Now The Royal Ballet re-stages it as the centrepiece of its winter period, with the luminous Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri, on whom the ballet was created, starring in some performances.
In her 60th year, Ferri remains a compelling stage presence, her expressive body conveying strong emotion, her liquid brown eyes reaching out to the back of the auditorium. Ferri is central to the impact of Acts I and III, respectively I now, I then (from Mrs Dalloway) and Tuesday (from The Waves).
In I now, I then the character of Clarissa Dalloway, at times recalling Virginia Woolf herself, moves through present and past on a stage where designer Ciguē’s three massive moving frames, slowly rotate to create time thresholds.
Clarissa’s present coincides with that of shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith, danced by Calvin Richardson with contained agony; she meets her loving husband Richard (the ever wonderful, ageless Gary Avis).
Her past haunts her. A pas de deux with her former lover Peter (William Bracewell, superb), illustrates persistent feelings, and a special, borderline sexual, youthful friendship is enacted by Yasmine Naghdi as the carefree young Clarissa and Frances Hayward as Sally.
Here Max Richter’s score is full of melancholy drawn-out strings; McGregor’s choreography is delicate, the narrative impressionistic but clear enough.
Act III, Tuesday, takes place against Ravi Deprees’s vast atmospheric slowed-down film of a rough sea.
Alessandra Ferri and artists of The Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works. Photo: © 2023 Asya Vershbinsky
Inspired by Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, this section poignantly points towards Woolf’s own suicide by drowning. Opening with an extract of her letter to her husband read on voice-over by Gillian Anderson – ‘I’m certain that I’m going mad’ – it shows life and will webbing out of the central character, while a busy corps de ballet behind her appears to embody the ever-more-agitated movement of the water that will finally claim her.
William Bracewell returns as if trying to make her hold on to life; that battle lost, in one the ballet’s strongest images, he creates a reverse pietà with Ferri’s body (pictured top).
Set against these two delicate and involving sections, Act II, Becomings, is hard-core Wayne McGregor, and by this I mean it privileges his signature acrobatic movement to the detriment of narrative coherence, or even any narrative at all, dramaturg Uzma Hameed, so present in the other sections, appearing to have gone AWOL.
Inspired by Woolf’s fantasy novel Orlando, whose protagonist travels through 300 years in the process changing from man to woman, Becomings is danced on a dark stage, sliced by Lucy Carter’s shifting blades of laser light.
It’s impossible to tell who’s who in this maelstrom of seemingly pointless frenzied movement, hyper-extensions and vigorous jumps, with Richter's score letting rip in a crescendo of unbearable noise, although the ever-impressive Fumi Kaneko did her best with the central character of Orlando.
In subsequent performances Marianela Núñez and Natalia Osipova will alternate with Alessandra Ferri in the lead role
|The Royal Ballet, Woolf Works review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
01 Mar 23 – 23 Mar 23, 19:30 Sats at 13:00 & 19:00 Dur.: 2 hours 45 mins inc 2 intervals
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