It's a bold challenge to translate the life and writings of Virginia Woolf into dance. When I was at university I took a course which investigated how prose could be translated into drama. I wanted to take on the challenge of trying to make my favourite novel “The Waves” into a play, but it seemed impossible. Any attempt to convey the vibrancy of Woolf's writing in a physical form felt flat. I was proven wrong several years later when The National Theatre and Katie Mitchell successfully adapted “The Waves” into a play which effectively expressed the progression of life and subconscious speech in this novel through a clever use of sets, staging and mixed media. Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet have created an even bigger project which conveys the feeling of Woolf's life and writing through ballet. It's a heartfelt, dramatic and stunningly beautiful production.
The ballet is split into three parts. Each is inspired by a particular text: “Mrs Dalloway,” “Orlando,” and “The Waves” respectively. These three acts all have extremely different tones in their style of dance, lighting and music. But each is suffused with a sensation of Woolf's grappling to find an adequate form of expression for the world around her. The first act 'I Now, I Then' begins with a recording of Woolf's voice speaking about the nature of language, how it is under a continuous process of reinvention and only comes to have meaning when reformed. Through the dancers' movement and use of shape this sense of process comes through. The sounds and projections of photos of London give an atmosphere of Woolf’s life. There is a scene of men at the warfront, but I had the sense that these men were projections of the public’s consciousness at the time with thoughts of war consuming everyone’s thoughts. Throughout much of this and other scenes we see dancer Alessandra Ferri as a kind of Woolf figure wandering through scenes observing and interacting. There is a sense she is a part of this world, but at a remove struggling to find her place within it and find a way to appropriately represent it.
The second part ‘Becomings’ begins with a feeling of formality with dancers attired in rich gold metallic Elizabethan dress. Just as the novel “Orlando” leaps through time and gender so do the dancers change moving through segments of the stage created with lasers and the sexes become mixed as performers wear genderless flesh-coloured clothing. This section of the production has a much more celebratory feel as the performers feel liberated from the constrictions of place, time, gender. Smoke swirling in the laser beams creates an eerie mirror-effect with the dancer’s movements. It’s as if both the molecular nature of life is being portrayed alongside a grand view of civilization as a whole.
The final part ‘Tuesday’ begins with Gillian Anderson reading the suicide letter Woolf wrote to Leonard. Looming in the background is a large slow-motion video of waves curling and crashing into themselves. Six young dancers emerge mimicking the six characters in “The Waves” who start as children. Gradually, these six are replaced by older dancers and then six more. They fall into pairs or groups as do the voices in the novel sometimes favouring particular individuals and other times coming together as a whole. There is a feeling of these individuals being tossed and turned through life moving through states of joy and sorrow. Most striking are scenes when the dancers come together to hold a pose and it seems like an ardent wish to capture a perfectly articulated expression or moment of being. A melancholy music pervades this part as the dancing figure of Woolf is eventually portrayed as drowning or sinking. The dancers become like characters hovering in the author’s consciousness as they bob up and down in the background shadows.
While watching this production I had to frequently remind myself not to strictly interpret what I was seeing as a narrative, but rather take it in as an expression of feelings inspired by the texts. I don’t often see dance and have only gone to the ballet a few times in my life, but of course I was drawn to seeing this production because of how passionate I feel about Woolf’s writing. As can be seen from the excellent exhibition on Woolf's life at the National Portrait Gallery last summer, the public is also fascinated by the woman herself and this production shows the same preoccupation with Woolf's life. Once I let go of my impulse to “read” what I was seeing and experience the effect of the overall performance I was tremendously moved by it. A lot of care and passion has gone into this production to honour Woolf’s vision. It was a dazzling experience that will stay with me.
The production is played at the Royal Opera House until May 26th 2015. It's being given its first revival from Jan 21-Feb 14th 2017: http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/woolf-works-by-wayne-mcgregor