The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works


The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

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Tonight at Covent Garden, a collision of dance,

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literature, music and design

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as the life and writings of Virginia Woolf provide the inspiration

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for the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer Wayne McGregor.

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This production played to sell-out audiences

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in 2015 and went on to win McGregor

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both the Critics' Circle Award for Best Classical Choreography

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and the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.

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Why Virginia Woolf?

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Well, I think she really reinvented the way in which you read a novel.

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Nobody writes quite like Woolf.

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Everything you see is vivid and heightened and full of colour

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and full of feeling.

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Language is really almost like a research tool for her

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to probe into what it means to be a person.

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The combination of the power in her work

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and the fragility in her humanity really touches me.

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Last year, Wayne celebrated his tenth anniversary

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as the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet,

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a decade that has seen him create a diverse body of works.

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Virginia Woolf is one of our best-known English writers

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and an icon of modernism.

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She was born in 1882 into a privileged, intellectually curious

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yet essentially Victorian family,

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and strove in her work to find literary forms

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appropriate for the new realities of the 20th century,

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producing nine novels along with a raft of essays, journals

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and letters.

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Three of her novels are directly referenced tonight.

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The first part of the ballet, which Wayne has entitled I Now, I Then,

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invokes the themes and characters of Mrs Dalloway.

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In the second part, Becomings, Wayne draws on her novel Orlando,

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with its gender-fluid central character hurtling through time.

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And finally, in Tuesday, Woolf's novel The Waves is at the fore,

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a work about which she said,

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"I'm writing to a rhythm and not to a plot."

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Alongside the literary works,

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Wayne McGregor has also incorporated elements of Virginia Woolf's

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own life, from her thoughts on writing and language

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to her circle of friends and her lovers,

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as well as her struggles with mental illness,

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which culminated in her suicide by drowning at the age of 59.

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She absolutely loved dance, she loved music.

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She wanted to write as if she were writing music

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and as if she were kind of choreographing dance.

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And I just thought it would be a wonderful thing to try and

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reinterpret those, or translate those novels

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into something for the stage.

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It's an investigation into these texts, into her biography,

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into her life, via the medium of these disparate artforms, you know,

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music, dance, movement, video, scenography, costume, lighting.

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It's a wonderful investigation, a wonderful laboratory into that.

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We hear all this stuff about Virginia Woolf as being suicidal

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and mentally ill and tragic and all of these things but, actually,

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when she was talking about writing and she was talking about her work,

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she knew what she was doing.

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All the dance really should happen here on these pages. It's just

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that actually it's how you get there.

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We had to boil the three novels right down to what we felt

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was their essence,

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and amplify everything that needed to be there to convey that feeling

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in the most direct, immediate and pure kind of way.

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Mrs Dalloway is a beautiful story about people.

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It's about human relationships.

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It's a woven textured story which is full of imagination and pain

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and beauty.

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Orlando is this romp through 300 years of history,

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and as Woolf was super interested in science fiction, in astronomy

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and things other, it's really suited my kind of alien aesthetic.

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And then the third piece, The Waves, is partly her letters and biography

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colliding with this phenomenal story about growing older

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and letting go, in a way.

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I think we first had the idea for the Woolf project around 2012.

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In our case, we were into the studio in 2015.

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'On the very first day when we went into Woolf Works,

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'it was more of a workshop environment'

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and we were just exploring movement, space,

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'the music.'

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'I find it freeing.

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'I find it wonderful to have something made for you.'

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I'm sure it's like getting something tailored specifically for you.

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Wayne's language, and Wayne's way of connecting a movement to music,

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it has a unique grammar. It's very, very exciting

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to sort of witness how he then interprets what's going on.

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-That's always very striking.

-That movement.

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Then, yeah, if you could just work out your alignments quicker

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so you can get through a little bit quicker, I think that

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would be really good, yeah.

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He's extremely particular about what he wants.

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He likes you to explore your characters.

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He likes you to explore the movement to its maximum.

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He knows exactly in what direction's everybody's going in,

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and is a master on knowing the shapes

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and the patterns of what he wants on stage.

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He loves the fact that everybody just embraces the space.

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'What I love to see is offering something to an amazing dancer,

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'them to give me something back and me to recognise'

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that I could never have thought of that on my own.

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'That's why casting is really important.'

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He said to me, "I need soul. I need the soul of Virginia Woolf."

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'I realised that I really could work with this man, who comes from a very

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'different environment, different world of dance than I was used to.

