Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews
Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor, Royal Ballet
Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor, Royal Ballet
Leaden score and ponderous choreography do an injustice to Bloomsbury author's name
On my way to the Woolf Works opening last night, I made the mistake of reading The Waves, Virginia Woolf’s most experimental novel. It was a mistake because even the briefest immersion in Woolf’s prose was a thousand times more exhilarating than the 90 minutes of treacly sludge served up by Wayne McGregor and Max Richter in this, the choreographer’s much-hyped first full-length work for the Royal Ballet. It’s not really full-length, though: it’s three self-contained short pieces, each inspired by a novel – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves, in that order – with the portentous in-ballet titles of respectively I Now, I Then; Becomings, and Tuesday.
Dance is almost certainly not the medium for Woolf, and even if it were, Wayne McGregor is not the choreographer for the job. He, his dramaturge, and the ROH marketing people will draw your attention to Woolf’s experimentation with form, her drive to make language do more, her attention to rhythm and impressions. They imply that these things connect her with McGregor, self-appointed bright-eyed crusader for new possibilities in dance. But Woolf’s experimentation took her to the heights of literary greatness, while in my opinion McGregor’s much-vaunted use of cognitive science and designy digital art collaborators turns out more cardboard every year: tasteless, space-filling pap, of which Woolf Works by virtue both of its extreme length and its travestying of the great author, is the pappiest yet.
By now the McGregor fans in both the literal Opera House and the virtual review-reading house will be sputtering into their coffee, fumbling for the Comment button to tell me how intense, how mind-blowing, how deep it all was. So I’ll concede that yes, there were some good bits. They were: veteran ballerina Alessandra Ferri (pictured right), fetched out of retirement to lend her extraordinary, melancholy charisma to the role of Woolf in the first and third sections; Edward Watson’s entrance in I Now, I Then, flexing his magnificent shoulders as if trying on his skin for the first time; and the glacially slow-moving wave film in Tuesday. I will also hear representations on behalf of the nude-costumed, Baroque-sounding bit of Becomings and the hypnotic array of dancers at the end of Tuesday, though those were more temporary abatements of awfulness than eruptions of genius.
I do give McGregor credit for attempting in the first and third sections a kind of lyrical narrative choreography very different from his usual style, and when done by Ferri, these spacious arm gestures prove very affecting. But that's Ferri's talent, not McGregor's: in the hands of Beatriz Stix-Brunell, double-cast as the younger version of Mrs Dalloway in I Then, I Now, the same gestures are unbearably affected. And McGregor’s pas de deux remain execrably ugly: ungainly, unmusical grappling that reveals absolutely nothing about the characters doing it.
Becomings, which puts a steampunk spin on Orlando’s time-travelling, looks more like conventional McGregor of recent years: dark lighting, a bare black stage, fancy lasers, and some of the best ballet dancers in the world wheeled on in gold costumes and made to tie themselves in knots. Reducing Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova (pictured left with Edward Watson) to their bendiness is a criminal waste: what about their musical intelligence, their dramatic power, to say nothing of their elite training in the absurdly difficult art form of classical ballet?
Any risk of thrill or atmosphere is killed dead by Richter’s original score, which is orchestral chloroform from beginning to end. At best its repetitive chord figures are dull but inoffensive (though often sounding absurdly like one of these modern polyphonic phone ringtones); at worst it rises to absurd pitches of rumbling, drum-rolling bombast. The aural sabotage of the dance is particularly egregious in Tuesday, which is visually by far the most appealing of the three sections and might have been enjoyable had it been accompanied by something other than bland piano chords and a synthy warbling voice, like electronic windchimes. Virginia Woolf, who famously listened to Beethoven sonatas while writing The Waves, would be turning in her grave.
But even if you don’t know Woolf’s work, even if you have no investment in her literary talent, her fierce intelligence or the multi-sensory artistic fecundity of the Bloomsbury group, even if you don’t care a fig that they are being travestied by association, this is still an evening of bad music and bad ballet. Raven Girl, McGregor’s first foray into narrative ballet, showed anyone who had eyes to see how little suited he is to this medium. This bloated behemoth seems to me an inexcusably expensive way to drive the lesson home. Please, no more.
- Woolf Works is at the Royal Opera House until 26 May.
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