A flurry of handwritten words fill a scrim at the front of the stage as Virginia Woolf’s voice is heard reading from her essay Craftsmanship (recorded in 1937) about the power and beauty of words. The words briefly form columns then gather to create an image of the author’s face before dissipating as Alessandra Ferri is revealed on stage in the guise of Woolf’s character Clarissa Dalloway.

So begins Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor’s first full-length work, created in 2015 for The Royal Ballet where he has been Resident Choreographer since 2006. For the ballet – which is constructed as a triptych – McGregor draws on three landmark novels by the groundbreaking, experimental English novelist: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.

Woolf WorksAlessandra Ferri in I now, I then from Woolf Works. Photo © Darren Thomas

On the face of it, it seems an unlikely subject for McGregor who is best known for his cerebral, abstract, conceptual dance works that frequently draw on science – even though Woolf’s writing has a rhythmic, musical quality. (In fact, says McGregor’s dramaturg Uzma Hameed in her programme notes, Woolf wrote The Waves while listening to Beethoven.)

But any hesitations are quickly swept aside. Woolf Works proves to be a thrilling ballet mixing McGregor’s signature high-speed, extreme movement style with a more traditional, classical technique to offer a powerfully moving exploration of memory, the passing of time, past decisions and perhaps regrets. What’s more, the chance to see the Royal Ballet performing in Australia for the first time in 15 years is an excitement in itself.

Choreographed to a new score by German-born British composer Max Richter, Woolf Works begins with I now, I then inspired by Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway about London society hostess Clarissa Dalloway who is preparing for a party, and returned soldier Septimus Warren Smith, who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

McGregor has pared back the action to focus on the central characters, and uses a classical, lyrical vocabulary. Architectural team Ciguê has designed a monumental set with three huge wooden frames that move slowly to create an ever changing spatial dynamic, onto which grainy video footage is projected. I now, I then slips back and forth in time as Clarissa – now married to the kind but rather dull Richard Dalloway – recalls her younger self, her friend Sally and former lover Peter. The traumatised Septimus, meanwhile, is haunted by hallucinations of his close friend Evans who died on the battlefield.

Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri is exquisite as the older Clarissa. Ferri, who was a Principal with the Royal Ballet early in her career before going on to huge international success, is now 54 but still dancing with technical assurance, limpid beauty and heart-melting expressiveness. As an older dancer, she has a different movement quality to the other performers, which makes for a touching contrast when Beatriz Stix-Brunell appears as the younger Clarissa, exuding a youthful, impulsive vitality, together with Federico Bonelli as Peter and Francesca Hayward as the ebullient, will o’ the wisp Sally. As Clarissa steals a quick kiss from Sally, we feel her yearning for something lost.

Edward Watson, meanwhile, is riveting as Septimus, initially seen tearing at his skin and moving his limbs as if his own body is alien to him, belonging to someone else. Staring at a vision of Evans, played by Tristan Dyer, Watson’s Septimus cuts a tragic, tormented figure. When he falls, as if felled rather than swooning, and is caught by Evans, it is a heart-stopping moment.

In the novel, Clarissa and Septimus don’t actually meet – the link between them comes when the doctor attending Septimus attends her party with his wife and tells her guests about the young man’s suicide. Here, McGregor brings the two of them together for a poignant pas de deux. Septimus’s tender duet with Evans is another highlight, intimating that their relationship might have run deeper than good friends.

Occasionally, Richter’s lush, elegiac music swells to become so emotionally heightened that it threatens to overwhelm the moment, but then the score quickly pulls back and quietens before building again. A knowledge of Woolf’s novel, or at least the bare bones of it, is helpful to get the most from McGregor’s interpretation, but even without that it’s a gorgeous piece.

Woolf WorksNatalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. Photograph © Darren Thomas

The second section, Becomings, is based on Woolf’s picaresque 1928 novel Orlando, about a male poet who travels through time from the Elizabethan era to the 20th century, changing sex along the way. McGregor has said that he was attracted to this romp through 300 years of history because “Woolf was super-interested in science fiction, in astronomy and things ‘other’, [so] it really suited my alien aesthetic.”

Becomings does indeed have a sci-fi feel. It begins in darkness with 12 dancers dotted around the stage, standing frozen in Elizabethan-inspired, gold lamé costumes while a spotlight swoops over them. Rather than following the narrative of the novel, McGregor unleashes a torrent of frenetic choreography to Richter’s pulsing score, which uses a repeating base line. A variety of lasers slice the air, becoming increasingly colourful as they illuminate the darkened space.

The costuming plays with the theme of gender fluidity as gold outfits gradually give way to flesh-coloured leotards with black trim. All the dancing is super-sharp as bodies bend and stretch, and legs and arms slice and whip in extreme, hyper-physical movement. Russian-born prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, Australian-born Principal Steven McRae and Edward Watson are standouts, contorting and spinning faster than seems humanly possible. Osipova is so lithe and flexible, it’s as if she’s boneless. Little of Woolf’s novel remains, but Becomings is quite a trip and a lot of fun.

Woolf WorksSteven McRae in Becomings from Woolf Works. Photograph © Darren Thomas

Woolf Works culminates with Tuesday, based on Woolf’s 1931 stream-of-consciousness book The Waves, which flows between the interior monologues of six characters, and descriptions of a coastal walk. In his response to the novel, McGregor includes flashbacks of Woolf’s life.

Woolf committed suicide in 1941 when she walked into the River Ouse near her home with stones in her pockets and drowned. Tuesday opens with a recording of her suicide note to her husband (read by Gillian Anderson). The choreography (a return to a more classical technique), Richter’s lovely, wistful music and the staging are all inspired by waves – with slow motion video footage (by film designer Ravi Deepres) of a surging sea as the evocative backdrop. A vivid soundscape (by Chris Ekers) of crashing waves, seagulls and children at play adds plenty of vivid atmosphere.

Ferri is extraordinarily moving as Virginia Woolf. A pas de deux with Federico Bonelli at the beginning looks almost as if they are moving together through or under water. The appearance of Itziar Mendizabal with a group of young children playing with skipping ropes, whisks Woolf back to childhood as McGregor explores the journey through life and the passing of time.

Woolf WorksAlessandra Ferri and the Royal Ballet in The Waves. Photo © Darren Thomas

As Tuesday builds, a large ensemble of dancers swirl around Ferri in a wave-like motion. What the strange facial adornments were supposed to signify – seaweed? fish fins? – I’m not sure. No matter. Finally, the ensemble slowly disappear back into the darkness, leaving Ferri and Bonelli. As he gently lays her down on the stage, the curtain falls. It’s a profoundly moving ending.

McGregor is beautifully supported by his entire design team which also includes Lucy Carter (lighting and lasers), architecture designers We Not I, and costume designer Moritz Junge. Orlando may not have the same connection to Wolf’s writing and emotional resonance as the other two sections, but actually it’s great to have the change of pace and style between the other pieces. Without knowing Mrs Dalloway you may wonder about some of the relationships, but overall Woolf Works is a bold, adventurous, exhilarating and brilliantly performed work.

Woolf Works plays at QPAC until July 2. The Royal Ballet then performs Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, July 5 – 9


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