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'We could develop a connection,'

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if he approached the work with a soul in mind.

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'Mrs Dalloway was my age, she was a woman in her 50s.

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'But then in her memory, she was a teenager.'

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But so am I! And so is everyone.

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You know, we all have our life inside of us.

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'Woolf is never just one thing, and actually

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'if she had the possibilities that we have of staging, for example,

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'having multiple characters on stage at the same time,

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'being able to look into different people's psychological reality'

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at the same time, would she be doing one story?

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Or would she rather not be doing something that is far less

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story-led, and much more about finding different voices

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and giving different experiences?

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When I read Woolf, that's what I get over and over again -

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her absolute brilliance about being able to describe

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and to hold on to this really varied and multidimensional lives

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that we all lead.

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Well, the ballet starts with the only surviving recording

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of the voice of Virginia Woolf.

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We glimpse Woolf the writer before she disappears

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among her characters, and the themes of Mrs Dalloway come to life.

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VOICE OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: 'Words, English words, are full of echoes,

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'memories, of associations, naturally.

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'They've been out and about, on people's lips,

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'in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.

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'And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today.

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'They are stored with other meanings, with other memories,

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'and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past.

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'The splendid word "incarnadine," for example. Who can use that

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'without remembering "multitudinous seas"?

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'In the old days, of course, when English was a new language,

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'writers could invent new words and use them.

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'Nowadays, it's easy enough to invent new words.

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'They spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight

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'or feel a new sensation.

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'But we cannot use them because the English language is old.

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'You cannot use a brand-new word in an old language

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'because of the very obvious yet always mysterious fact

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'that a word is not a single and separate entity.

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'It is part of other words.

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'Indeed, it is not a word until it is part of a sentence.

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'Words belong to each other, although, of course,

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'only a great writer knows that the word "incarnadine"

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'belongs to "multitudinous seas"...'

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MUSIC

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CLOCK STRIKES

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HORSE AND CART

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CLOCK TICKS

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HORSE AND CART CONTINUES

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CHATTING AND LAUGHTER

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CLOCK TICKS

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SOUNDS CRESCENDO THEN STOP

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MUSIC

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APPLAUSE

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I Now, I Then,

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part one of Woolf Works from the Royal Opera House in London.

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Last year Wayne McGregor celebrated his tenth anniversary

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as the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet.

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Over that time he has created a huge body of work

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and collaborated with a genuinely dazzling array of people

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from neuroscientists to novelists, architects to animators.

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And I'm very pleased to welcome him.

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-Wayne, thank you for coming to join us.

-Hello.

-It's extraordinary.

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-I can't believe ten years has passed.

-I know, so fast.

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Oh, what is it about the Royal Ballet dancers that keep

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-inspiring you?

-Well, they're just incredible.

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I mean, everybody has their own kind of physical signature,

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their own handwriting.

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But these dancers have just got such phenomenal technique

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and emotional intensity,

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and, you know, increasingly amazing imaginative and creative skills.

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And it's just a pleasure to work with them every day.

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And the dancers are very willing, as well, aren't they?

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So willing, they're so open, yeah.

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And also when we're making, we're coauthoring material.

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It's not just, I'm standing at the front telling dancers what to do.

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We're really working on projects together,

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and over these last ten years we've really developed

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a kind of a shorthand with many of those dancers.

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And then you see all this young generation who are even more

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technical, have even more kind of creative ideas, all raring to go.

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Yeah, it's really wonderful.

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So you do give quite a lot of material

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-to the dancers to work with.

-I do, yeah.

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Your process is fascinating, cos I have seen you in action.

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I think it's partly something to do, first of all,

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with the quick transaction of energy. If I provoke you

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and you move in a particular way, something happens.

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I love to do that. Sometimes I might come in and make something with my own body

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and give it to a dancer. Sometimes I might work with

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the two of you here, and try and construct something...

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-That'd be the dream!

-..and construct something together...

-Please!

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..and sometimes I just set an idea off and we all work it out together.

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We ask a question of the body, and the body kind of solves a problem,

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and something interesting comes out. It's those combinations of things.

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Choreographers work in so many different ways.

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That's the wonderful thing about being a choreographer -

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is difference, is this idea of everybody finding

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their own kind of physical way

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of inspiring others and inspiring themselves,

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and I think that diversity in dance is really incredible.

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I love being part of that.

