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Tonight at Covent Garden, a collision of dance,
literature, music and design
as the life and writings of Virginia Woolf provide the inspiration
for the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer Wayne McGregor.
This production played to sell-out audiences
in 2015 and went on to win McGregor
both the Critics' Circle Award for Best Classical Choreography
and the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.
Why Virginia Woolf?
Well, I think she really reinvented the way in which you read a novel.
Nobody writes quite like Woolf.
Everything you see is vivid and heightened and full of colour
and full of feeling.
Language is really almost like a research tool for her
to probe into what it means to be a person.
The combination of the power in her work
and the fragility in her humanity really touches me.
Last year, Wayne celebrated his tenth anniversary
as the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet,
a decade that has seen him create a diverse body of works.
Virginia Woolf is one of our best-known English writers
and an icon of modernism.
She was born in 1882 into a privileged, intellectually curious
yet essentially Victorian family,
and strove in her work to find literary forms
appropriate for the new realities of the 20th century,
producing nine novels along with a raft of essays, journals
Three of her novels are directly referenced tonight.
The first part of the ballet, which Wayne has entitled I Now, I Then,
invokes the themes and characters of Mrs Dalloway.
In the second part, Becomings, Wayne draws on her novel Orlando,
with its gender-fluid central character hurtling through time.
And finally, in Tuesday, Woolf's novel The Waves is at the fore,
a work about which she said,
"I'm writing to a rhythm and not to a plot."
Alongside the literary works,
Wayne McGregor has also incorporated elements of Virginia Woolf's
own life, from her thoughts on writing and language
to her circle of friends and her lovers,
as well as her struggles with mental illness,
which culminated in her suicide by drowning at the age of 59.
She absolutely loved dance, she loved music.
She wanted to write as if she were writing music
and as if she were kind of choreographing dance.
And I just thought it would be a wonderful thing to try and
reinterpret those, or translate those novels
into something for the stage.
It's an investigation into these texts, into her biography,
into her life, via the medium of these disparate artforms, you know,
music, dance, movement, video, scenography, costume, lighting.
It's a wonderful investigation, a wonderful laboratory into that.
We hear all this stuff about Virginia Woolf as being suicidal
and mentally ill and tragic and all of these things but, actually,
when she was talking about writing and she was talking about her work,
she knew what she was doing.
All the dance really should happen here on these pages. It's just
that actually it's how you get there.
We had to boil the three novels right down to what we felt
was their essence,
and amplify everything that needed to be there to convey that feeling
in the most direct, immediate and pure kind of way.
Mrs Dalloway is a beautiful story about people.
It's about human relationships.
It's a woven textured story which is full of imagination and pain
Orlando is this romp through 300 years of history,
and as Woolf was super interested in science fiction, in astronomy
and things other, it's really suited my kind of alien aesthetic.
And then the third piece, The Waves, is partly her letters and biography
colliding with this phenomenal story about growing older
and letting go, in a way.
I think we first had the idea for the Woolf project around 2012.
In our case, we were into the studio in 2015.
'On the very first day when we went into Woolf Works,
'it was more of a workshop environment'
and we were just exploring movement, space,
'I find it freeing.
'I find it wonderful to have something made for you.'
I'm sure it's like getting something tailored specifically for you.
Wayne's language, and Wayne's way of connecting a movement to music,
it has a unique grammar. It's very, very exciting
to sort of witness how he then interprets what's going on.
-That's always very striking.
Then, yeah, if you could just work out your alignments quicker
so you can get through a little bit quicker, I think that
would be really good, yeah.
He's extremely particular about what he wants.
He likes you to explore your characters.
He likes you to explore the movement to its maximum.
He knows exactly in what direction's everybody's going in,
and is a master on knowing the shapes
and the patterns of what he wants on stage.
He loves the fact that everybody just embraces the space.
'What I love to see is offering something to an amazing dancer,
'them to give me something back and me to recognise'
that I could never have thought of that on my own.
'That's why casting is really important.'
He said to me, "I need soul. I need the soul of Virginia Woolf."
'I realised that I really could work with this man, who comes from a very
'different environment, different world of dance than I was used to.
'We could develop a connection,'
if he approached the work with a soul in mind.
'Mrs Dalloway was my age, she was a woman in her 50s.
