Wayne McGregor finds his form again with this haunting Virginia Woolf-inspired triptych
Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length piece for the company is nothing if not ambitious. ‘Woolf Works’ offers a dance interpretation of three key novels by literary giant Virginia Woolf. It’s not an unqualified success, but it’s far and away the most exciting thing McGregor has brought to the Covent Garden stage in a long while.
‘I Now, I Then’, inspired by ‘Mrs Dalloway’, is the most lyrical section. Alessandra Ferri, the 52-year-old former RB principal lured back by McGregor for these performances, is both the titular character and Woolf, wistfully watching the exuberance of her younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell). Ferri’s elegant line and constrained emotion are pitch-perfect; she floats through duets with Gary Avis and Federico Bonelli, then as Woolf encountering her shellshocked WWI vet character Septimus (Edward Watson) she is heavy with the weight of her own despair. Set against Max Richter’s mournfully romantic score, this is achingly beautiful ballet.
‘Becomings’, inspired by ‘Orlando’, is an abrupt change of pace, with a starry cast of principals leading us through the time-twisting, gender-bending pyrotechnics of Woolf’s billet- doux to her lover Vita Sackville-West. Laser beams crisscross the bare stage as a cross-dressing cavalcade of dancers, looking like Elizabethans from outer space, tackle a markedly more trad-McGregor set of contortionist configurations. Natalia Osipova is outstanding: feisty and bafflingly flexible, she peacocks fabulously with Steven McRae and wraps herself round a particularly sinuous duet with Edward Watson. It’s messy but outlandishly fun.
Lastly, ‘Tuesday’ ostensibly takes Woolf’s poetic ‘The Waves’ as its source; in fact this most abstract of the three sections is more a meditation on Woolf’s death. Gillian Anderson’s reading of her suicide note and a slo-mo projection of a roiling sea set the sombre tone. Ferri is back, surrounded by an ensemble cast suggesting a maelstrom of life experiences that buffet her relentlessly. McGregor finds a rich expressiveness here as he leads Ferri towards inevitable doom, using the swells of Richter’s score to moving effect and reaching for parity with Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness flow. A new work that feels like a keeper.