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One of the wonderful things about this ballet is that it gives a sense

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of the sheer range of your choreography. Very briefly,

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if you may, would you just tell us something

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to look out for in the next act?

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Well, I guess this next act is more a kind of a rollercoaster

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of physicality, so the job here in a way is to push the body to do things

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that have never perhaps been done before, or at least to push them

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in a way that is really kind of extraordinary.

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The body is misbehaving. And I love that,

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because in so many ways Virginia Woolf misbehaved.

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She didn't follow convention in writing,

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and this kind of trip through 300 years, you see it in a kind of...

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-..a misbehaving way.

-It's like an adrenaline bullet, really.

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Well, nobody delivers adrenaline bullets like Wayne McGregor.

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Thank you so much for being with us and for this beautiful,

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-beautiful ballet.

-Thanks.

-Well, it's not long before

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we will be immersing ourselves in the world of Woolf Works again.

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The astonishing soundscape that the ballet occupies is,

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as we've just heard, the creation of the composer Max Richter.

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He's one of Wayne's long-time collaborators,

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and a few days ago he came into a studio here at Covent Garden

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to give us an insight into his compositional process.

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One of the most striking things about Virginia Woolf, I think,

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is her creative work is very sensory.

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It's about sound and texture and feeling and colour and tempo.

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There's something very inspiring about that, actually.

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The music, to begin with, with Miss Dalloway

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grows out of nothing. You have this very simple...

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..little fragment which grows...

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..over time...

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And it just turns into a continual line of quavers. Very asymmetrical.

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And then other musics at different speeds surround it.

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It's almost like pulling of focus.

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There is also a kind of a theme which is a very simple

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sort of long-note theme which actually comes over the top

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of this rippling line of quavers.

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It's a very, very simple, a sort of minimal little line

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which happens there, but also happens in different forms

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in different movements of the first act.

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It's sort of encountering something

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that you don't know where you've heard it. That's the idea of it.

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And I think that's really one of the magic aspects

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of the novel for me, this idea of meeting things across time.

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The second act of the ballet, I use a ground base.

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A ground base is a repeating baseline.

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In today's language we would call it a loop, but in fact it's a

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structural principle which goes back to the 16th century at least.

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Earlier, probably. La Folia is a very well-known example of that.

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It's this, everyone recognises...

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HE PLAYS LA FOLIA BY ARCANGELO CORELLI

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Yeah? So we all know that tune, don't we? So that's La Folia.

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And it struck me that the structure of Orlando,

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with this extraordinary journey spanning hundreds of years,

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changing gender, doing all sorts of travelling,

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themes of transformation, it really lent itself to a variation form.

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In the simplest Orlando variation, it's almost like

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sort of putting grit in the oyster to make the pearl.

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You know, so in that variation, this very simple...

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..becomes...

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So it's sort of right,

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but it's also sort of wrong.

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You know, for most of us that sort of...

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It makes you go... "Oh..."

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You know. Cos we know how it should go, but...

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..there's something a bit wrong with that.

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So it sort of invites participation.

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It's recognisable, but subtly altered.

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And that's really what's going on in Orlando a lot of the time.

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The music for Tuesday is all structured

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around the principle of a wave.

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We start with this...almost like an empty space.

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You know, it's just...

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moving very, very slowly.

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So that...is an up-down movement, you know?

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That's what it does, it goes up and down. It's like a wave.

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And then it's joined by a faster-moving line

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which also goes up and down.

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And then

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more and more density of waves moving up and down

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at different speeds.

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If we look in the score, we can see these things.

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Even visually, you can see it quite clearly.

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There's that sort of wave movement.

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If we imagine that...stave there...

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You've got this very high line doing this

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quite slowly...

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..like that.

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And then the next line...

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..is sort of like this.

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And then more density and more speed...

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..is built up while the music sort of develops.

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So you get all these interference patterns, and all of this

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is underpinned with this big ground base

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which is a sort of...

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It's almost a sort of cosmic background radiation

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which holds the harmonic field of this really large, long extended

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piece together in a way which hopefully feels inevitable.

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That's really what I'm looking for.

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Now, the second part of the ballet is called Becomings,

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and it's Wayne McGregor's response to the novel Orlando,

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first published in 1928 when it caused a huge scandal.

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The book, subtitled A Biography,

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features a protagonist who changes sex from man to woman

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and travels through three centuries of English history.

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Becomings features designs by the architectural practice We Not I,

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with costumes by Moritz Junge

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and lighting and lasers by Lucy Carter,

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which we should probably warn you does create some strobe effects.

