Woolf Works at American Ballet Theatre Dives Into Virginia Woolf and Gender-Fluidity | Playbill

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Classic Arts News Woolf Works at American Ballet Theatre Dives Into Virginia Woolf and Gender-Fluidity

Wayne McGregor’s Olivier Award-winning ballet gets its New York premiere.

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in Woolf Works Marty Sohl

On October 5, 1927, Virginia Woolf dashed off an entry in her diary: “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.” The lady in question was Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s muse and lover.

Later, Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicholson strikingly called Orlando “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace, and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Woolf’s gender-bending romp through three centuries of time-warped history, in which Orlando, a young nobleman, wakes up in the 17th century as a woman (but with some male sensibilities intact), inspired part of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Olivier Award-winning ballet Woolf Works, created for The Royal Ballet in 2015. “Becomings,” freestyled on Orlando, forms the second section of the triptych ballet, with “I now, I then” and “Tuesday” referencing Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves respectively. The three sections distill the novels down to their essences, each varying distinctly in design and choreography.

ABT’s Summer season and New York Premiere of Woolf Works (June 25–29) serendipitously coincides with Pride Month, celebrating the LGBTQ+ rights movement, in New York City.

The irreverently punk flavor of “Becomings,” described by McGregor as “an adrenaline bullet," flaunts gender fluidity (Sackville-West often wore men’s clothes, calling herself Julian) as the dancers switch off female and male roles and garments.

As described by McGregor, “Costumes by Moritz Junge can be deconstructed from richly ornate 17th century costumes to barely-there androgyny. Their modular nature enables multiple combinations that constantly recreate and dismantle different gender identities.”

“Woolf and The Bloomsbury Set were ahead of their time in exploring gender fluidity in the context of liberating themselves as artists and people from restrictive social convention and construct,” says McGregor. He recognizes the modernity of Woolf’s worldview encompassing freedom, inclusivity, and elasticity: “The central theme of Orlando is that we are not singular but plural and in a state of constant change. Therefore, human identity resists categorization. In a sense, this is quite different from some of the identity politics that we see today.”

Although the time-traveling language and plot of Orlando, rich with period detail and prescient science fiction insight, aren’t conventionally dance-accessible, McGregor’s intention for the ballet was“to expose themes questioning gender construction and the nature of human existence against the backdrop of a vast universe,” augmented by piercing laser beams and a futuristic production. “The text holds incredible force and muscularity: she wants to convey a sense of the immensely powerful laws of the universe that govern human life–-that’s what we wanted to release,” he says.

“The poetry of the writing alone makes it dance worthy,” he says, with an imagery “that
is acoustic, visual, and kinesthetic, all colliding at different times.”

McGregor has collaborated with composer Max Richter on three ballets, including Woolf Works, a working relationship that Richter calls “a very easy, conversational process” that mutually focusses on “the questions, the possibilities, and the boundaries of creative languages.” Richter finds Woolf’s language thoroughly musical, particularly in the evocation of the characters’ sensoria: “Through the sights, sounds, and haptics that populate her imaginative worlds, we almost come to inhabit them ourselves, and this immersive quality in her writing is something that music can speak to very well.”

For “Becomings,” Richter chose to utilize “La Folia,” a pulsating traditional 15th century gypsy motif associated with madness and abandon. “This suited the theme of liberation through the continual transformation that Woolf offers in Orlando,” he says.

A consistently valuable presence in Woolf Works through its incarnations in productions by The Royal Ballet and Teatro alla Scala has been legendary ballerina Alessandra Ferri, who dances the central figure of Virginia Woolf/Older Clarissa, a role she will reprise with ABT, her former Company of 22 years. McGregor wanted Ferri for her “unrivaled dramatic ability” and her propensity to bring “incredible imagination and empathy and a kind of economy and purity to our collaboration.”

Ferri was struck by Woolf’s genius, fragility, and strength that brought power to her revolutionary writing. McGregor told Ferri he wanted her to represent “the soul of Virginia Woolf.” He needed, she says, “someone who could dive into the inner world of the character and bring that on stage, to embody something a lot deeper than just the mere physicality of telling a story. It is the inner journey of the writer, interlaced with the characters that she writes about.”

Woolf was entranced by the explosive creativity of dance as an art form in the early 20th century, including the performances by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Lydia Lopokova, and of Bronislava Nijinska’s ballet Les Noces. In 1902, Woolf wrote in a letter to her cousin Emma Vaughn, “I would give all my profound Greek to dance really well.” She confessed that dance music “stirs some barbaric instinct—lulled asleep in our sober lives—you forget centuries of civilization in a second, and yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room."

McGregor shared Woolf loved the expressive dynamics of dance and would probably love modern stagecraft: “She was a magpie, combing the grammar of other art forms in search of equivalents that she could use in her writing to create a highly vivid, sensory language. Orlando is often described as a love letter to Vita. In some ways, this production is a love letter to Virginia and the enduring power of her work. It might be wishful thinking, but somehow, we feel Woolf Works would thrill them.”

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