Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of association — naturally. They have been out and about on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties of writing about them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word ‘incarnadine’, for example — who can use it without remembering also ‘multitudinous seas’?
So speaks Virginia Woolf at the beginning of Woolf Works: A Triptych, the contemporary ballet choreographed and directed by Wayne McGregor and viewed in performance by the Royal Ballet at the Lyric Theatre at QPAC in Brisbane. Woolf is accompanied by the long tone of a bell, like Big Ben. It places you in the distant past while reminding you of the passing of time. She recorded her words, English words, in 1937 and she has a surprisingly unattractive voice, all cut-glass vowels and severity. But she speaks in the cadence of her era, and, while you listen, a tumble of handwritten words appear on a scrim in front of your eyes, only to merge and disappear. Also on scrims are old films of old London, snatches of a disappeared England. The sounds, the voice, the words, the films plunge you into a world of elegy: technical sophistication harnessed to an aesthetic vision.
‘I now, I then’
Woolf Works is an encounter with 3 of Woolf’s novels. Her recorded words are taken from ‘Craftsmanship’ in her book of essays, The Death of the Moth, and they introduce ‘I now, I then’, which is inspired by Mrs Dalloway (1925). The piece is ‘full of echoes, of memories, of associations.’ Clarissa Dalloway (Alessandra Ferri) gazes back at her lost younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell), while Septimus Smith (Edward Watson) gazes back at his lost soldier friend (Tristan Dyer). The set comprises free-floating, frame-like portals that turn slowly, themselves a metaphor for the drift of days. Ferri is in her 50s, and she brings a quality of unresolved sorrow to her interpretation of Mrs Dalloway. McGregor does not patronise her with his choreography and her dancing is precise and delicate. Her ankles and feet are beautiful, as are her eloquent port de bras, but there is a curious lack of flow in McGregor’s steps. There are shifts in direction, eccentric tics and a marked fondness for the spine curved forward. Fluidity is present elsewhere. In the old story ballets, gender is idealised and the ballerina is the cynosure, the epitome of youthful femininity. Here, dreams and memories of young and old, male and female, are given equal prominence. And all is gathered together by the tender, pensive throughlines of Max Richter‘s score.
The farthingale is a dramatic item of dress, never more so when made of gold cloth and worn by a man. Gold farthingales dot the stage for the opening of the second section, ‘Becomings’, based on Orlando (1928). There is a short quotation from the text (read by the actress Sarah Sutcliffe) that starts: ‘Memory is the seamstress and a capricious one at that.’ Woolf’s quote says that even ‘the most ordinary movement in the world’ can invoke memory, although McGregor’s movement vocabulary in recalling Woolf is far from ordinary. This section hurtles through the centuries from farthingales and doublets to leotards and bare chests with propulsive energy. Woolf’s quote talks of memory as ‘a thousand odd, disconnected fragments,’ and this phrase too describes his steps. His movement is hyperkinetic: bent limbs, sudden jumps (Steven McRae lifts off in an entrechat-huit), crotch-open lifts, distorted extensions and liquid spines. The various cross-dressing Orlandos are equally androgynous in their speed and flexibility. Richter’s electronica adds its own hum and the play of horizontal laser lights makes you aware of the darkness above the action, suggesting the vastness of time. The piece races to its climax, which is heightened by the orchestra beginning to play. The warm human sound of musical instruments brings the time-travel to an emotional close and exhilarated applause.
Gillian Anderson sounds like Virginia Woolf should have sounded: refined but sensuous. She provides the voiceover for the final section, based on The Waves (1931). It is entitled ‘Tuesday’ because that’s what Woolf scribbled on her suicide note, and it is those sad words that Anderson reads. The backdrop is a never-ceasing seascape in black and white. The Clarissa/Virginia character reappears (Ferri again) and the stage surges and swirls with waves of dancers until she finally falls backwards and all is silent. McGregor shows his skill in managing a large group all at once. There is a moment of classicism when the whole troupe comes together in a tendue devant, arms in fourth, that circles to the back. The simple, upright formality is striking, but then the spines flex forward as the foot circles behind, the arms sink and you’re back in McGregor territory again. There are multiple layers of reference to Woolf in this piece — not only The Waves, but I now, I then and Virginia’s last few days of life before … well, we all know how it ends. For all that poignancy, the side lighting seems too bright and flat and the piece lacks the kick in the guts foreshadowed by the suicide note.
Wayne McGregor and his dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, have worked to distil Woolf’s novels to their essence and to use dance to ‘give the moment whole’ as she said in her diary in 1928. He is well served by his superb dancers whose commitment to the steps pulls you deep into the poetic happenings on stage. His style becomes one-dimensional, but his brilliance lies in his audacity and the scope of his imagination. He manipulates the panoply of theatrical elements — light, sound, film, design — to craft an event that has both artistic merit and commercial appeal. That is a rare and valuable combination, inherited from another great modernist, Diaghilev. Woolf Works is a bold, brainy reflection on time and memory, and the Royal Ballet is one of the best ballet companies you will ever see.
Images copyright Tristram Kenton