Many thought it too ambitious, the task too arduous, the means overtly audacious. But that didn’t stop Wayne McGregor, whose creative drive strives most when defying boundaries. Woolf Works, the choreographer’s first evening-length piece for the Royal Ballet, draws on three of Virginia Woolf’s most influential works, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves; the novels’ most pivotal characters and singular elements suggestive of Woolf’s personal life.

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

It’s ambiguous at times, but certainly fitted, so infused is Woolf’s literature with autobiographical elements. In the novels, Mrs Dalloway’s attraction to women recalls Woolf’s extra marital affair with Vita Sackville-West, Orlando’s gender metamorphosis (from man to woman) inevitably entails reconsiderations of sexual orientation and (early) feminist self affirmation, and the more experimental The Waves celebrates Woolf’s literary abstraction.

McGregor’s reworking for the stage is cleverly organised as a triptych. As such, one could argue it isn’t a full length work in the traditional sense, but rather a juxtaposition of metanarratives. I feel this dialectal approach may well hold the key to the piece’s success, and throughout the evening I felt the dance connect and disconnect appropriately. Non-linear storytelling and semi-abstract vignettes are here assembled into a puzzle of interweaved narrations; the sum of which emulates a transposition of Woolf’s modern explorations with literary formal structure. In its most lyrical moments, the work can be enjoyed for its aesthetic brilliance, an attractive feat for those less familiar with Woolf’s legacy.

Conceptually, Woolf Works is a success. “I Now, I Then” opens with Alessandra Ferri who, at 52, returns to Covent Garden specifically for the role. The prima ballerina is still, in every way, assoluta. Her finely shaped legs and beautifully arched feet command the floor underneath her, from which she springs as freely as ever into the delectable sinuosity of McGregor’s choreography. The choreographer’s directives are here finely tuned in to her classically delicate beauty, the movement fresh, graceful and fluid. The kinaesthetic construct of “I Now, I Then” is rooted in balletic idiom and the movement almost neoclassic, a quality I am both surprised and delighted to find in a McGregor work. The leading lady gracefully guides the rest of the brilliant (star studded) cast through the memories and promiscuities of the Woolf-ian plot, and still wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s perhaps too elegant for the role, too beautiful, but none the less wholeheartedly loses herself in Mrs Dalloway’s waltz of happy memories and regrets to great effect.

Equally strong are Edward Watson and Gary Avis’ excellent interpretations of - what I took to be - Septimus and his doctor, the former haunting as a scarred war veteran and the latter steadily reassuring (Or was he Mr Dalloway then?). Beatriz Stix-Brunell too plays an ambiguous role which she deals with well. Is she a younger Clarissa Dalloway, is she Elizabeth (her daughter) or is she both, transposing herself between the fictive and the real character? Furthermore, does it matter? The work’s power resides, in a mirror-like effect to that of Woolf’s novel, in a complex intermeshing of characters’ feelings and memories which all evolve in a voluntarily deconstructed context.

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova
© Tristram Kenton | ROH
More linear is Woolf’s Orlando, and more predictable was “Becoming”. Leaving Ferri in the lyrical tenderness of Act I, we’re thrown into a more signature experience; a dance which relies on physically extreme movement, aurally stringent soundscape and laser beam lighting to produce a multi-sensory experience. The power of duets in which push and pull forces are constantly reimagined and dancers’ bodies thrown in new directions is strangely resonant here. It might not usually evoke emotions but the acerbic nature of McGregor’s staple moves is fitted for Orlando’s transformation. The gender references – and confusion of genres – are pushed by the animalistic physicality confusing our assumptions. Gender references are aided by the costumes; the gold shackle-like deconstructed clothing which alternatively dresses male and female dancers, the tutu-like rigid skirts and neck collars all metaphors for Orlando’s own overwhelming preoccupations with his/her clothing, and its social impact. 

Ferri returns for Act III (“Tuesday”) this time as Woolf herself, and her charisma leads the way in a contemplative mood-like tableau. Aided by a slow motion backdrop film (Ravi Deepres) of the sea and a voiceover from Woolf's suicide letter (spoken by Gillian Anderson) we’re privy to some of the writer’s most intimate personal struggles. Sarah Lamb is positively discreet but none the less luminous as Vanessa, Virginia’s sister and the running, skipping and twirling children are a reminder of Woolf’s own inadequacy as an ageing woman (at not having conceived children herself). But ultimately, the image that stayed with me was that of the determined woman walking into the water and disappearing into the element.

Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé and Sander Blommaert © Tristram Kenton | ROH
Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé and Sander Blommaert
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Max Richter’s specially commissioned score evokes different moods for the three tableaux, and the mixture of amplified orchestra and electronics works well, both with McGregor’s ideas and in the context of Woolf’s time travelling fantasy world. Most successful was the score to “Tuesday”, soporific strings evoking a glowering seascape, before a siren soprano drew Ferri’s Woolf to the waters.

The work may meet differing opinions, but praise must go to McGregor and his creative team for taking what is, undoubtedly, a new direction in balletic storytelling.