Review: WOOLF WORKS, Royal Opera House

Forty years after she became its Principal Dancer, Alessandra Ferri returns in this visionary ballet.

By: Mar. 02, 2023
Review: WOOLF WORKS, Royal Opera House
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Review: WOOLF WORKS, Royal Opera House Featuring its ex-Principal Dancer Alessandra Ferri, the Royal Ballet revives its epic Woolf Works.

When this triptych of ballet vignettes first saw light in 2015, it gathered a raft of plaudits and its easy to see why. It takes a brave soul to interpret Virginia Woolf's much-venerated texts but RB's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor's visionary style blends a specially commissioned score from postmodernist composer Max Richter, laser and video projections and a determination to combine the books and events of Woolf's life into a revelatory whole.

Each of Works' individual sections is inspired by one of her most famous books and comes with their own visual design, choreography and narrative. The first is called "I now, I then" and springs from the words and thoughts behind Mrs Dalloway. Ferri lovingly shows Woolf's dalliances with men and women as she struggles with her failing mental health; in parallel, Ferri and Yasmine Naghdi as the older and younger Clarissa Dalloway and Calvin Richardson as the PTSD-wrecked Septimus Warren Smith pirouette through giant square frames. Their inner yearning for connection is demonstrated by the use of pairings rather than grand ensembles with the mental torture of depression and failed relationships underlined by Richter's elegiac score.

The middle sequence "Becomings" is a far more lively affair, embracing as does the 1928 novel Orlando, recently revived in play form for a West End run. This fantasy follows a character who partway through a journey of 300 years changes their sex and enjoys their share of transient relationships. Undoubtably the visual highlight of the night, McGregor uses costuming, light design, music and choreography brilliantly to celebrate the plastic existence described by Woolf.

The outfits switch from decadent gold to dark black then white while accessories like ruffs and tutus are playfully worn by male and female cast members as they romp fervently across the stage in an orgy of thrilling manoeuvres. Suggesting the book's time travel storyline, the choreography goes from Elizabethan dance steps to robotic movements. Richter pumps up the beat and - in combination with a scintillating light show from Lucy Carter which shoots lasers into the auditorium - gives Jean-Michel Jarre a run for his money.

"Tuesday" is the final section, a sombre piece appropriately drenched in finality. In a voiceover, Gillian Anderson reads Woolf's suicide note to her husband Leonard, detailing how depression has defeated her ("I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.") and the love she feels for him, finishing with the heart-rending words "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been." Aged 59, the author filled her dress pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.

Ferri - also 59 - plays Woolf again, this time under a projection from Ravi Deepres showing very slow-moving waves crashing towards us. With pathos to spare, she elegantly moves through a plethora of dancers, occasionally lifted or buffeted by their movements until, slowly and calmly, she sinks to the floor just before the curtain falls. Richter riffs off the dream sequence in The Waves to soundtrack the desperately sad last moments of a woman who had attempted suicide at least twice before.

Dramaturg Uzma Hameed does a phenomenal job of tying the three diverse sections into a dramatic whole, interleaving the biographical and literary elements and giving this story ballet remarkably effective emotional underpinnings. Ferri is the star on stage and is a delight to watch, rolling back the years with an engaging and, at times, tear-jerking performance. McGregor, though, deserves the lion's share of plaudits here for a highly memorable show which almost demands a second viewing and resonates long after the walk down Floral Street.

Woolf Works continues until 5 March.

Photo credit: Asya Verzhbinsky


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