In step with Virginia Woolf

Who said this?

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other …

We heard the voice of Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937, and saw her handwriting projected onto the front curtain of the main stage at the Royal Opera House last Saturday. From the darkness emerged the still figure of Alessandra Ferri, recognisable as Virginia Woolf.. It was a thrilling opening to an amazing event. Woolf Works – Virginia Woolf in ballet.

Outside the ROH

Outside the ROH

And what I like is the connections Virginia Woolf makes between words, ballet steps and people. With a little adjustment you could substitute words, in these passages, for ballet and people.

… a word/ballet step/person is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words/dance/community. Indeed it is not a word/ballet step/person until it is part of a sentence/ballet/community. Words/ballet steps/people belong to each other …

All this from a ballet? Well, yes!

Woolf Works

The full-length ballet by Wayne McGregor is described as a triptych and was drawn from three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: I now, I then (from Mrs Dalloway), Becomings (from Orlando) and Tuesday (from The Waves).

178 VW 3 novelsWayne McGregor read Virginia Woolf and it inspired the desire to choreograph a full-length ballet without a strong narrative thread – a challenge to mainstream balletomanes. Wayne McGregor wanted to capture ‘the spirit of her writing’. I understand him to want the audience to have an experience not unlike reading Virginia Woolf’s novels.

How was it done?

As I’ve said, this was not a ballet with a narrative thread. Virginia Woolf herself was questioning ways in which to capture experiences and feelings in her novels, and experimenting with ways of writing about them. Wayne McGregor explains his ideas.

And I thought Woolf was perfect for my idea of making a full-length ballet without a narrative, because she herself doesn’t write conventional stories – they’re more like collages, where thoughts, emotions and sensations take precedence over plot. The audience will recognise certain characters. Alessandra Ferri, who is a wonderful dance actress, is obviously an older presence, and will convey the sense of Woolf within and alongside her work. You’ll see a dancer inhabit the body of an androgynous Orlando. They’ll be like hooks that allow the audience to go on a longer journey than with a purely abstract piece. (ROH magazine Jan 2015)

McGregor is known for his collaborative work. The choreography, the music and the design all brought together to create this ballet.

What was special?

Here are a few highlights, but in no order and this is not an attempt to capture the whole experience:

  • A male dancer in tweeds (from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Septimus’s angularity of body and movement, expressing acute psychological damage (also from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Alessandra Ferri, had a calm stillness about her, and combined with suppleness captured Virginia Woolf without caricature. And, by the way, she’s 52.
  • The fabulous gold costumes of Orlando, and the romp being enjoyed by the cast. You can view pictures of the production here.
  • The mounting tension (The Waves) accumulating through dance, sound and lighting towards the terrible conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s fate. Her suicide letter was read before this part. More words.
  • The cello.

The Naysayers

He [Wayne McGregor] admits he had been completely unaware of how possessive some of those readers would be when he began work on the project. “I was really surprised by the number of people, some of them very passionate and expert, who approached me and told me exactly what they thought my piece should be like.” McGregor has put a careful distance between himself and the “Woolf industry”. (From Dances with Woolf by Judith Mackrell in The Guardian Review on Saturday 2nd May 2015.)

And on reflection …

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

In some ways Virginia Woolf is so cerebral that I was surprised to be so moved, overcome with emotion, and differently moved in each of the three parts. Septimus’s sequence had me rigid in my seat, my hands and feet flexed. The whirl of dancers building to an exuberant climax in Orlando was stirring. I was steadily pulled towards the appalling and inevitable horror of the waves, waves of sound and dancers, towards death.

I have written about my reluctance to embrace films of novels here, mostly because they dispense with imagination and complexity. But ballets that draw on them do not have the same limiting effect on the audience, indeed I felt Woolf Works enhanced the readers’ experiences.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

I will now reread Mrs Dalloway, and possibly The Waves, certain that I will find new experiences. An additional reason to reread books (see the previous post on rereading books.)

And I go back to the words we heard her say as the lights dimmed.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – they’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid words ‘incarnadine’, for example – who can use that without remembering ‘multitudinous seas’? [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937]

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Virginia Woolf, words, Writing

3 Responses to In step with Virginia Woolf

  1. Eileen

    A fantastic post Caroline. I love the idea that words belong to each other and the connections between words, dance and community and how they belong to each other. I also liked how you sneaked in a link to the previous post on rereading. Clever. E x

  2. Anne Gore

    What a coincidence. I am presently rereading “To the Lighthouse” and the richness of the language is such that I feel as if I am reading it for the first time. I can imagine that one could read this book over and over again and still be able to draw something new from it. I remember that I have watched a film of the book- what! how could one possibly film it? But then reading your blog yes I see that one could dance it! Ballet could convey the thoughts of the characters in a way that was true to the written language. Mrs Dalloway is one of my favourite novels and I enjoyed the film although it is far inferior- no actress can match the Mrs Dalloway whom I conjure up in my mind when reading.
    I have not heard of the ballet Woolf Works but I would love to see it. Do you think one would have to have read the novels portrayed before seeing it? I would love to see Mrs Dalloway danced and have read Orlando a long time ago. I will read The Waves next.
    By the way I have often wondered if poor Virginia suffered from an underactive thyroid- such as runs in my family and when diagnosed can be balanced very simply by taking artificial thyroxin. If undiagnosed- as it was in the past- it leads to deep depression and physical lethargy. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that was all her illness was……

    • Caroline

      Thank you Eileen and Anne for responding to this post.
      I think Virginia Woolf is someone I will reread over and over again. I am enthused now because of the bellet, which has added to the possibilities of the next reread.
      A dreadful thought about VW and her thyroid.
      The suicide note she left Leonard was read out before the third part of the ballet. It was desperate. Loving and desperate.
      Caroline xx

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