Alessandra Ferri, Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae will be among the stars to dance in the exclusive QPAC season.

In exciting news for Australian ballet fans, Kevin O’Hare, Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet, has confirmed to Limelight that Alessandra Ferri will be coming to Brisbane to perform in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, reprising a role which won her rave reviews in London.

Alessandra Ferri and members of The Royal Ballet in Woolf Works. Photo by Tristram Kenton for The Royal Ballet

The sublime Italian ballerina, now 53, was a Principal at the Royal Ballet in the 1980s. She returned to the Company as a Guest Artist in 2015 to play Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf Works – which is inspired by three of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves, as well as some of her autobiographical writing. Ferri will reprise the role in London in January/February before performing it again in June/July as part of a Royal Ballet season at QPAC.

“She is sensational in it. There is something very moving about seeing this older ballerina dancing a role that’s really about somebody of her age and not being a 15-year old but being a woman on stage, and I think [Woolf Works] captures that immensely,” says O’Hare.

Ferri will share the role with Mara Galeazzi, another former Principal with the Royal who retired in 2013 and is performing in Woolf Works for the first time in January. O’Hare expects that Ferri will give five performances in Brisbane and Galeazzi will give two.

The Royal Ballet is coming to Australia to perform exclusively in Brisbane from June 29 to July 9 as part of QPAC’s International Series. Last seen in Australia in 2002, the Company will present two full-length ballets: Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The full company is coming so Australian audiences will have the chance to see Principal dancers such as Natalia Osipova, Australian-born Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb, as well as some of the Royal’s younger stars including Francesca Hayward, Akane Takada and Australian-born Alexander Campbell, all of whom were made Principals in 2016.

The choice of two recently created full-length ballets says a lot about O’Hare’s approach to programming at the Royal. Appointed Director in July 2012, he signalled early on that he was keen to create the classics of the future with a new generation of narrative ballets, and both of these works were commissioned as part of that ambition. The Winter’s Tale was a co-commission with The National Ballet of Canada, which has performed it in the US. “But this is the first time that The Royal Ballet has performed it outside of Covent Garden so it’s a big deal for us,” says O’Hare, who spoke to Limelight while in Australia recently as a judge for the 2016 Genée International Ballet Competition.

Steven McRae and members of The Royal Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Johan Persson for The Royal Ballet

The Winter’s Tale is the eighth work choreographed for the Company by Wheeldon, The Royal Ballet’s Artistic Associate since 2012. It is the first full-length adaptation of a Shakespeare play at the Royal since Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production of Romeo and Juliet. Created in 2014 to a score by Joby Talbot, with a dazzling design by Bob Crowley, The Winter’s Tale had a return season in April 2016 when it was hailed by The Telegraph as “the finest and most important, new full-evening ballet in recent memory….a modern classic.”

Woolf Works is the first full-length work by Wayne McGregor who recently celebrated a decade as Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet. The Company marked the occasion in November with a triple bill of his works: Chroma (2006), Carbon Life (2012) and Multiverse, a new work to a commissioned score by Steve Reich. Multiverse was a co-commission with the Australian Ballet, who had programmed it as part of a triple bill called Faster in their 2017 season. However, Multiverse did not get good reviews in London and the AB website now lists McGregor’s 2008 work Infra (with a score by Max Richter and projects by British artist Julian Opie) as the work that will be performed. 

McGregor comes from a contemporary dance background and is known for cerebral works displaying a fascination with science. Woolf Works is set to a new score from German-born British composer Max Richter. It unfolds in three sections: I now, I then, which explores the stream-of-consciousness of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway; Becomings inspired by the time-shifting, gender-bending tale of her 1928 novel Orlando; and Tuesday, inspired by The Waves, a 1931 stream-of-consciousness novel following the inner lives of six friends from childhood to adulthood. Woven through Woolf Works are elements of Woolf’s life.

Woolf Works choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo by Tristram Kenton for The Royal Ballet

Asked about programming the two works for Brisbane, O’Hare says: “Those two pieces are both by choreographers that are associated with us and involved with this push to get new modern classics for the Company. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had a tradition of creating ballets with Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton, but there was a time when we weren’t doing that. We were dancing classical ballets but not maybe pushing forward to create new works, so I think that’s what’s wonderful about these two pieces is that they’ve been very successful in very different ways in pushing the genre of the story ballet forward.”

Wheeldon and McGregor are very different choreographers. “Obviously Christopher is very much in the tradition of The Royal Ballet choreography,” says O’Hare. “He may have left early on to go to New York [to dance with New York City Ballet during the 1990s] but he was trained at the Royal Ballet School and started off with the Company. Then, once he started choreographing, he began coming back here and choreographing with the Company so he has that tradition of Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton within him, whereas Wayne is totally outside not just the Royal Ballet but the classical ballet world. With that, he brings in something so different and exciting for the Company.”

Edward Watson and Zenaida Yanowsky in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Johan Persson for The Royal Ballet 

Woolf Works had mixed reviews, with some adoring it – The Observer called it “a compellingly moving experience” ­– while other were less enamoured. “I think Wayne does divide the critics. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There are people that love him and people that maybe don’t think he’s right for the Royal Ballet – which is, of course, totally the opposite to what I feel. I think the work he does for the Company is always challenging and is always moving us forward,” says O’Hare.

“The reaction from the audience was incredible for Woolf Works. Of course, when you originally say a ballet about Virginia Woolf [people weren’t sure]. I think people find Virginia Woolf hard has an author but once that first night happened, we had to do something which we never do, which was hold the show each night because the box office was so crowded, so it was one of those runaway hits. And interestingly it won the Ballet Critics Circle Award and it also won the 2016 Olivier Award [for Best New Dance Production].”

O’Hare believes that new story ballets have a big role to play in bringing new audiences to ballet. “What’s wonderful for us at the Royal Opera House is that we seem to be bringing the audience with us. They will come and see the classics but, for instance, we have just had the mixed bill celebrating Wayne’s 10 years with us, which was absolutely packed to the rafters. We are now doing The Nutcracker and the dancers are looking extraordinary in both. I think that’s what people like about the Company, that it can steer them in so many ways,” he says.

“And also for the dancers, I think that’s why they want to be in the Royal Ballet because of the breadth of the repertoire, and also to be creating new work. When we did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – which was Christopher’s first full-length story ballet [and which the Australian Ballet is staging in 2017] – it was 17 years since we’d done a new full-length ballet. We are making up for it now,” says O’Hare.

The Royal Ballet performs Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC June 29 – July 9