Woolf Works is a magnificent creation, a ballet that seamlessly merges profound emotion and avant-garde intellectual aspirations. Since its debut at the Royal Ballet in 2015, this masterpiece by choreographer Wayne McGregor has continually astounded audiences, solidifying its status as a classic that redefines and repurposes the dance world's conceptions of form and content. The exceptional Alessandra Ferri stands at the heart of Woolf Works, returning to the stage and the Royal Ballet to portray the iconic Virginia Woolf. Approaching her sixtieth birthday, Ferri (alternating performances with Natalia Osipova and Marianela Nuñez) infuses the role with even greater depth, her solemn and graceful demeanour imbuing the piece with a sense of fragile hope and overwhelming melancholy.
The brilliance of Woolf's Works lies in its innovative structure, which consists of three acts, each reflecting a different novel by Woolf. The ballet commences with I now, I then, inspired by Mrs. Dalloway, where Ferri quite literally steps into Woolf's world, as the author's own voice resonates through the auditorium and her words cascade down a screen. This act captures Woolf's essence by intertwining her with the character of Clarissa Dalloway, who is enveloped by recollections of her youth and haunted by the presence of war veteran Septimus Smith.
Through a series of ethereal ensemble scenes, McGregor masterfully weaves recurring motifs throughout the entire work – images of individuals on the cusp of new experiences, filled with either anticipation or trepidation; instances of diving into water; and a repeated gesture in which Ferri gracefully raises her arms to shield her face, as if to fend off impending danger or bid a final farewell. These motifs persist even in the second act, Becoming, based on Orlando, as the essence of Woolf lingers amidst the electrifying whirl of dancers who traverse the stage, embodying the exhilarating fluidity of time travel. By the final act, Tuesday, inspired by The Waves, Woolf is once again the focal point.
Accompanied by the poignant sound of actress Gillian Anderson reciting Woolf's suicide note, laden with the author's fear of insanity and her love for her husband Leonard, Ferri and William Bracewell deliver a duet of subtle tenderness. Ferri then departs, ultimately vanishing into a throng of dancers whose swirling motions echo the imagery of the ocean projected above them. The awe-inspiring aspect of Woolf Works is the sheer number of elements that McGregor integrates, molding each one to suit his vision: Max Richter's evocative score, which flawlessly encapsulates the shifting emotional landscape; designs by the architectural firms Ciguë and We Not I; Lucy Carter's dramatic lighting; Ravid Deepres's video; Chris Eker's refined sound design; and Uzma Hameed's erudite dramaturgy. These components collectively enable the dance to convey a complex contemplation of time, memory, and mortality, in a manner as fragmented and mesmerizing as Woolf's own literary works. The dancers embrace these challenges with unwavering dedication and passion, whether it is Calvin Richardson portraying the tormented Septimus, Joseph Sissens, Fumi Kaneko, and Francesca Hayward capturing the ever-shifting nuances of Orlando's persona, or Bracewell's captivating poise and intensity. Above all, it is Ferri's authenticity that provides the foundation for this extraordinary work.