The La Scala Ballet usually fields a first cast, and several alternative casts, but not with Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works – here it was very much a case of a first cast and a second cast. The first featured two guests from the original Royal Opera House production from 2015 – Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli – and most of the company's principal dancers; the second cast had two resident principals and was given only a couple of afternoon performances. It was clearly a backup cast, but it wasn't a case of putting all your eggs in one basket, as the second cast held up as well as the first, which is a tribute to both to the power of Woolf Works and the strength of La Scala's ballet company.
During a projection on the front gauze of Virginia Woolf's handwritten words and phrases, making shapes and revealing Woolf's face, her voice is heard, as captured by the BBC in 1937:
Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations…
This is McGregor's starting point. His semi-narrative ballet puts real people together with Woolf's characters from three novels – one for each act – and it is through these ‘echoes', ‘memories' and ‘associations' of a writer's life and works that Woolf Works becomes such an emotionally powerful work.
Later in Woolf's radio discourse, she says,
How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.
And McGregor supplies some answers.
Through the projection of the words, Woolf is revealed, merely standing, contemplating. Maybe from this very starting point, the ballet represents her recollections as she approaches her suicide during the closing moments, bubbles of a life's memories rising to the surface and disappearing.
The novel Mrs Dalloway inspires the first part which is called I now, I then, and Woolf becomes Clarissa Dalloway with a young Clarissa also sharing the stage. Young Clarissa's flirtation with young Sally has her older self moving in at the last minute for a kiss. Woolf Works brims with the Bloomsbury Group's sexual fluidity.
Alessandra Ferri as Woolf/Clarissa is melancholic even when smiling and often seems like a small, broken sparrow; distressing and pitiful to watch. When she moves, her entire body is expressive, in a slow continuum even when seemingly still – that rare quality which Kenneth MacMillan spotted when she was still in her teens in the early ‘80s – and the line of her leg still beats that of anyone else onstage. It's a magical performance. Emanuela Montanari was very different in the role, though very effective. She lacks Ferri's lithe physicality but is communicative as a dancer and as an actress, and her Virginia/Clarissa was more serene and poised. Caterina Bianchi was exceptional as the young Clarissa with a charming use of the upper body, making her a credible younger Ferri.
Big Ben chimes every now and then… a reminder of time passing? Or the Cinderella moment signifying that ‘time's up'? After one of these interruptions, the action dives into the Mrs Dalloway novel with the story of Septimus, a World War I veteran who suffers hallucinations of his friend Evans, killed in the war. Septimus eventually commits suicide.
The pas de deux between Septimus and Evans is touching in the extreme, heavily aided and abetted by Max Richter's slyly artful music, which, like a film-score, worms its way into the heart without any invasive ego. Timofej Andrijashenko as Septimus and Claudio Coviello as Evans were both magnificent, and equally convincing were Gioacchino Starace and Andrea Risso in the other cast. The super-propelled chaîné turns around the stage by Evans impressed, but it was the contrast between tenderness and desperation on an acting level, perfectly judged by McGregor, that pushed up the tears as Evans is shot to the ground.
The set consists of three monumental, wooden frames which revolve independently on a single stage-wide revolve, continually creating new spaces in a cinematographic way. During a heart-rending duet with the older Woolf, distressed by the story she is giving to her character, Septimus tries to give her form and harmony as he puts her arms in fifth position and slowly pulls her up onto pointe. The attempt is useless. As he drops into eternal darkness from one of the frames, he leaves Woolf agast, staring at her own future. The mix of fact and fiction is intriguing.
Emotion in the second act, called Becomings, comes from technical wizardry: both from the dancers and from Lucy Carter's lighting. The background is that of Woolf's sex-change hero/heroine, Orlando, whose story is told over three centuries. Here McGregor lets rip, with Richter's multiple variations on a theme inspiring sudden shifts of style, as Richter starts with plucked strings, has a Bach-like cello solo, and moves through what is apparently a series of tributes to Giorgio Moroder, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Philip Glass… maybe some of his inspirations when growing up. I'm sure I heard the kitchen sink in there somewhere too.
It's often difficult to know where to look: the dancers? Lighting? Fog swirls? Lasers? It is entirely different from the first and last act, and that's the point. Woolf doesn't appear in this act – she's the puppeteer moving the bizarre creatures leaping and bending on the stage beneath her. Woolf said that Orlando was a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and the novel is a celebration of all things a human life can be – especially in Bloomsbury Square. McGregor and Richter have crammed into this act everything the theatre can be. It's a rollercoaster of a novel and a rollercoaster second act.
The dancers excelled at a style that is not as natural to them as it would be for a Royal Ballet dancer. Nicoletta Manni was outstanding, both technically impressive and beautifully sinuous, and Maria Celeste Losa was excellent in the second cast and as bendy as can be. Christian Fagetti is marvellously suited to the demands of contemporary choreography, and Andrijashenko, Starace, Virna Toppi, Nicola Del Freo, and Mattia Semperboni also stood out. However, it is a collective piece, and McGregor underlines this by several changes of costume taking the focus away from single dancers, deconstructing 16th-century costume with combinations of shiny gold and black ruffs, doublets, corsets and breeches added on to skin-toned leotards – Elizabethans from outer space.
The lasers cut lines through the mist, then open out to create diagonal slices across the stage, and gradually build in complexity until they burst across the proscenium delineating the tiers of boxes, eventually creating three rainbow-coloured roofs over the heads of the audience in the stalls. The lasers disappear for the last series of liberating moves by all the dancers as they pass through vertical columns of white light until a blackout, when white laser beams briefly fizz across the stage and into the auditorium, like the climactic burst at the end of a firework show.
The final act, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves but is centred on Woolf's suicide. Her suicide note to her husband, Leonard Woolf, read by Gillian Anderson, is so simple and straightforward from a woman who was incredibly inventive in her writing: “If anybody could have saved me, it would have been you.” Under the vast black and white projection of ocean waves, moving so slowly as never to take attention away from the dancers, emerges Woolf followed by Bonelli (or Antonino Sutera) who played the joyful Peter from Mrs Dalloway in the first act and now, presumably, a strong and solemn Leonard. Their intense duet to just the thinnest thread of music combined with the sound of waves is interrupted by children's laughter, as the six ‘narrators' from The Waves, as children, together with a mother figure, arrive on stage.
Woolf the dancer takes off her pointe shoes; Woolf the person prepares for her final act. The six children become six adults, the adults become 12, then more. Although Woolf literally teeters on the brink as she did in the first act, this time she finds the harmony that was beyond her when Septimus tried to apply a classical dance position to her body. She joins with the company, all dancing as one, recalling the révérence at the end of a dance class. A soprano who joins the orchestra intensifies the ethereal atmosphere. Woolf is lifted and dipped as she begins to flow with the current, the music almost imperceptibly increasing in intensity until Leonard appears and raises her up and there is silence and stillness. The dancers slip away as husband and wife perform the final slow-motion duet before he lays her down in everlasting peace. Bonelli is an excellent partner, and here Ferri was painfully, almost frighteningly, intense.
To create a piece that is challenging in its way of conveying a story, often tragic in its subject matter, demanding in both classical and contemporary technique for the company, and yet popular with the audience is a magnificent feat for Wayne McGregor and his creative team to have pulled off.
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.