Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in 'TUesday', 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Woolf Works. Teatro alla Scala

20 April 2019. Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Sitting in the so-called ‘first balcony’ of Teatro alla Scala in Milan gave me a view of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works that I have never had before. In I now, I then, the first act based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I saw more clearly the structural elements of the set, the darkness behind those structures, and the way the elements of the set impacted on the storyline. In the second act, Becomings, based on Orlando, I had a view of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design that was quite different from what I saw in earlier performances. In act three, Tuesday, based on The Waves, I was able to see McGregor’s choreographic patterns more clearly than before.

Of course I missed what I had seen on previous occasions, especially some of the finely detailed moments of choreography, and some details of personal connections between the dancers. But, like much in Milan, tickets to the ballet are expensive and, in any case, as I looked down from my central position so close to the ceiling (the ‘first balcony’ is the fifth of six semi-circular galleries that are part of the theatre), I wondered how well one could see from the orchestra stalls anyway. Down there the floor of the auditorium seemed very flat, although no doubt the stage was raked.

This post discusses the impact the new, on-high perspective had on my thoughts about Woolf Works. My previous reviews of Woolf Works are at the following links: London 2017, Brisbane 2017.


Inside the Teatro all Scala

For me, I now, I then has always had the strongest narrative element of the three acts. It follows various threads of Clarissa Dalloway’s life and loves, but does so through Clarissa’s memories. Having the view from the ‘first balcony’ of the three large wooden structures (they are like enormous picture frames) that make up the set in this act, seeing them move position, come together and separate repeatedly, gave extra strength to the notion that the story was moving through Clarissa’s life. Those who touched her life disappeared behind the frames occasionally only to reappear later, and the frames themselves seemed larger than I had previously noticed—life itself exists on a grand scale—and the figures smaller—we are are born to die while life, a greater force, continues.

I have always loved the final moments of act one where the five people who have especially touched Clarissa’s life dance together, change partners, come back to each other, then one by one disappear into the void of the darkened stage leaving Clarissa alone to contemplate her memories. The whole notion of the changing relationships that mark our lives was made clearer to me as I looked down on the action and on the visual elements that marked out the stage space.

The cast was led by Alessandra Ferri as Clarissa; Federico Bonelli as Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest; Catherina Bianchi as the young Clarissa; Agnese di Clementi as Jenny, Clarissa’s female friend; and Mick Zeni as Richard, Clarissa’s husband.

Federico Bonelli, Caterina Bianchi, Alessandra Ferri, Mick Zeni Agnese and Di Clemente in Woolf Works Act I, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Federico Bonelli, Caterina Bianchi, Alessandra Ferri, Mick Zeni, and Agnese Di Clemente in Woolf Works Act I, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala. This moment occurs towards the end of act one as Clariss (Alessandra Ferri) interacts with those who have shared her life.

A major characteristic of act two, Becomings, has always been Lucy Carter’s astonishing lighting design. Earlier I wrote that 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’. This time it seemed quite clear that many of the lighting effects indicated the multiple decades/years that are covered in Orlando. Throughout this act the dancers moved through some very clear geometrical patches of light as well as some cloudy, misty patches. And again the dancers seemed small, this time in relation to those clouds and shapes of light. Then as the act closes beams of light are projected into the auditorium. From a height they no longer blind the eyes but suggest clearly that we were now part of the ‘becoming’. Time has passed and reached ‘now’.

Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko in 'Becomings'. 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko in ‘Becomings’ from Woolf Works. 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Act 3, Tuesday,

Act 3, Tuesday, begins with a voice-over reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband before she drowns herself in the River Ouse, her pockets filled with stones. The letter is dated Tuesday.

I have to admit that previously the choreography in this act seemed to me to be a little messy, apart from the very moving pas de deux that follows immediately after the voice-over. But, looking down on the movement patterns McGregor had created on the dancers, his intention with the choreography seemed clearer. I saw the many different variations that one might encounter in water—swirls, rips, eddies, gentle waves, tumultuous breakers, everything was there. There was no mess, just a myriad of watery patterns danced nicely by the corps de ballet of Teatro alla Scala with the participation of students from La Scala Academy.

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Not being familiar with the dancers of La Scala it is hard to make comments about specific dancers. But I recall Nicoletta Manni from her performances in Australia in 2018 and I enjoyed her dancing in act two. I was also impressed by Timofej Andrijashenko both in act one as Septimus, the World War I veteran who commits suicide, and in act 2 for some spectacular dancing. Ferri and Bonelli I have seen before in their roles as Clarissa and Peter and once again they gave exceptional performances.

