We interrupt this parade of terrible religious novels at the British Library to visit the ballet. Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works is, to use the jargon, not an adaptation, but an appropriation--that is, a radical reworking of and critical reflection on the original text(s)--of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (I Now, I Then), Orlando (Becomings), and The Waves (Tuesday). McGregor makes no attempt to render the narrative of any of these texts, and familiarity with their contents is not hugely helpful; in fact, the cast sheets neglect to mention the characters' names. To the extent that there's a storyline, it is of Woolf's insanity and eventual suicide, which permeate the first and third ballets. More generally, the three acts are joined together by themes of transformation and melding: older and younger versions of Virginia and Leonard Woolf dance together, breaking down both selfhood and temporality; Orlando fragments into multiple dancers, male and female; the ebb and flow of the corps in Tuesday produces constantly shifting patterns that briefly resolve, then vanish again. The partnering breaks down gender boundaries (and ballet conventions), too, as men frequently partner each other. Movements repeat across the ballets--a hip-rolling swagger; a vaguely cruciform position, arms extended out; a man supporting his partner above him while lying on the floor; women flexing their feet when lifted; promenades in which one partner (male or female) drapes their leg across the arm of another. Woolf's death pose in Tuesday, too, repeats the death of Septimus Smith's best friend in I Now, I Then.
Becomings has not been the critical pet of this triptych, although it got some of the most enthusiastic applause at the performance I saw last night. The dancing can't be faulted, especially the lead Orlandos (Olivia Grace Cowley, Alexander Campbell, and...um...it was difficult to tell, thanks to the non-existent lighting, but Nicol Edmonds and Itziar Mendizabal, I think). For me, the problem is not so much the choreography, although the endless partnering got a little wearisome--there are only a tiny handful of solos across the evening, in fact, so the dancers are always grappling with each other--but that as appropriations go, this one is strangely tone-deaf. Orlando is (brace yourselves!) funny. (Really. It's OK for classic literature to be funny. You can relax.) The narrator is dubiously reliable, the "evidence" is completely cracked (hey, look, a photograph of someone from the seventeenth century! Er, wait...), and nobody seems remotely troubled by the immortal title character randomly morphing into a woman. (Or by the immortal title character, for that matter.) Some of Woolf's play with anachronism and temporal distortion does make it into the ballet, in the form of the vaguely Elizabethan ruffs-cum-bodysuits and the equally Elizabethan echoes in the music, but the choreography is deliberately full of struggle (or not deliberately full of struggle--some of the men were having a hard time lifting each other). And Orlando's transformation has no struggle whatsoever, which is part of Woolf's point. Nor is their any sign of humor; I'm not sure the dancers even crack a smile.
However, this weird reading of Orlando derives from the evening's overarching themes, I think. Instead of the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, as it were, McGregor gives us more of the same. Alessandra Ferri's Virginia Woolf spends the entire evening struggling against her mind and her body, sometimes going stiff and strained in the midst of otherwise upbeat pas de deux. In her duet with Septimus Smith, which collapses Woolf into Mrs. Dalloway, she fights wildly against her partner (Edward Watson) as they wrestle across the stage towards impending death. Even more strikingly, in Tuesday she is thrown back and forth by the dancers in the corps, battered by "waves" until, at the end, the young Leonard Woolf (Federico Bonelli) puts her to rest on the floor, and everyone slowly steps back into the darkness. That, in effect, is the ballet's ultimate act of dissolution.