Woolf Works. Alessandra Ferri and Artists of The Royal Ballet. ∏ ROH, 2015 Tristram Kenton. (Large)

The Big Bad Woolf of Ballet

For the first time in Italy, Wayne McGregor’s masterpiece inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf arrived on the stage of Teatro alla Scala, starring Alessandra Ferri alongside Federico Bonelli and the artists of the theater’s Ballet company.

The artistic and literary world and the personality of one of the most original writers of the twentieth century is captured in this extraordinary piece, called ‘Woolf Works.’ The director and choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter for the Royal Ballet were inspired by three well-known Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). But also her letters, essays, diaries, and tormented existence intertwine in this mystical experience that overwhelms the theater with light, dance and the very essence of the most remarkable female modernist writer of the past century. Virginia Woolf’s life always permeated her works, and this trait provided stimuli for a physical and evocative journey, that would transcend mere narration but be perceived as a lived experience, which goes straight to the gut reaction of the public.


The intense emotional impact and extraordinary energy, led McGregor to win the Critics’ Circle Award for best classical choreography and his second Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Prima Ballerina Alessandra Ferri, delivers one of the most exciting and intense works of her career, which earned her second Olivier Award and marks a return to the stage of her hometown, Milan. The chemistry with Federico Bonelli — lead dancer of the Royal Ballet and already acclaimed at La Scala — worked wonders, with Oleg Caetani on the podium (later substituted for health issues by Koen Kessels).

Each of the three acts (I now, I then, Becomings and Tuesday) has a powerful artistry, and expressiveness.  I now I then opens with an excerpt from the only existing recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice — the essay On Craftsmanship — and represents an exploration of Mrs Dalloway’s genesis, weaving narrative fragments of the novel and aspects of the author’s autobiography. The stream of consciousness — which was the narrative device that distinguished Woolf — is the protagonist of this first act, as the flight of the mind wanders, alternating the events of two characters, throughout a single day. Two human beings are tormented by their past, as imagination and suffering weld into a heart wrenching performance.

Becomings, the second and central act, that is inspired by Orlando, focuses on a fantastic character who goes through three centuries without getting old, changing sex along the way. The iconoclastic novel gets plunged into the digital era, as stupendous lasers flood the stage to enhance the themes of cosmology and revision. Relationships are fleeting, even those with oneself, while the experience of time and space is defined by relativity and plasticity, as a touch of science fiction adorns the mise en scène to epitomize the continuous evolution of our hyperkinetic universe and its multiple forms.


Tuesday, the third and final act, is poetic and perturbing, as it represents Woolf’s departure and suicide. But prior to her demise the topics that are explored are that of aging and letting go, through the elegiac novel The Waves. This represents the author’s most experimental piece, as it blurs distinctions between prose and poetry, allowing words to flow between interior monologues, breaking down boundaries between people and facets of consciousness. The grandiose reconnaissance of the phases of existence — childhood and old age, decadence and renewal — that culminate with Virginia Woolf stepping into the river Ouse and drowning herself, exemplify the revelation of the self. The mind is fleeting, as we emerge from our own fugacious interpretations of the world.

Virginia Woolf’s constant state of reflection and devastating depression, influenced her writing, as she transformed her mental illness into a literary technique. Her writings focused on the difficulty of knowing people, and the fact that we are composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity. Wayne McGregor’s production fully grasped this state with exceptional lyricism. Woolf Works is a compelling triptych inspired by the human, artistic and literary world of Virginia Woolf, built with a staff of collaborators that confirms McGregor’s vision of deep involvement and multidisciplinarity: the playwright Uzma Hameed who helped him carry Virginia Woolf’s work and spirit onto the scene, the design set for the architecture studios Ciguë and We Not I, Lucy Carter for lighting design, Ravi Deepres for film design, Moritz Junge with costumes, the sound design by Chris Ekers, and Kabuki‘s make-up design.


The resounding success of the production was also determined by the talent of the entire ballet company: Mick Zeni, Caterina Bianchi, Agnese Di Clemente, Timofej Andrijashenko, Claudio Coviello, Martina Arduino, Massimo Garon, Gaia Andreaò, Benedetta Montefiore, Gioacchino Starace, Andrea Risso, Alessandra Vassallo, Nicoletta Manni, Virna Toppi, Maria Celeste Losa, Agnese Di Clemente, Martina Arduino, Timofej Andrijashenko, Nicola Del Freo, Valerio Lunadei, Gabriele Corrado, Claudio Coviello, Christian Fagetti, Marco Agostino, alternating with Maria Celeste Lo sa, Antonella Albano, Caterina Bianchi, Benedetta Montefiore, Alessandra Vassallo, Gioacchino Starace, Mattia Semperboni, Francesco Mascia, Marco Messina, Andrea Risso, Federico Fresi, Eugenio Lepera.

The modernity of Virginia Woolf and her revolutionary way of writing, her anti-conventionalism and multidisciplinary trait were grounds of great inspiration for McGregor who channeled them into a phantasmagorical synthesis of the arts, a true work of Gesamtkunstwerk.