In all, I loved seeing Woolf Works from a completely different position in the auditorium. It simply confirmed my opinion that Woolf Works is a ballet that I will never tire of seeing.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2019

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Tuesday from Woolf Works, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala. This image is from the very moving pas de deux that opens the dancing in Tuesday

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Obsidian Tear, Marguerite and Armand, Elite Syncopations. The Royal Ballet

18 April, 2018, Royal Opera House, London

It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.

The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.

In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet artists in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.

Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.

Sarah Lamb in 'Elite Syncopations'. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson
Ryoichi Hirano and Yasmine Naghdi in 'Elite Syncopations'. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

(left) Sarah Lamb in Elite Syncopations. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson; (right) Ryoichi Hirano and Yasmine Naghdi with onstage band in Elite Syncopations. © ROH 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2018 

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet in Australia

30 June 2017, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

What a pleasure it was to see Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works again, and to have one’s first impression strengthened. Woolf Works remains for me one of those exceptional works that reveals new insights with every new viewing. In Brisbane, as part of the program by the Royal Ballet on its visit to Australia, it was performed with all the panache and brilliance I have come to expect from this absolutely world class company.

Casting for the Brisbane opening was, with the major exception of Sarah Lamb who did not appear due to injury, largely the same as that which British audiences would know as ‘first cast’ with Alessandra Ferri in the lead as Clarissa Dalloway. Looking back at my review from earlier this year, at this link, I stand by what I wrote then. But below are some aspects of the work that I loved this time, which I didn’t notice to the same extent earlier.

Act I: ‘I now/I then’ (based on Mrs Dalloway)

  • Sitting much closer to the action on this occasion, I admired the complexity of Wayne McGregor’s choreography. There were fascinating small movements of the hands and fingers, for example, and the dancers showed every tiny movement with great clarity and with a real sense of pleasure in performing them.
  • Truly satisfying was the way in which the ending of this first act returned to, but reversed the sequence of and brought new understanding to the opening moments. As ‘I now/I then’ begins Clarissa Dalloway stands on stage, a solitary, reflective figure. She is then joined by the main characters we will see interacting with her throughout the act, in particular the young Clarissa (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) and a close friend (Francesca Hayward), and her two male love interests (Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis). They all dance with a carefree demeanour, and engage in a youthful manner with each other. But as we approach the end of this act, those characters return and dance together in a kind of pas de cinq, weaving in and out amongst each other, joining hands at times, seemingly more closely connected to each other than in the opening moments. Then, one by one they leave the stage and Clarissa is left alone, still reflective, still solitary. But we now understand her thoughts.

Act II: Becomings (based on Orlando)

  • While I was previously full of admiration for the dancing of Steven McRae, this time I was overwhelmed by his astounding abilities. Again there were some small choreographic complexities that I didn’t notice before, the suggestion of shaking legs was one, and McRae made those movements very clear. But this time I especially admired his spectacularly fluid upper body, his exceptionally flexible limbs, and the way he powered down the stage at one point to begin the next section. And his first pas de deux with Natalia Osipova was a sensational performance (from both of them).

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo Darren Thomas

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II (Becomings). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

  • I was struck this time too by the way in which the passing of time—the novel Orlando moves across some five centuries—was handled in the ballet. Time moved along as a result of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design, but also in part with costuming. When the curtain went up all characters were wearing Elizabethan costume, but as the act developed elements of the Elizabethan attire were progressively lost. Slowly a more contemporary look became obvious. But it was a beautifully slow and changing progression so that even at the end there were still small traces of earlier times—the hint of a ruff at the neckline for example. Some things never change.
  • In a similar vein, I was surprised by the way the gender changes that Orlando undergoes in the novel were addressed in the ballet. They were suggested again by costuming when small black tutu-like additions to plain contemporary costumes were worn by both male and female dancers, for example. But most startling for me was the fact that there were moments when Steven McRae seemed to take on a female role in a pas de deux. His partner was male but McRae was lifted as he had previously lifted Osipova. It was simply spectacular dancing from McRae, but my mind kept turning back to Osipova’s movements. It was a brilliant moment in the choreography.

ACT III: ‘Tuesday’ (based on The Waves)

  • Again with ‘Tuesday’ I saw much more in the choreography than I had previously. This time I especially loved the opening pas de deux between Ferri and Bonelli. I watched with pleasure as he held her in his outstretched arms, carried her on his back and supported her as she lay along  the side of his body. Then, in the same pas de deux, there were those captivating variations on what we have come to regard as the end pose of a regular fish dive. McGregor seems to have a mind that never sees a pose as final: there are always variations to be had.

Woolf Works is a breathtaking work of art, fabulously danced by a great company. I hope I get to see it again because I know I will continue to find  more and more to ponder over, wonder at, and be moved by.

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Woolf Works' Act III. Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in Woolf Works Act III (Tuesday). Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Michelle Potter, 2 July 2017

Featured image: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in Woolf Works Act I (I now/I then). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

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