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It's time now to head to the auditorium for Becomings,

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the second part of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works.

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MUSIC

0:51:460:51:50

PEN SCRATCHES ON PAPER

0:51:560:52:01

SCRATCHING CONTINUES

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

1:27:031:27:07

Becomings,

1:27:181:27:20

part two of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works from the Royal Opera House.

1:27:201:27:23

Well, wasn't that extraordinary?

1:27:231:27:25

-I mean, you heard the response there from the audience.

-Yes!

1:27:251:27:28

Well, after that, the final part of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works,

1:27:281:27:31

Tuesday, takes its inspiration from Virginia Woolf's eighth novel,

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The Waves, which she described as a play poem.

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It follows the lives of six characters in parallel

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from childhood through to old age.

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Tuesday also features elements of Virginia Woolf's own biography

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set against a vast video projection by Ravi Deepres.

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We're going to hear something really special now -

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some of Virginia Woolf's writing in a series of extracts

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from her poetic novel The Waves

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and from her autobiographical fragment Sketch Of The Past.

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The selections were made by dramaturg Uzma Hameed

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and are read here for us by the one and only Maggie Smith.

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If life has a base that it stands upon,

1:28:121:28:16

if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills,

1:28:161:28:21

then my bowl, without a doubt, stands upon this memory.

1:28:211:28:26

It is of lying half asleep, half awake...

1:28:271:28:32

..in a bed in the nursery at St Ives.

1:28:331:28:36

It is of hearing the waves breaking,

1:28:371:28:41

one, two...one, two...

1:28:411:28:45

..and sending a splash of water over the beach.

1:28:461:28:50

And then breaking...

1:28:521:28:54

one, two...one, two...

1:28:541:28:58

..behind a yellow blind.

1:29:001:29:02

It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn

1:29:041:29:08

across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.

1:29:081:29:12

It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light...

1:29:141:29:20

..and feeling it is almost impossible that I should be here,

1:29:221:29:28

of feeling the purist ecstasy I can conceive.

1:29:281:29:33

We launch out now over the precipice.

1:29:351:29:38

Beneath us by the lights of the herring fleet,

1:29:401:29:44

the cliffs vanish...

1:29:441:29:47

rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves

1:29:471:29:51

spread underneath us.

1:29:511:29:52

I touch nothing.

1:29:541:29:57

I see nothing.

1:29:571:29:59

We may sink and settle on the waves.

1:30:001:30:03

The sea will drum in my ears.

1:30:041:30:06

The white petals will be darkened with sea water.

1:30:071:30:11

They will float for a moment and then sink.

1:30:131:30:16

Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.

1:30:181:30:23

Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.

1:30:241:30:30

"Tuesday.

1:31:301:31:32

"Dearest...

1:31:361:31:39

"..I feel certain that I'm going mad again.

1:31:411:31:43

"I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times.

1:31:461:31:49

"And I shan't recover this time.

1:31:511:31:53

"I begin to hear voices...

1:31:551:31:56

"..and I can't concentrate.

1:31:581:31:59

"So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.

1:32:051:32:08

"You have given me the greatest possible happiness.

1:32:111:32:15

"You have been in every way all that anyone could be.

1:32:171:32:21

"I don't think two people could have been happier...

1:32:251:32:27

"..till this terrible disease came.

1:32:291:32:31

"I can't fight any longer.

1:32:351:32:37

"I know that I am spoiling your life.

1:32:411:32:43

"But without me, you could work.

1:32:451:32:47

"And you will, I know.

1:32:501:32:52

"You see, I can't even write this properly.

1:32:561:32:58

"I can't read.

1:33:011:33:03

"What I want to say is, I owe all the happiness of my life to you.

1:33:101:33:15

"You have been entirely patient with me, and incredibly good.

1:33:181:33:24

"I want to say that.

1:33:271:33:28

"Everybody knows it.

1:33:301:33:31

"If anybody could have saved me, it would have been you.

1:33:361:33:41

"Everything has gone for me but the certainty of your goodness.

1:33:471:33:52

"I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

1:33:571:34:01

"I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

1:34:041:34:08

"V."

1:34:181:34:20

MUSIC

1:34:201:34:24

APPLAUSE

1:55:181:55:24

CHEERING

1:55:311:55:34

APPLAUSE AND CHEERING CONTINUE THROUGHOUT CURTAIN CALL

1:56:031:56:07

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