Woolf Works


There has been a great deal of talk and counter talk about Wayne MacGregor’s “Woolf Works,” a ballet in three acts.

Is Virginia Woolf relevant for our times, given the feminist movement, and scientific advances? On balance, the answer is YES.

Virginia Woolf — nee Virginia Stephen — was the child of two widowed parents, was sexually abused by her half brother (which affected her life greatly) and grew up In a post WWI high bohemian world, the so-called Bloomsbury Set. The names Keynes, Strachey, Bell, Fry are significant in her life, and death of family, friends and lovers is never very far away.

She and her sister Vanessa were gifted artistically and Virginia was a writer who experimented with modernist forms, past/present/other worlds/ gender flexibility, all things that relate to existence today. She suffered from a severe nervous disorder, probably depression, and finally committed suicide by drowning herself.

The ballet, through movement by MacGregor, music by Max Richter and dramatic lighting by Lucy Carter, explores these themes in a meaningful and provocative way. Virginia Woolf’s fiction veers from the outer details of life to the rich inner narrative unfolding within her mind, and this lends itself to an exploration of multiple realities. In the February second performance, the Milan born Ballerina, Alessandra Ferri, in full maturity, dances Virginia poignantly. The first act concerns past and present colliding through an examination of the story of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Ferri portrays an older woman dancing alongside what is essentially her younger self — sexually mutative, high spirited in face of the carnage of the returning soldiers from the trenches. The ballet is concerned with choices made and unmade in the course of a life. It was deep, touching and full of visual beauty and excitement. MacGregor’s choreographic language is distinctive in its combination of the classic and contemporary. This act was stunning.

Act two is drawn from Woolf’s novel “Orlando,” the inspiration being a love affair with Vita Sackville West. This act is concerned with gender mutability and travel through time, and the full ballet company danced frenetically — the big names, Watson, Osipova, Bonelli, MacCrae, and Lamb featuring. I was not convinced. There was simply too much confusion and hyper activity. It seemed to me that the choreographer had lost control of his language.

Act three is inspired by Woolf’s last book “The Waves,” which explores the ideas of death, rebirth and the rhythms of existence — our oh-so-brief spell on earth and our place within the universe. The background is the eternal sea, the waves breaking to an orchestral and digital score, and was extremely touching and effective. Again, the visiting muse for this ballet, Alessandra Ferri is featured. Her attenuated extremely flexible body, almost translucent in effect, with long expressive arms, is tossed and turned by various partners. The image of children on a beach is haunting. How one remembers those endless glorious days as a child and how meaningful they remain throughout our lives. Those children’s hours are so long; the days of Wine and Roses so short.

There is one title in Virginia Woolf’s literary production that never fails to inspire me, and that is “A Room of One’s Own.” It remains inspirational for generations of women who have won their rights for a place in this world as artists, as full human beings.

This ballet is worth a candle.

Kaaren Hale



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