The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

The Royal Ballet, Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, May 13

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Anyone who knows Wayne McGregor’s work to date would be hard pressed to guess he is the choreographer of the first act of Woolf Works, infused with literary weight and embodied in the lithe, tragic figure of Alessandra Ferri as Virginia Woolf. The act dances like a story; characters enter and leave through giant wooden frames that revolve slowly as they wait to be filled with or emptied of portraits from the past: lovers, her husband, and a soldier killed in the First World War. By her presence alone, it seems, Ferri holds McGregor’s hand and gently traces her movements. Her quality has a stillness that is foreign to the choreographer but he has made this work with her in mind and appears to follow her lead whenever she is on stage. In an interview with Sarah Crompton, Ferri, who returns to the Royal Opera House stage at the age of 52, puts her finger gently but firmly on the phenomenon we are seeing: “You have baggage which a young dancer cannot have because it comes with experience in life and on stage. I feel I am refined to the essential. Companies now, the world over, are very young. When I grew up here in this Company we had dancers like Antoinette Sibley and Merle Park who had a lot of experience. Michael Somes was still here. They had theatrical weight. Now, because the repertory requires these 20-year-old bodies, companies are very young and I think there is a link missing.’ She fills that gap; when she is alone, as she turns in on herself with soft, beguiling spirals, she is at her most expressive. As soon as the men begin to partner her — Federico Bonelli as her young lover or Gary Avis as her husband Leonard — McGregor’s choreography does not maintain those qualities and like a flower that is inexpertly pruned she withdraws from being Woolf to being manipulated. In her sapphic relations with the playful Francesca Hayward and Beatriz Stix-Brunell she is more at ease; women in McGregor’s universe know how to relate to each other.

Max Richter’s score is at its most refined in the first act, flowing like memories and ticking like time. The literary nature infects the scenic elements, too, not in its linear narrative but in the painting of inner emotions and thoughts, the stream of consciousness for which Woolf’s output was celebrated. Lucy Carter moulds Ferri and her lovers in an almost palpable emotion of light and haze and Ciguë’s frames change the perspective of now and then with a simplicity that belies — or because of — their scale. However, the panorama of Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House that is projected through the frames onto the backdrop takes us into the realm of an exhibition (for which much of the program resembles the catalogue).

Woolf Works is called a triptych because it joins three scenes from three of Woolf’s novels like an altarpiece of her life. The first, I Now, I Then is based on Mrs Dalloway, the second, Becomings, on Orlando and the third, Tuesday, on The Waves. Apart from Watson’s histrionics as a shell-shocked soldier, the fragile sensibility of I Now, I Then gives way to an excuse for McGregor’s standard overextended vocabulary in the time-travelling, shape-shifting central depiction of Becomings. Needless to say Ferri is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a willowy Natalia Osipova who, despite the choreographic desecration of the Woolf altar, makes an extraordinary statement of hyperextended sensuality. Around her is a chaos of couples and brutish couplings (McGregor has not mastered the idea of partnering) racing across a black reflective floor in exotic costumes of the centuries (by Moritz Junge) like figures by Hieronymous Bosch on ecstasy. It looks as if the choreographer has thrown everything he can into Becomings that the presence of Ferri elsewhere would not permit. It is also an occasion for a high-quality light show unleashed by both Carter’s ingenuity and the Opera House’s resources. The function of lighting is traditionally to illuminate the dancers but the level of production here puts lighting on a choreographic level.

The final panel, as Ravi Deepres’ slow motion film of waves suggests rather redundantly, is from The Waves. Ferri is the central character again so McGregor is on his best behaviour, or almost. This is the scene where Woolf ends her life (she drowned herself in 1941 by walking into the river Ouse weighted down by stones in her pockets). The panel opens with a reading by Gillian Anderson of Woolf’s final letter to Leonard, a scene that doesn’t immediately suggest Ferri being partnered by a semi-naked Bonelli; it is an interaction that interferes with her lonely, tragic state of mind. There are children who rise on a lift at the back underneath the waves and play games on the shore with rope. They are the children of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell (though this is only evident if you read the program) in the form of Sarah Lamb. Ferri sits contemplating, then turns to watch her sister and nieces playing. She gathers her shawl and wanders slowly around the stage while other characters rise on the lift as if arriving on a platform at rush hour to surge on to the stage. McGregor revels in choreographic distraction so it takes concentration to follow Ferri as she keeps her meditative pace around the stage until she arrives in front of the crowd, facing them. Then she is inextricably upended by assorted men and passed between them as if her final parting were a social event. In The Waves she writes about death as ‘active, positive like all the rest, exciting; and of great importance — as an experience. The one experience I shall never describe.’ The choreography fails to take up the challenge. The projected waves gather velocity, the chorus retreats and Bonelli is left to drag Ferri’s dry body to its resting place.

