Ballet review: Woolf Works

Barbara Newman reviews Wayne McGregor's new ballet triptych inspired by the works of Virginia Woolf.

Wayne McGregor’s new Woolf Works for the Royal Ballet differs from his previous choreography only in its designs. Advertised as a full-length work, by which the company means a full-evening work, based on three of Virginia Woolf’s novels and her life, it turned out to be three individual pieces bearing no relation to each other and only hinting at the named novels.

woolf works

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova in Woolf Works © ROH 2015. Photographed by Tristram Kenton.

To assist him in “enmeshing” the books’ themes, the choreographer collected lengthy programme notes, still and moving images of gardens and London street scenes, lasers shooting light across the stage and into the auditorium, slow-motion black and white film of rolling surf, recordings of Woolf’s voice and of Gillian Anderson reading Woolf’s suicide letter. He cast a former Royal Ballet artist, the 52-year old Alessandra Ferri, as the renowned author, and surrounded her mournful presence with the company’s most pliable stars—Natalia Osipova, Sarah Lamb, Melissa Hamilton, Edward Watson, Steven McRae. Max Richter’s propulsive score urges them on and establishes a solid rhythmic foundation for their hectic manoeuvres.

Danced in minimal costumes on a clear well-lit stage, the choreography alone might hold our attention with its muscular dynamism. But the complete ballet, which Mr. McGregor described as a “reimagining of the way we think about heritage,” never comes close to that goal and nearly sinks under the weight of the production intended to support it.

woolf works

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova in Woolf Works © ROH 2015. Photographed by Tristram Kenton.

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Woolf dealt in nuance and subtlety, in shades of emotion and telling details of personal character. Mr. McGregor’s interest lies in anatomical exaggeration, feverish pace, and impersonal atmosphere. He loves words too, for their ability to communicate, as he cannot in movement, the concepts and ideas that fascinate him.

His dances have been staged in 11 countries, and his company, Random Dance, will acquire a huge new home next year in the Olympic Park. He is incredilbly articulate about his work, but he makes inexpressive dances. They stun the viewer, push the performers, provoke reams of analysis and discussion, and convey less than his descriptions of them.

Woolf Works remains in repertory at Covent Garden until 26 May.

Royal Ballet of Flanders performs McGregor’s Outlier until 31 May.

Dutch National Ballet dances his Chroma in June.

His L’Anatomie de la sensation returns to the Paris Opera Ballet in July.