Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Woolf Works’. The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Portrait of Andris Toppe

Dance diary. February 2016

  • Vale Andris Toppe

I was saddened to hear of the death of Andris Toppe whose contribution to the world of dance in Australia has been extraordinarily varied. The most lasting image I have of him in performance is as one of Clara’s Russian émigré friends in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara where his portrayal was strong and individualistic. Just a few weeks ago, too, I had an email from him saying how much he enjoyed reading my biography of Dame Margaret Scott. At the time I had no idea he was so ill but now I am hugely pleased that he derived pleasure from the book in his final weeks of life.

Portrait of Andris Toppe

For a biography and gallery of images see Andris’ website.

Andris Toppe: born 16 May 1945, died 20 February 2016

  • Janet. A Silent Ballet Film

In February I was unexpectedly contacted by film maker Adam E Stone who sent me a link to a work he directed called Janet. A Silent Ballet Film. The Janet of the title is Janet Collins, an African-American dancer who is remembered as the first black dancer to dance full-time with a major dance company, in this case the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, which Collins joined in 1951.

Janet is moving in the way it conveys a political message, and in the complexity of the message it sets out to convey. It is interesting to speculate on why Stone chose to use the medium of silent film (the silencing of so-called minority cultures?), and also to speculate on the role the paintings of Degas play (some well known Degas ballet images are brought to life throughout the film). The dancer who plays Janet is Kiara Felder from Atlanta Ballet and she is a joy to watch.

Here is the You Tube link.

  • Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody

Steven McRae in Rhapsody. The Royal Ballet. Photo (c) Dave Morgan @DanceTabs.com

Steven McRae, with Benjamin Ella and Yasmine Naghdi, in Rhapsody. Photo: © Dave Morgan@DanceTabs.com. Courtesy the Royal Ballet

I have always found Steven McRae, Australian-born principal with Britain’s Royal Ballet, a little polite on those occasions when I have seen him live in performance. There has always seemed to be something he is holding back in his dancing, in spite of a very sound technique. Well, I now have seen another side of him in the Royal Ballet’s recently-screened film of an Ashton program consisting of Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons. As the leading male dancer (partnering Natalia Osipova) in Rhapsody, a work Ashton made in 1980, McRae was technically outstanding, handling the intricacies and speed of the Ashton choreography with apparent ease. He also gave his role a strength of character allowing us to imagine a storyline, if we so chose. Great performance. Terrific immersion in the role.

  • Site news

I published my first post on this site in June 2009, almost seven years ago. So much has changed in web design and development since then and I am pleased to announce that the design team at Racket is working on a new look for this site. Stay tuned.

  • Press for February

‘Dancing for survival.’ Preview of Indigenous dance programs at the National Film and Sound Archive. The Canberra Times, Panorama 6 February 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2016

Ashton mixed bill. The Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.

Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.

Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.

Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.

The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.

It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014

‘Swan Lake’. The Royal Ballet

17 October 2012, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake is that of Anthony Dowell. It first went on show in 1987 after Dowell had engaged in a period of extensive research into the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895. Australian audiences saw it in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, toured to various Australian cities. In 2002 I admired it. I thought it was danced beautifully (Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope were in the lead), and I loved the way the characters had been developed so each had a real presence in the production. Now I’m not so sure. Two Australian productions since then, one by Graeme Murphy and the most recent by Stephen Baynes, have had an effect.

This Royal Ballet production is set in fin-de-siècle Russia and so much about the production now seems overwrought, from the gilded excesses of Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets to the drunken excesses of Siegfried’s entourage. Act I seems to go on and on with much merrymaking and ‘let’s dance’ gestures.  Act II begins with more drunken activities before the swans appear and this act is also distinguished by the addition of several young student dancers from the Royal Ballet School, who are part of Odette’s entourage. This addition apparently harks back to the 1895 version, although I don’t remember that they made it to Australia in 2002! Anyway, they looked beautifully schooled and did their job more than nicely but I’m not sure they added anything of significance to the ballet. Act III has that lovely Tarantella choreographed by Frederick Ashton—certainly an interpolation to the 1895 version (as was David Bintley’s Act I Waltz). Von Rothbart’s two attendant dwarfs also made their presence felt in Act III.

Apart from the mime in which Odette dramatically tells Siegfried that she is about to die because he has betrayed her, Act IV was comfortingly familiar—if slightly kitsch—as Odette and then Siegfried threw themselves into the lake and reappeared sailing heavenwards in a ‘swan vehicle’. But despite what Dowell may have discovered about the 1895 choreography for Act IV, to me those arrangements of swans standing more like wilis or sylphs around Odette and Siegfried, and the emphasis on storytelling through mime, made me long for our own Australian versions where in Act IV the literal storyline gives way to a more abstracted and choreographically-inspired scene.

The big attraction for me, however, was the prospect of seeing Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried. Technically he could scarcely be faulted. His tours en l’air for example began and finished in a beautifully tight fifth and a lovely deep demi-plié—such soft and pliant landings. His bearing from his first entrance onwards was regal and set him apart from the rest of the characters. His reading of the role was intelligent. At pretty much every point in his dealings with Odette, the Princess (his mother), his friends, von Rothbart and so on his approach was clearly expressed. Nothing was indistinct. Yet I wished that he had been a little more adventurous, and had thrown himself into the steps with greater gusto even if it meant his execution was a little less perfect. It was all too careful.

