septimus (an intense Timofej Andrijashenko) – Woolf's alter ego sharing the stage with Clarissa, the two almost haunt each other without ever meeting – dominates. His hallucination-driven, shell-shocked figure echoes the writer's struggles with her own mental health, possibly anticipating her own suicidal abandon.

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Tuesday
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Virginia's suicide is the heart of Tuesday, the final act of the ballet, structurally related to the first. Based on the most elegiac of her novels, The Waves, but dominated and opened by Woolf's last note to her husband, the section is a poetic, poignant exercise in near-minimalism. Scattered elements from the novel give way to the powerful presence of Alessandra/Virginia, as she prepares to succumb to death. Once again, time is the non-linear, abstract chronology of an expansive inner world reaching its apex, rigorously cadenced by the breakers inexorably crashing over. The dancers fluctuate, suspend then submerge a desolate Virginia, while also enveloping her, as she dances her farewell note away to her husband (an invested and moving Federico Bonelli) and barely holds positions in his steady, helpful arms. Against the backdrop of determinate cadence of Richter's basso continuo – similar to Septimus' in the first act – and accumulating melodies progressively intensifying, McGregor and Hameed enhance the chromatic duality of Woolf's art, pervaded by a profound intensity as well as by a graceful, melancholic lightness. Despite surrendering to the unbearable depths of her mental illness, Woolf's abandonment to the powerful fluctuations seems to hold the value of a rebirth.. The result is a profound, loyal, monumental yet intimate portrait, enhanced by Ravi Deeper's video of the ineluctable waves.

Alessandra Ferri and the artists of the Royal Ballet in Tuesday
© ROH | Tristram Kenton (2015)

Contrary to popular belief, the middle section Becomings, based on the groundbreaking Orlando, is not the alien piece of the puzzle, except in a good – and literal – sense. Though in stylistic and structural dissonance with the intimate, lyrical nature of the rest of the piece, it best translates the most mesmerising Woolfian notions of rhythm, transformation and startling speed marking the proto sci-fi novel by putting the most quintessential McGregor-esque alien aesthetics at the service of a stroboscopic, fast-paced ode. Thus, the essence – visualised rhythm evolving around a plastic, multilayered self – takes form through Lucy Carter's disorienting laser lights cutting through time and haze, intersecting gender-fluid characters intermingling through expanding athleticisms in the wriggling bodies of invested La Scala dancers, led by a particularly magnetic Virna Toppi, whose artistic endeavour and stage presence never fail to catch the eye.

Under various facets, rhythm is omnipresent – in Woolf's eclectic production and in this specular piece – as elusive, subitaneous and transient. Particularly in Becomings, it is a cavalcade of crazily pulsating, morphing energy flowing in seconds; through reverberating lights, glimpses of Baroque movements and sonic Folia themes rapidly transitioning to electronic variations, exhilarating angular sinuosities – McGregor's trademark – and vortexes at impossible speeds. For music-and-dance loving Virginia, rhythm is nothing other than the essence of a plastic, multilayered, ever-changing life and no-one could have captured a snapshot of this better than the British choreographer.

Nicola del Freo and Virna Toppi in Becomings
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The enthusiastic reception by the Milanese audience was utterly deserved and addressed not only at the touching Alessandra Ferri – one of those unique, rare artists setting the example for longevity, profundity and intelligent self-renovation – but also at the entire production, suggesting how the mission was accomplished even in the eyes of a public not particularly used to witnessing meaningful innovation. Moreover, the La Scala dancers approached McGregor's vocabulary in a convincing manner, seemingly happy of the opportunity, even though the idiosyncratic velocity and meticulous precision proved complex to deal with. Surely, further collaborations, rumoured to be discussed, will fix this.

In a forest of failed attempts at convincingly adapting Virginia Woolf's production for the stage, only the likes of Wayne McGregor and Bob Wilson have managed to pay justice to its kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional nature thus far and for analogous reasons: both reach the rich strata of Woolfian research via multiple theatrical instruments, which proves particularly fortunate for the varied nature of non-linear time. It is safe to assume that this is what Woolf herself would have done, had she been a dramaturg or a choreographer. McGregor specifically lets us see her novels in a somewhat ultramodern, impressionist way, his teamwork philosophy allowing to heighten all the senses to render the writer's endeavour to stretch language to its utmost limitations to express what ordinarily juxtaposed words cannot express. At the same time, Woolf has opened new doors in the way the choreographer approaches movement and the use of space.

After all, Woolf Works is also a long conversation between two specular minds with similarly eclectic visionary research interests. As they travel through time and space with their characters and dancers, both innovators try to bring inner states to the surface via triggers to feelings, and both are interested in exploring the many lives we all lead. While Woolf stretches language, McGregor constantly explores how far he can stretch not only movement and its ability to convey emotions but also how to narrate through emotions.

Certainly, this award-winning masterpiece marks a potential new and exciting evolution in Wayne McGregor's career – one we are particularly excited to follow.