by Rachel Beaumont

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Woolf Works sometimes, sometimes not: Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works at the ROH

Woolf Works
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
4 February 2017
Amphitheatre left B27, £12

At the premiere of Wayne McGreogr's Woolf Works in 2015 I remember feeling the extravagant praise it received was not unjustified. I felt that slightly less at this first revival but for a number of reasons in some ways independent of the work itself. And I still think the Orlando-inspired second movement 'Becomings' is much better than the majority of my friends and most critics allow.

'I now, I then' is an impossibly moving response to Mrs Dalloway provided you have a rough idea of which dancer relates to which of the novel's characters or at least of which dancer represents the young version of which other dancer. With this knowledge McGregor's lyrical choreography and Max Richter's subtle and often beautiful score together form an emotionally powerful response to the novel's themes of regret and ageing and the damage of experience. I was profoundly moved, the spell only broken by a lack of rehearsal around a last-minute replacement (Calvin Richardson replaced Tristan Dyer. I, like everyone else, have been wowed by Richardson's performance in McGregor rep and I can imagine he makes a wonderful account of the role in the second cast with Matthew Ball in the Septimus role. However, he's considerably taller than Dyer and it looked like he and Ed Watson had not had enough time to make their partnering as smooth as it needs to be).

If, as with my companions, you have not read Mrs Dalloway or have not read it for some time, then 'I now, I then' is completely mystifying. I'm surprised that the movement's power is so dependent on context, but so seems to be the case.

The connection between dance and source material in the ballet's final movement 'Tuesday' is also problematic, in a different way. Perhaps this is influenced by my reaction to the novel: I adore Mrs Dalloway, enjoyed Orlando more almost than any other book I've read, and find The Waves difficult and unmemorable (I should give it another go). I can just about remember there are children in The Waves, so that probably explains why there are children in 'Tuesday' – a similar explanation for the underused Sarah Lamb character. Why are they in th ballet, beyond this reason? No idea.

I shouldn't be so negative about 'Tuesday' – I think McGregor's design of super slow-motion breaking waves are breathtaking; I think the complex use of the corps de ballet rolling and breaking in wave shapes, and the pas de feud for Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli within them, are very beautifully done. But the narrative content troubles me. We're told that the movement is based on The Waves but it begins with a reading of Woolf's real-life suicide note and ends with Ferri being gently washed to rest in a way that Woolf's real-life corpse probably wasn't. I don't doubt that the ballet intends to glorify Woolf's strength and work through her suicide, and I don't like it. Suicide can be understandable but it can never be beautiful – surely. In this context the gentle crooning of Richter's score assumed for me a mawkish sentimentalism that only expounded the problems. I admire the movement aesthetically but I dislike what I assume its intention to be. Perhaps if I liked The Waves more I'd be able to see another reading.

So from all this the much-maligned second movement 'Becomings', generally dismissed as more of the usual McGregorisms, is for me the most successful. It's certainly not perfect – rather too long, occasionally samey and as with 'I now, I then' dependent on the cast being absolute on fire (which oddly they weren't: even the reliably impressive Steven McRae seemed somewhat unsure of goings on). But it is extremely entertaining and to my mind echoes the book as well as 'I now, I then'. There is so much delight in the book in its virtuoso display – isn't that a good grounding for McGregor's celebration of his dancers' extraordinary bodies and abilities, for lighting designer Lucy Carter's delirious show-off of lighing magic? Other elements of the book – most obviously its exploration of gender politics – are more superficially treated, but the sense of confident joy and power and virtuosity in Woolf's writing is captured and alchemized into vibrant, exuberantly entertaining dance. Plus it has lasers. How could you resist?

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