'But then in her memory, she was a teenager.'
But so am I! And so is everyone.
You know, we all have our life inside of us.
'Woolf is never just one thing, and actually
'if she had the possibilities that we have of staging, for example,
'having multiple characters on stage at the same time,
'being able to look into different people's psychological reality'
at the same time, would she be doing one story?
Or would she rather not be doing something that is far less
story-led, and much more about finding different voices
and giving different experiences?
When I read Woolf, that's what I get over and over again -
her absolute brilliance about being able to describe
and to hold on to this really varied and multidimensional lives
that we all lead.
Well, the ballet starts with the only surviving recording
of the voice of Virginia Woolf.
We glimpse Woolf the writer before she disappears
among her characters, and the themes of Mrs Dalloway come to life.
VOICE OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: 'Words, English words, are full of echoes,
'memories, of associations, naturally.
'They've been out and about, on people's lips,
'in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.
'And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today.
'They are stored with other meanings, with other memories,
'and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past.
'The splendid word "incarnadine," for example. Who can use that
'without remembering "multitudinous seas"?
'In the old days, of course, when English was a new language,
'writers could invent new words and use them.
'Nowadays, it's easy enough to invent new words.
'They spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight
'or feel a new sensation.
'But we cannot use them because the English language is old.
'You cannot use a brand-new word in an old language
'because of the very obvious yet always mysterious fact
'that a word is not a single and separate entity.
'It is part of other words.
'Indeed, it is not a word until it is part of a sentence.
'Words belong to each other, although, of course,
'only a great writer knows that the word "incarnadine"
'belongs to "multitudinous seas"...'
HORSE AND CART
HORSE AND CART CONTINUES
CHATTING AND LAUGHTER
SOUNDS CRESCENDO THEN STOP
I Now, I Then,
part one of Woolf Works from the Royal Opera House in London.
Last year Wayne McGregor celebrated his tenth anniversary
as the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet.
Over that time he has created a huge body of work
and collaborated with a genuinely dazzling array of people
from neuroscientists to novelists, architects to animators.
And I'm very pleased to welcome him.
-Wayne, thank you for coming to join us.
-I can't believe ten years has passed.
-I know, so fast.
Oh, what is it about the Royal Ballet dancers that keep
-Well, they're just incredible.
I mean, everybody has their own kind of physical signature,
their own handwriting.
But these dancers have just got such phenomenal technique
and emotional intensity,
and, you know, increasingly amazing imaginative and creative skills.
And it's just a pleasure to work with them every day.
And the dancers are very willing, as well, aren't they?
So willing, they're so open, yeah.
And also when we're making, we're coauthoring material.
It's not just, I'm standing at the front telling dancers what to do.
We're really working on projects together,
and over these last ten years we've really developed
a kind of a shorthand with many of those dancers.
And then you see all this young generation who are even more
technical, have even more kind of creative ideas, all raring to go.
Yeah, it's really wonderful.
So you do give quite a lot of material
-to the dancers to work with.
-I do, yeah.
Your process is fascinating, cos I have seen you in action.
I think it's partly something to do, first of all,
with the quick transaction of energy. If I provoke you
and you move in a particular way, something happens.
I love to do that. Sometimes I might come in and make something with my own body
and give it to a dancer. Sometimes I might work with
the two of you here, and try and construct something...
-That'd be the dream!
-..and construct something together...
..and sometimes I just set an idea off and we all work it out together.
We ask a question of the body, and the body kind of solves a problem,
and something interesting comes out. It's those combinations of things.
Choreographers work in so many different ways.
That's the wonderful thing about being a choreographer -
is difference, is this idea of everybody finding
their own kind of physical way
of inspiring others and inspiring themselves,
and I think that diversity in dance is really incredible.
I love being part of that.
One of the wonderful things about this ballet is that it gives a sense
of the sheer range of your choreography. Very briefly,
if you may, would you just tell us something
to look out for in the next act?
Well, I guess this next act is more a kind of a rollercoaster
of physicality, so the job here in a way is to push the body to do things
that have never perhaps been done before, or at least to push them
in a way that is really kind of extraordinary.
The body is misbehaving. And I love that,
because in so many ways Virginia Woolf misbehaved.
