Woolf Works, The Royal Ballet

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, June 29.

Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works is a monumental act of artistic daring, claiming for dance the right, and the ability, to bring one of the great voices in English literature to the stage. The translation from printed word to wordless movement is of necessity very free but McGregor’s profound respect for Woolf is evident at every moment of this shape-shifting triptych. Woolf Works should send every viewer back to her trailblazing novels.

Those who are acquainted at least in passing with Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and, to a lesser extent, The Waves, would get the deepest satisfaction from Woolf Works but no one could fail to be moved and excited. And not just by the dances. The Royal Ballet, which was last seen in Australia in 2002, has in its ranks some of the world’s most distinctive and dramatically alert dancers.

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The Royal Ballet in Tuesday from Woolf Works. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Brisbane’s first cast – mostly the same as that in London’s 2015 premiere season – included Edward Watson, whose irretrievably broken soldier in the first part of Woolf Works was heart-stopping; Sydney-born Steven McRae, whose presence and speed were electric; Russian superstar Natalia Osipova, who had charisma to burn; and young principal Francesca Hayward, who darted and floated like a luminous dragonfly.

Above all Woolf Works had the apparently ageless Alessandra Ferri at its centre, as Clarissa Dalloway in the triptych’s first section and as Virginia Woolf in the third. She is still an extraordinarily eloquent dancer and, at 54, brought the wisdom born of experience to these stories of love, remembrance and loss. McGregor’s rigorous intellectualism was taken into another realm, that of deeply affecting emotional resonance.

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Alessandra Ferri, centre, in Tuesday. Photo: Darren Thomas

Woolf Works begins with I now, I then, a distillation of Mrs Dalloway. A woman slides between present and past, remembering the joys and possibilities that have now evaporated. We see her glowing younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell), the man she might have married (Federico Bonelli) and the young woman she once kissed (Hayward). These shadows and reflections are seen more darkly in the figure of Septimus Smith, the soldier maddened by war. He too is haunted by thoughts of an unreachable ideal companion (Tristan Dyer).

On an austere set of revolving frames by Ciguë, illuminated softly by Lucy Carter’s elegiac lighting, memories float, intersect and dissipate. City sounds – bells, traffic, voices, the tick-tock of a day passing – waft through Max Richter’s superlative score.

McGregor’s choreography is delicate, restrained and very much on a human scale, even for Watson’s Septimus, whose anguish is palpable but tightly reined in. Richter’s music carries the load for him in huge sheets of dark sound, which retreat after Septimus and Clarissa have a moment together that isn’t in the novel but draws the threads together powerfully in the ballet (writer Uzma Hameed was the invaluable dramaturg).

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Edward Watson in I now, I then. Photo: Darren Thomas

The wow factor is sky-high in the swaggering second section, Becomings, which takes a flying leap from the shoulders of Orlando into a sci-fi world of Carter’s restless lasers, Moritz Junge’s punk-Elizabethan costumes, Richter’s electronica and top-gear momentum. The dance captures the tumbling energy of Woolf’s writing and a sense of the novel’s race through time although little of Woolf’s witty view of sexual politics.

The speedy, stretchy physicality puts us in more conventional – for him – McGregor territory and the cast of 12 goes at it with ferocious attack. Dancers move in and out of hazy corners to offer a glimpse of Orlando in his/her journey through gender and the centuries. Osipova and McRae are the clear standouts, with McRae doing Olympics-standard higher and faster feats and Osipova stunningly authoritative. She might not entirely bring to mind Woolf’s charming poet, with his “eyes like drenched violets”, but her command is complete.

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Natalia Osipova, left, in Orlando. Photo: Darren Thomas

The third section, Tuesday, contracts the multiple interior voices that intertwine in The Waves to a single viewpoint, that of the author as she chooses to end her life. Woolf wrote to her husband Leonard on a Tuesday, telling him how much happiness he had given her and that she could no longer go on. We had heard Woolf herself speaking at the beginning of the evening, in a BBC talk about language. In Tuesday her suicide letter is spoken beautifully in voiceover by Gillian Anderson as the work begins.

Dwarfed against a vast projection of breaking waves (film by Ravi Deepres) and enclosed in Richter’s heart-swelling score, Ferri as Woolf is buffeted by memories. This final short section is both itself and a circle back to the beginning: in an echo of I now, I then, a younger woman (Itziar Mendizabal) poignantly evokes a bright time when everything is still to come. In a further connection, Ferri is partnered tenderly by Bonelli, who gently lifts, tilts and sways her as if he were a ghost figure and she had already been claimed by the water. Virginia Woolf and Clarissa Dalloway, the creator and the created, are inseparable; indivisible perhaps.

A large corps of men, women and children comes and goes in surges like waves and flocks of birds but her aloneness is as complete as it is devastating.

Woolf Works ended on July 1 but more of the Royal’s exceptional dancers come to the Brisbane stage from July 5 in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. The Brisbane season marks the first time the Royal has performed Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale outside the UK, for which much thanks. It’s much more common for a company to decide that international touring requires the safety net, yet again, of Swan Lake.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the pit, and was in mighty form when conducted by the Royal’s music director Koen Kessels for Woolf Works. Conducting duties for The Winter’s Tale will be divided between QSO music director Alondra de la Parra and Royal Ballet guest conductor Tom Seligman.

Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

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Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

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Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

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Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.