We’re so excited to bring Woolf Works to La Scala. It’s an amazing historic stage and the work is going to be fantastic in this theatre. The company is incredible and we’ve been really pleased to work with them over these last few weeks.
I’m also excited because I made it with these two amazing Italian dancers [Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli]. I thought it would be strange to bring Woolf Works to Milan without bringing them with us, so I thank Frédéric Olivieri for letting us bring Alessandra and Fede to join the amazing dancers here.
Woolf Works was a real passion project for Max [Richter] and I. I don’t if you know that Virginia Woolf absolutely loved dance, and when she talked about her writing, she talked about it either in terms of music – trying to create music with her words – or that writing is a way of dancing. The amazing way that Woolf writes is a stream of consciousness idea that is very analogous with making dance – the choreographic process and her writing process are very similar and work on parallel lines.
It was a bit like receiving a Christmas present to be asked to compose a piece based on the writing of Virginia Woolf having read her as a teenager and being exposed to this extraordinary, imaginative mind at the time, and it was wonderful to revisit that. The three novels that we were working with are three different propositions about how to live: how to get through the day… why do we get up in the morning? how do we get from A to B? Virginia Woolf herself was rather troubled but one of the things I take from her work is the ability for creativity to bear the brunt of that and it enabled her to find a way to have a meaningful life in spite of it.
Woolf had this amazing life. She was part of the Bloomsbury Set, this incredible group of artists and literati who discussed so many things – sometimes in the Royal Opera House in London, and they were also exposed to the Ballets Russes – and they had a remarkable way of looking at the world. When we were thinking of the novels we wanted to work with, we wanted novels that had the scope and span of her work over time but we were also interested in her letters and diaries, and, of course, her suicide note.
The work is in three acts and we follow loosely the themes in three of the novels – the first is Mrs Dalloway, which is the most literal, a version of that story refracted in a prism.
The music for the Mrs Dalloway section of the ballet, ‘I now, I then’, opens with a recording of Virginia Woolf herself reading the essay On Craftsmanship for the BBC in 1937.
Mrs Dalloway is a personal piece and the music has an inward quality.
The first act, ‘I now, I then’ sees Mrs Dalloway reflecting on her life, looking inside herself, making peace with the past and letting go… learning to accept yourself, to love yourself, is part of me, it’s part of all of us.
The second novel is Orlando, [the second act is called ‘Becomings’] a gender-bending novel that speeds through time and worlds.
The second act, the proto sci-fi Orlando, is a big set of variations.
Richter’s theme for these variations is the fragment La Folia, which has been used by many composers since the middle of the 17th century: Corelli, Lully, Vivaldi, Bach, Scarlatti, Handel…
It’s followed at the end by The Waves, [the third act is called ‘Tuesday’] the story of six children growing up and their lives together, and it’s set against Woolf’s last moments before throwing herself into the river.
The last act is a sort of a solo voice, Virginia Woolf’s own voice, submerged in water. That water symbolism, in all of Woolf’s work, is connected with a sense of repose; for her water represented peace.
You can’t make a traditional story ballet with that kind of writing so what we’ve tried to do is elicit feelings and sensations, a mix-up of senses, and when I was thinking about who should compose this work it seemed so right and obvious that Max should do it. He has an incredible ability, like Woolf, to conjure memories and sensations and feelings from really economical means. He also has a phenomenal ability to write with real scale and intimacy, and Woolf’s writing has the same macro/micro feeling that we wanted to go with.
Great works are experiments really, and I see Woolf’s method of experiment to some extent, and I see this collaboration with Wayne as the next part of an ongoing conversation made of further experiments. Bringing it to such a distinguished house is again a ‘what if’ question.
Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli were the originators of the roles they will be playing at La Scala when the work was created for The Royal Ballet in 2015.
I’ve always admired Fede’s intelligence as a dancer, apart from his technical brilliance, so I knew what we could do. With Alessandra I went on a charm offensive, going to New York to persuade her. She is so open minded and curious and adventurous, and that’s all you need from dancers, and both of them have that quality. You make dance with dancers not on dancers – dancers are part of the authorship of the work and Woolf Works wouldn’t exist as it is if it wasn’t for these two artists and so I’m very grateful to them.
There are never wrong answers for Wayne during the creative process – he always listens to and considers a dancer’s suggestion or comment.
I have worked a lot with Wayne over the years at The Royal Opera House and so we’ve sort of grown up together. It was the first time working with Alessandra however. When Wayne and Alessandra came together something special happened and, as a spectator, I learnt a lot from watching them.
It’s a great emotion for me to return to my theatre especially with this ballet which opened up a new universe to me and changed my life. When Wayne asked me, it was completely unexpected. I was 50 at the time and I knew his style and the physicality of his choreography, so I thought – how? He convinced me by saying that he was looking for a dancer to play the soul of Virginia Woolf. I think that this is an extremely important piece of dance – there is before Woolf Works and after Woolf Works.
It isn’t easy to dance Wayne’s choreography for the first time. At The Royal Ballet the dancers are used to it but here the dancers have had to acquire a new language and slowly they have found this new way to move… they are all so eager to learn.
This is good for the La Scala Ballet company but also good for us, making us respond in different ways, especially as it’s such a young, vibrant company.
I’m excited to hear what this house brings to this piece and see this new reincarnation of the work.
Woolf Works runs at La Scala from 7 until 20 April 2019.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.