sun 21/07/2024

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

Fancy an awkward grapple? Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé and Sander Blommaert of the Royal Ballet in 'Woolf Works'© ROH 2015. Photo by Tristram Kenton

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.

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works for the Royal BalletBy 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.

Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works for the Royal BalletBecomings, 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.

The few good bits were temporary abatements of awfulness rather than eruptions of genius


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Hanna might be better off sticking to a mug of Ovaltine .More room for the rest of us to marvel at this beautiful, thought provoking tribute to Woolf.

When I read reviews like this, I become concerned for the future of arts criticism - how online journals, that are taking over from print media - and who rely on part-timers with few qualifications in journalism apart form self-belief and little ability to evaluate work within wider cultural frameworks, might be influencing cultural output. Fancy lasers?? Bland piano chords?? (for the record it was fully orchestral with organ), designy digital art collaborators?? Baroque-sounding?? (it's La Folia for goodness sake) Synthy?? (it wasn't - the singer was off-stage but real). I'm baffled by these generalisations and inaccuracies - if my high school students came to me with this as an exercise I would knock them back, tell them to lose the ego, and start again having done some thorough research. Actually I'd also tell them to see the show again - and to ask themselves some harsh questions about their motivations. Where are the editors at the Arts Desk?

You use an opinion you don't like to attack writing (IMO) at the very highest level. Whether your specific points are valid or not, I don't know, and I haven't seen the ballet, but I do know that Max Richter's music is vapid in the extreme (watered-down ovaltine, to turn the previous commenter's words around), and that would be enough to put me off going in the first place. It's the very opposite of Virginia Woolf's nuanced writing, in short, of which Hanna clearly has knowledge. I wonder how many other dance critics could claim that. Besides, what would the editors - who do exist, of course - need to edit here?

It's for others to judge whether The Arts Desk is different from other 'online media' in fielding professional writers, but as a reader as opposed to a contributor I've always found it a cut above most and I value a dance critic, following very much in the footsteps of our peerless Ismene Brown, who's not afraid to step outside the stifling cliques and interest groups who populate that and other artistic worlds.For ill-informed reviews and poor style, go to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail

I defer to no one in my admiration for Hanna, whose taste not only mirrors my own, but who expresses it in print in a manner far beyond my own capabilities. Long may she reign! I'm sympathetic to David Nice's defense of his colleagues on this and other occasions but I admit to wondering whether this defense is really necessary or even helpful. His comment on Quentin Letts may well be on the money, but isn't the fact, not to mention the tone, of the comment itself somewhat Daily Mail-ish in it's turn?

Thank you for your comments, Todd. Woolf Works has generated many strong opinions, and a passionate public and critical response to any artwork is a sign of art doing what it is supposed to do. I responded as critics are supposed to do: by giving an honest account of the piece as I experienced it. As The Arts Desk’s dance editor for around 18 months now, I have full confidence in my knowledge and judgement and don't feel I have to explain my writing to you.

But I do agree with you that we should all be concerned for the future of arts criticism, given the wholesale ejection of so many critics from the major newspapers in recent years. This is why The Arts Desk was founded and I am very glad you have the highest expectations of it. I went to Woolf Works with the highest of expectations too.

In my opinion the reviewer seems very bent on criticising. Not just McGregor and Richter but even her readers... why? The sour tone is a nasty distraction from the objective thoughts which I would like to hear, whether positive or negative. "But that's Ferri's talent, not McGregor's." That was just unnecessary. Hanna seems to be unaware that a choreographer like McGregor pays attention to monitoring every detail of his dancers' movement quality, and I find it so rude of her to dismiss that. A review like this reflects nothing more than a narrow mind with very fixed preferences. And fixed preferences are fine, but best kept to one's self.

Compare this to The Stage's review, and you are left wondering whether this is the same production. Over-familiarity with the composer, choreographer, or the subject portrayed perhaps leads to the kind of low expectations confirmed by the sleights of hand in this review, which is a shame for those approaching this production with an open, experimental mind. I went along with the idea that Woolf herself was a keen follower of Les Ballets Russes, and that dance might indeed be the medium to capture some of her reflections on the subject. With no more intellectual baggage on board than that, tonight's performance had me totally engaged for all the reasons pointed out by The Stage's review. It might have helped that I was also overlooking the orchestra pit and thus close enough to the cello solos to hear and feel their full emotional force, and close enough to the stage to appreciate the nuances and intricacies of individual performances. A fresher, closer-to-the-action and less literary/'lit-crit' appreciation of this work would have left more space for the imagination to flow, as it clearly succeeded in doing for the majority of tonight's audience. Ugly, ungainly and unmusical an experience it certainly was not; 'bad music' and 'bad ballet' too sweeping a pair of condemnations, unless the primary aim of this review was to defend against any encroachment on the sacrosanct reputation of Woolf qua literary giant, inspired or otherwise.

After deciding I would never ever (no, not even next season) watch Raven Girl again, at best a one-acter, I still made it my business to go and see Woolf Works, just to keep up my attendance record. I have enjoyed McGregor one-acters before, but had nothing but trepidation for a full night. And the description 'triptych'? How pretentious! I was wrong. Here we have three one-act ballets with an identical inspiration, choreographer and composer - but different designers and ethos. And that works, and should be seen as such. No, McGregor is not the next narrative Macmillan (cf. Winter's Tale), but he does know what he's doing. And could no-one else hear the passacaglia variations of the second piece? Richter has been slighted.

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