‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you,’ Virginia Woolf composed in a letter to her husband Leonard, before she filled her pockets with stones, walked into the river River Ouse, and sank beneath the water. ‘You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.’
She wrote it on a Tuesday. And that is now the title of Wayne McGregor’s final act in his extraordinary, award-winning triptych Woolf Works. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House in 2015, it played this month in Brisbane, marking the first time in fifteen years that the Royal Ballet has graced Australia’s shores.
Woolf Works takes three of Woolf’s novels – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves – translating words, and notably her pioneering stream of consciousness, into movement. Danced to Max Richter’s soaring new score, this is a ballet that shimmers with sensibility and intelligence, choreography that Woolf herself may have described, as she did her own writings, as ‘soft & pliable, and I think deep.’
Woolf Works starts with I Now, I Then, an abstract exploration of Mrs Dalloway, the story of a middle-aged woman about to give a party who thinks back on her life, plagued with regret. Playing Mrs Dalloway is Italian Alessandra Ferri, a former Royal Ballet principal now in her fifties. With her liquid eyes, long hair, and limpid limbs, Ferri’s age – the experiences that have shaped her body – gives her great pathos and gravitas. Meanwhile, a set of towering rotating wooden doorways creates a solidity of space for the dancers who flit between them.
There’s Mrs Dalloway and her husband, dressed in an elegant, but sober suit. There’s her younger self, performed with girlish joy by Beatriz Stix-Brunell. She flirts and, tumbling to the floor, has a stolen kiss with her impish friend Sally (Francesca Hayward). Interspersed with this story is that of Septimus, suffering from shell-shock in World War I. Edward Watson gives a heartbreaking turn as the fragmented soldier. Physically strong and spiritually destroyed, at one point he falls like a log as if pummelled by some invisible monumental force, reeling in his own private horror.
The second act Becomings, based on Orlando’s story of an Elizabethan male poet who travels to the 20th century, and changes sex in the process, takes the ballet into a gender swapping sci-fi romp. It’s fast and bold, a celebration of the sheer force of bracing arms and legs. In this version, men wear heavy gold 16th century female gowns and the ballerinas are in trousers, while neon blue laser beams dissect the dancers, creating patterns in the sky like marbled ink. Full of swagger and brash confidence, it hurtles with speed.
Ending the night is Tuesday, the opposite in tone and texture. If depression feels like being engulfed, a swelling of encompassing, suffocating nothingness, McGregor turns that submersion into something painful and exquisite. On a still stage – still that is, except for a titanic video screen of a black and white ocean, where waves, slowed down to almost imperceptible motion, crash and foam – a recording of Woolf’s suicide note is read out.
Tuesday is inspired by Woolf’s death. But also by The Waves, a novel that follows six different voices. To the sound of seagulls cawing, children, lovers and friends appear and disappear as Woolf (like Mrs Dalloway, played by Ferri) is swamped by memories. Then the other dancers suddenly manifest a terrifying darkness, wearing grotesque masks that disfigure their faces, literal embodiments of the cloud of mental illness.
‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,’ Woolf once declared. It is this stream of living – messy, non-linear, effusive – that McGregor channels, and, finally, mourns, with Woolf’s death. Woolf Works ends with a moment of quiet: after a flurry of motion, Ferri is gently laid down. A tiny figure on a vast stage, drowning.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free