• Beatrice Benedek

Woolf Works - The Gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century

A view on Wayne McGregor and Max Richter’s masterpiece

I saw Woolf Works. And my world changed.

(Photo Credit: Royal Opera House)

I choose to regard this pandemic as a time of reflection, development and ‘eureka’-moments.

I watched a lot of shows and performances online, which have kindly been made available by those amazing companies such as The Globe, The National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, The Bridge Theatre, Thalia Theatre, Berliner Ensemble, Schaubühne Berlin, Deutsches Staatstheater Temeswar, English National Opera and so many more!

However, for me personally the highlights of this pandemic were the shows that the Royal Opera House have shared. Their campaign #OurHouseToYoursHouse has been an inspiration, an influence, a learning curve, a life-long lesson in the craft of art-making

It was 2017 when I first saw Woolf Works, a new ballet piece choreographed by Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Opera House, and music composed by Max Richter. It was then that I understood what a ‘performance’ should be. It was through this incredible piece of art that I have finally realised what so many - dare I say - ‘connaisseurs’ failed to teach me during my MA studies. To understand what a true ‘performance’ embeds, is very tricky and difficult. Not everything that is presented on a stage and is deemed as a performance…is actually a performance.

It is an art to create one.

Therefore, to see, to witness one is rare, but when you do, the experience is just out of this world. One that you will never forget. One that will transform you as an artist.

As I was watching the online premiere of the show, I had shivers running up and down my spine because, 3 years down the line, I was realising another momentous aspect of this performance. Woolf Works is what we call in German a Gesamtkunstwerk, a ‘total work of art’, a synergy of art forms working together to create an artistic and aesthetic unity.

Woolf Works takes you on a journey.

In three acts, one experiences snippets of some of Virginia Woolf’s most recognisable works: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. In this ballet triptych, Wayne McGregor stretches the limits of choreography and dancing, and is not afraid - quite clearly - of taking these risks. It almost feels like we’re witnessing the train of his thoughts unfold live, with its perfect sequences, but also unpredictable moments. There is a natural, organic flow, in which one thing leads to another, even when some moments seem to juxtapose themselves, or find themselves in complete opposition - aesthetically, rhythmically, approach-wise. This can be observed best between act one and act two.

He achieves the impossible, by giving a voice to what even we, highly intellectual beings, most of the time can’t express: emotions, real emotions. And one connects with these really deeply, almost to the point where you can feel it yourself.

I saw quite a few of his ballets and work before, and I have recognised some recurring elements. Despite these elements, the material feels new, fresh, more grounded, yet quite dynamic in its execution. But it never detracts from the essence of the story which the performance unfolds. His style is slick, sharp and ensemble-driven. In neither of his work have I ever seen him playing it safe. It almost feels like he’s setting himself up to either fail or succeed. And every time it is the latter that shines through.

Act two is definitely going to take you outside of your comfort zone. You recognise ballet elements in it, but at the same time your instinct says it isn’t. The storytelling method used through the means of dance, paired with the costumes and lighting design, are not only complemented, but enhanced through the staccato-like music.

Everything looks and sounds a bit alien-like. One identifies the performative languages: dance, costumes, lights, minimal stage design and music. Yet, it still feels out of this world. Or, better still, like inside your own mind. It resembles more to a fantasy, or an experience happening on a neurotic level. It sends shivers down your spine. It penetrates every inch of your body.

Gone is the aesthetically pleasing and smooth movement seen in act one. This is now replaced with a scene of roaring-twenties-meet-80s Berlin rave scene. I wonder if this is how Woolf’s imagination and fantasy world would have escalated?

Immediately after follows Waves, which plunges you straight into a slow, very lyrical and moody ambiance. Act three’s score starts with the noise of waves crashing against the shore. And the evolving melody continues to fuel this atmosphere throughout the entire act. There is a sense of being under water. Part of me would say that this is metaphor to describe some aspects of mental health: the permanent cycles of thoughts, speeding at 1000mph, not being able to stop them, the sense of chaos and inability of letting go, the hyper mood which allows one to focus on a 100 things only to give up on everything in the end. The last act of McGregor’s triptych is taking you on this journey alongside the performers. But one does feel like drowning or like wanting to scream but not daring to, because every breath of air might be the last one. And it’s getting even more intense when one starts questioning whether or not what one witnesses are memories being performed or an aspect of delirium?

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

Woolf Works is a cathartic experience.

The performance explores through the means of dance, music, lights and stage design very challenging subject matters. Themes that we sometimes avoid because we don’t quite know how to comprehend.

McGregor’s vision and Richter’s underlying composition intertwine so well, that they create the best platform to express and embody these concepts. Act 1 and act 3 in particular expose best the notion of time, the passing of time, the process of remembering and recalling of memories, and nostalgia. All of this is realised through simple but very effective use of stage and lighting design, costumes and Richter’s fantastic music score.

