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.


Jennifer Jackson, Making Room

Posted: September 25th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jennifer Jackson, Making Room

Jennifer Jackson, Making Room, GOLive Lab, Giant Olive Theatre, September 20

Jennifer Jackson in Making Room

Jennifer Jackson in Making Room

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf makes the controversial claim (for 1928 when she delivered the original series of lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges in Cambridge) that in order to write a young woman needs to have money and a room of her own. Jackson, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and subsequently danced in both Royal Ballet companies, acknowledges Woolf’s claim in her opening remarks of Making Room and in her subsequent demonstration suggests that a dancer’s room is none other than her own body.

Currently senior lecturer in dance at Surrey University, Jackson is well versed in feminist attitudes to ballet — she quotes Germaine Greer who famously described it as ‘cultural cancer’ — but at the same time she can’t dismiss the truth that her bones, ligaments, muscles and sinews are inalienably shaped by classical ballet training. In Making Room, Jackson doesn’t back away from her feminist values but confronts the rhetoric on ballet by parsing its core values from the more superficial aesthetics to arrive at a place within her own body where classical form finds contemporary relevance. She wittingly dispels the ballerina image by clomping on stage in thick-soled shoes, slacks and a loose grey top as if addressing her students at the beginning of a lecture. Indeed it is in her role as lecturer that she begins her defense of classical ballet, even though, as she wryly admits, ballet dancers aren’t supposed to speak.

Clearly bruised by Greer’s harsh attack, Jackson turns to the more sympathetic Martin Creed (as in Ballet Work No 1020) and to a great theorist of the moving body, Jacques LeCoq: ‘Vertical movement situates man between heaven and earth, between zenith and nadir…‘ Jackson is on more familiar territory now and it is a short step for her to reveal the essence of classical dance: the contrasting en dehors (outward) and en dedans (inward) movements that allow the verticality of the dancer to express the fullness of classical technique. By also using en dehors and en dedans as metaphors, Jackson now turns ballet inside out through a series of improvisations on four very different musical compositions — though she carefully discards her clunky shoes before she begins.

In the second movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, written almost 30 years before the period of romantic ballet began, Jackson establishes her classical movement language in a series of port de bras and spirals that are both grounded and free. ‘Now how might this feel to John Cage?’ she asks as Donald Hutera’s finger slides the dimmer button low. In improvising to Cage’s 4’33” of silence, Jackson continues to makes the movement speak but interestingly we are more keenly aware of the language (as anyone familiar with the work of Cage’s partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham will recognize). When Jackson’s language combines with the String Quartet No. 2 by South African composer Kevin Volans (which reminds her of her childhood in Rhodesia), she takes on — perhaps unconsciously — the gestures of a playful young girl, crawling on all fours at one moment and skipping the next. As the music comes to an end, she kneels, covers her face, and looks up as if contemplating maturity. György Kurtag’s piano miniature, Blumen die Menschen, brings her once more to her feet in a short, wistful epilogue.

Entirely at ease with herself in her body, Jackson shows eloquently that classical ballet technique is a somatic practice with an aesthetic that radiates out from within. In a 2006 research paper, My dance and the ideal body: looking at ballet practice from the inside out, Jackson committed her ideas to paper. Here in the Giant Olive Theatre she is giving those same ideas physical form, in a room within a room.