When the curtain rises Ferri is alone on stage to receive the applause; it is apt, not only out of respect for the artist she is, but because she is the saviour of Woolf, not only of the Works but of the woman.

 


Wayne McGregor⎪Random Dance: Atomos

Posted: December 23rd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Wayne McGregor⎪ Random Dance, Atomos, Brighton Dome, November 8

Atomos: photo Rick Guest with Olivia Pomp

Atomos: photo Rick Guest with Olivia Pomp

I wonder — and this is just a hunch — if choreographers who are elevated to a position of high visibility very soon in their careers have a problem managing expectation; if, in the absence of anything new to say, they tend to fall back on what was initially successful. By ‘anything new to say’ I mean anything new to say through the work rather than about it. Wayne McGregor is certainly not short of words when it comes to talking about his work, but I feel he falls into the category of having little new to say through his work, and thus the impact of his most recent choreography has much the same effect as his last, whether you love it or are bored by it.

What you can expect in a work of McGregor is first and foremost a packaging that is lit beautifully (usually by Lucy Carter), is dressed by someone on the cutting edge of fashion, has state of the art projections, presents a voguish contemporary score and is performed by beautifully edgy dancers with plastic (one might say elastic) qualities — whether McGregor is dipping into the willing side of The Royal Ballet  (where he is resident choreographer) or into his own company. Apart from the physical aspect, one is inevitably caught up in the intellectual side of his work; the printed program tends to read like a parallel universe of research in cognitive science that reveals McGregor’s curiosity as well as his intelligence and seems designed to link these qualities to the choreography — which is an illusion, for the link is only to the research. I think what we see in a McGregor work is the result of his absorption in his research rather than the fruit of his imagination, which explains perhaps the lack of empathy — communication with an audience. McGregor might well say he never intended it to be there.

His latest research-laden work, Atomos, continues the trend. The essay in the printed program by social anthropologist James Leach, under the heading What is a body? makes you wonder if you will understand anything at all, but on a closer reading the text runs alongside the work without ever touching. “We feel bodies. They have presence. Their stance, position, intention, emotion, desire, reach, shame, passion, expansion and contraction are recognisable and compelling because this movement, this life, is already part of the common shared space. The only way the self is known and experienced is with others, as presences or absences. The material that the company creates has this quality.” But doesn’t all dance have this quality? He finishes with, “McGregor insists the body is fascinating. He insists it is intelligent. It thinks, solves, makes and creates. He strives to recognize and organise this intelligence — an intelligence that is in and between the dancers, emergent from the relation not the individual. His work both reveals and challenges our sense of what it is to be a human with others, a body that is always there in its concern with, constitution by, and presence among our own and other kinds. Thinking is also movement.” You read that, you see the show and you say to yourself, that was really intelligent. Or you say, with much trepidation, what was all that about? I once heard an audience member ask McGregor in a post-show talk following Far what the work was about. “What do you think the work is about?” came the immediate retort.

Atomos is a fairly typical McGregor thoroughbred: choreographed on his own dancers, lit by Carter, costumed by the fashion and technology duo Studio XO, scored by A Winged Victory For The Sullen and with projections by Ravi Deepres, it has a sexy array of techno packaging, including the option of 3D viewing. It turns out the glasses are needed only for the projections, not for the dancers. So when the five screens eventually slot into place, we don the glasses to see a pink square traveling through the dark auditorium towards us. Is this a distraction to the choreography? Not according to McGregor, who apparently responded to one of his dancers that it is only a distraction if you think the dance is the only thing. Is McGregor having so much fun with his collaborative team that he has turned his back on his audience? At a Hay Festival event this year, the ‘legendary’ McGregor was scheduled to be interviewed by Sarah Crompton with Audrey Niffenegger, author of Raven Girl that McGregor had just adapted for the Royal Ballet. He didn’t show up. Dance is of small but growing interest in the world of literary festivals and his presence would have helped the momentum. Crompton made no comment on his absence but a Royal Ballet aficionado in the audience had come to hear McGregor and wondered out loud where he was. The two women looked at each other sheepishly, apologised and Niffenegger added, “To the best of my knowledge Wayne is madly at work.”

McGregor’s research into the nature of movement may well be useful, even groundbreaking, but for whom? Atomos was created with the help of an ‘artificiallly intelligent, life size, digitally rendered “body”’ in the studio, in effect another dancer provoking new movement creation through technology. It begs the question of what is feeding into the system. What if it responds in kind to a poverty of choreographic input?

With much contemporary choreography in which ideas are pulled from observation or study of the natural world, it is illuminating to glimpse the processes the choreographer uses to arrive at the final product we see on stage. But interesting research does not in itself equate to stimulating choreographic work. In the pushing of boundaries originality can be lost.