It is so rare to see performers project so much confidence on stage that one would think it’s the most normal thing to do. This confidence translates itself into a cathartic experience which we, the audience members, feel throughout the entire show. When the ensemble is relaxed on stage, we are too, when there is tension, we feel it, when someone is in pain, we feel their pain, when someone remembers, we remember, when they show their love for one another, we experience it too, and when they suffer, we suffer. It is truly amazing to see and feel this evolve and develop organically in front of your eyes. I believe this is also due to the fact that each one of the performers are comfortable with the subject matters. These feelings are universal, but it is out of this world to be able to embody them in such a way that one can resonate with these by simply observing them on stage. We are subjected to this extraordinary cathartic experience.

(Photo Credit: Royal Opera House)

Everything is essential and nothing is superfluous.

There is a part in the music score only, that starts with Virginia’s memories being read out loud (Sarah Sutcliffe) about the memory being a seamstress, who runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after (full quote online. Just hit the search button). This is immediately followed by Richter’s VI movement: Orlando: Modular Astronomy that I can’t help but hear the image - yes, you read correctly, hear the image - of needles, that run at different paces and dynamics, sow different textures and pieces of fabric. It is just mind blowing how eclectic of a visual and sensorial scene one can create through creating music that complements and mirrors a text. This sits in direct juxtaposition with the score in act one, in which every instrument seems to take centre stage, alongside the dancers. Richter’s Mrs. Dalloway - Meeting Again, sees the cello starting off, setting the mood of this sequence, followed by a lovely viola-violin duet. As always, these go hand in hand with the choreography, and proves that the dancer-music score interaction is in itself a standalone role in the performance.

But it is not only the music that takes up a strong lead-role in this performance, it is also the lighting design which is a character itself. It is taking up the role of an optical illusion that plays with one’s perception. This is best seen in act two, when lighting designer Lucy Carter cleverly uses laser lights to create an effect which I would associate with the creation of a safety curtain live on stage.

Moritz Junge, the costume designer, gives us a style of the past, present and future in one go. Some would say this Tudor-like inspiration reminds us of the more extravagant characters of Shakespeare, others would say it is closer to McQueens Plato’s Atlantis (2010) fashion show. But it is neither, it is the perfect unity of both these worlds. Futuristic, yet contemporary. This can be best seen in act two, when each dancer and their partners wear costumes that are intended to complement each other, becoming one when they dance together. This ensures that every facet of the performance works as a unity.

As with the choreography, there are numerous moments which seem completely ad-hoc and a sweet sense of improvisation could be noticed. The dancers clearly enjoy these moments. But don’t be fooled by it, as everything is precisely calculated and timed - yes, even the moments of walking in squares, filling the stage with nothing but spatial squares.

(Photo Credit: Studio Wayne McGregor; Royal Opera House; Pinterest)

Aspects of love - transcendental and limitless.

There are a number of sequences which explore different aspects of love. This can be seen most prominently in the first act. In a time when same-sex relationships were categorically illegal, Virginia Woolf approached this subject in a cunning way - by turning to writing and placing herself ahead of her time with her novels.. Almost a century later, Wayne McGregor, with the help of dramaturg Uzma Hameed, creates an extraordinary piece of work, which brings the emotions, the feelings, the tensions, the love of these characters alive. These strong personal experiences are explored through the movement patterns created to complement the music score, the attack of the dancers, the devotion they show to their characters, the feelings they embody and recreate on stage, They take us on a most realistic journey with them, and enable us to understand what those characters truly feel for each other.

Alessandra Ferri, principal of the Royal Ballet, and taking the lead in McGregor’s work, executes Virginia’s characters in a most genuine way. The movements accompanied by strong emotions bring these characters alive, almost to the point where you could see Virginia’s original train of thoughts unfold before your eyes. And I believe she would have approved it wholeheartedly.

But it is the use of the entire ensemble that distinguishes Wayne’s work. If I am not mistaken, he is using the entire Royal Ballet company to ensure the stories told are related in a most minute detail. And by doing this, we experience a multitude of approaches to the theme of love, deep sorrow, extreme happiness, loneliness and even mental health.

(Photo Credit: Royal Opera House; Culture and Anarchy)

All of the above is realised through a piece of modern ballet! And it sees a perfect unity of so many different art forms. I told myself many times: if this performance would incorporate some text too, it would truly be a modern version of a Gesamtkunstwerk! And then act three happened: on a background of wave sounds, Virginia’s last written letter being read out. Not only that, but it also concluded with the music having done a full cycle, returning to its leitmotiv - a trait that is very common in McGregor’s work.

My words can’t make this performance justice. But if you ever get the chance to watch it, please don’t miss it out. Their Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production consolidates this work of art as a masterpiece of the 21st century. And hopefully one of this Gesamtkunstwerk that so many late artists have dreamt of achieving.

(Photo Credit: London Magazine)

Woolf Works insights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0ADxUspPW8

Key Words: Modern Ballet; Gesamtkunstwerk; Art Synergy; Theatre; Choreography; Modern Composer


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