McRae partnered Roberta Marquez as Odette/Odile. I’m not sure that Marquez is well suited to the role of Odette as her dancing in Acts II and  IV had very little of the softness of arms and body that I associate with those acts. Odile suited her better although she struggled somewhat with some of the technical demands. Oh how I’d love to see someone handle with brilliance those double attitude turns at the beginning of Odile’s variation. Marquez simply went for a single.

I was impressed with the performance of Genesia Rosato as the Princess, Siegfried’s mother. She was a strong lady and demanding of her son. Her presence on stage was indeed commanding, even as she collapsed in a faint at the end of Act III. She had to make us look at her (and I did) and not the billowing red and white smoke that filled the stage as Odile and company departed in triumph. Others whose dancing stood out for me were Tara Bhavnani and Nathalie Harrison as the two leading swans. Both are tall, statuesque women with fluid backs and arms, which they used to the fullest advantage.

This production was not my ideal Swan Lake.  It is always interesting to speculate on what the ‘real’ Swan Lake was like but quite honestly I don’t think anyone will ever know and dance is an art form that is constantly being reinvented. The performance made me look forward more than ever to another look at the Baynes/Colman Swan Lake.

Michelle Potter, 20 October 2012

‘Chroma’, ‘Tryst’, ‘Symphony in C’. The Royal Ballet

If the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill of Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C did anything, it showed quite clearly that ballet is not dead, dying or even momentarily dormant as has occasionally been debated on this site. It is in full swing, vibrant, growing gloriously and proudly relishing both its heritage and its future — at least in London.

Although I was looking forward most to Wayne McGregor’s Chroma after seeing his Dyad 1929 in Australia in 2009, it was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which closed the Royal Ballet’s program, that was the standout work for me. The array of principals was simply dazzling and their dancing was equally dazzling.

Leanne Benjamin, partnered by Johan Kobborg, led the first movement. She was beautifully self assured, a ballerina always aware of her audience with a technique that shone from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Alina Cojocaru, partnered by Valeri Hristov, was grace and poetry epitomised in the second, andante movement. In particular, Cojocaru’s exquisite arabesques traced a long, expressive arc through space as the leg lifted and once the high point had been reached the line seemed to extend forever. Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae in the third section performed in almost perfect unison, fulfilling the challenging requirement of the choreography for this scherzo movement. It was a thrilling display with Marquez performing the almost unimaginable by not only keeping up with McRae’s stunning jumps and turns but doing it with an expression of joy coursing through her whole body. In the fourth movement, before all the principals joined them for the final section, Laura Morera and Richard Cervera made a strong impression.

In each movement, the corps de ballet and soloists provided a beautifully executed backdrop of dancing for the principals. Symphony in C was staged for the Royal by Patricia Neary and a huge bouquet must go to her for giving such clarity to a work that can too often have a look of sameness across its movements.

The program opened with Chroma, Wayne McGregor’s 2006 commission for the Royal. As in his Dyad 1929 McGregor explored the extreme possibilities of the human body in motion. However, with Chroma being performed without the women wearing pointe shoes, the choreography had a quite different feel, more fluid perhaps, or more complex in its exploration of how the torso and upper limbs can bend, fold and extend.

The outstanding feature of Chroma to my mind though was its collaborative aesthetic and what emerged as a result. The set by architect John Pawson was extreme in its minimalism and reflected Pawson’s interest in Cistercian architecture with its emphasis on simplicity and the stripping back of non-essential elements of colour and embellishment. At first the set seemed to consist of a large screen or wall stretching across the stage space. It was positioned about one third of the way down the stage and appeared to have a white rectangle set slightly above the stage floor at its centre. But as the set was lit (by Lucy Carter) in different shades of white, grey and black, it became clear that the rectangle was actually a void. In it we occasionally saw dancers appear and disappear and we watched as the rectangle/void advanced and receded with changes in lighting.

Against the simplicity of the set, with its clean shapes, limited colour palette and play with volume and void, McGregor’s choreography looked on the one hand even more complex and exploratory, yet on the other it was tempered by the lack of overt scenic embellishment. It was an intellectual exercise in contrast to the Balanchine ‘don’t think, just do’ principle.

The third work on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst looked a little contrived eight years after its premiere, especially during the first movement when its upturned feet and awkward contractions of the arms from the elbow looked awkward and without purpose. The high point of this work has always been the central pas de deux and on this occasion Sarah Lamb, with her beautifully proportioned body, danced eloquently.

Symphony in C was danced to the Bizet work of the same name, Chroma was danced to an amalgam of music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III and Tryst was danced to an orchestral work by James MacMillan. Each was conducted by a different conductor with Tryst being conducted the composer.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2010

Postscript: on a musical note it was refreshing to see that the dancers acknowledged the orchestral players with due deference by bowing when the conductor asked that the musicians be acknowledged. The Australian Ballet habit of having the dancers lean into the orchestra pit and clap for what seems like an inordinate amount of time seems to me undancerly and to be taking acknowledgment too far.