She didn't follow convention in writing,
and this kind of trip through 300 years, you see it in a kind of...
-..a misbehaving way.
-It's like an adrenaline bullet, really.
Well, nobody delivers adrenaline bullets like Wayne McGregor.
Thank you so much for being with us and for this beautiful,
-Well, it's not long before
we will be immersing ourselves in the world of Woolf Works again.
The astonishing soundscape that the ballet occupies is,
as we've just heard, the creation of the composer Max Richter.
He's one of Wayne's long-time collaborators,
and a few days ago he came into a studio here at Covent Garden
to give us an insight into his compositional process.
One of the most striking things about Virginia Woolf, I think,
is her creative work is very sensory.
It's about sound and texture and feeling and colour and tempo.
There's something very inspiring about that, actually.
The music, to begin with, with Miss Dalloway
grows out of nothing. You have this very simple...
..little fragment which grows...
And it just turns into a continual line of quavers. Very asymmetrical.
And then other musics at different speeds surround it.
It's almost like pulling of focus.
There is also a kind of a theme which is a very simple
sort of long-note theme which actually comes over the top
of this rippling line of quavers.
It's a very, very simple, a sort of minimal little line
which happens there, but also happens in different forms
in different movements of the first act.
It's sort of encountering something
that you don't know where you've heard it. That's the idea of it.
And I think that's really one of the magic aspects
of the novel for me, this idea of meeting things across time.
The second act of the ballet, I use a ground base.
A ground base is a repeating baseline.
In today's language we would call it a loop, but in fact it's a
structural principle which goes back to the 16th century at least.
Earlier, probably. La Folia is a very well-known example of that.
It's this, everyone recognises...
HE PLAYS LA FOLIA BY ARCANGELO CORELLI
Yeah? So we all know that tune, don't we? So that's La Folia.
And it struck me that the structure of Orlando,
with this extraordinary journey spanning hundreds of years,
changing gender, doing all sorts of travelling,
themes of transformation, it really lent itself to a variation form.
In the simplest Orlando variation, it's almost like
sort of putting grit in the oyster to make the pearl.
You know, so in that variation, this very simple...
So it's sort of right,
but it's also sort of wrong.
You know, for most of us that sort of...
It makes you go... "Oh..."
You know. Cos we know how it should go, but...
..there's something a bit wrong with that.
So it sort of invites participation.
It's recognisable, but subtly altered.
And that's really what's going on in Orlando a lot of the time.
The music for Tuesday is all structured
around the principle of a wave.
We start with this...almost like an empty space.
You know, it's just...
moving very, very slowly.
So that...is an up-down movement, you know?
That's what it does, it goes up and down. It's like a wave.
And then it's joined by a faster-moving line
which also goes up and down.
more and more density of waves moving up and down
at different speeds.
If we look in the score, we can see these things.
Even visually, you can see it quite clearly.
There's that sort of wave movement.
If we imagine that...stave there...
You've got this very high line doing this
And then the next line...
..is sort of like this.
And then more density and more speed...
..is built up while the music sort of develops.
So you get all these interference patterns, and all of this
is underpinned with this big ground base
which is a sort of...
It's almost a sort of cosmic background radiation
which holds the harmonic field of this really large, long extended
piece together in a way which hopefully feels inevitable.
That's really what I'm looking for.
Now, the second part of the ballet is called Becomings,
and it's Wayne McGregor's response to the novel Orlando,
first published in 1928 when it caused a huge scandal.
The book, subtitled A Biography,
features a protagonist who changes sex from man to woman
and travels through three centuries of English history.
Becomings features designs by the architectural practice We Not I,
with costumes by Moritz Junge
and lighting and lasers by Lucy Carter,
which we should probably warn you does create some strobe effects.
It's time now to head to the auditorium for Becomings,
the second part of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works.
PEN SCRATCHES ON PAPER
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
part two of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works from the Royal Opera House.
Well, wasn't that extraordinary?
-I mean, you heard the response there from the audience.
Well, after that, the final part of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works,
Tuesday, takes its inspiration from Virginia Woolf's eighth novel,
The Waves, which she described as a play poem.
It follows the lives of six characters in parallel
from childhood through to old age.
Tuesday also features elements of Virginia Woolf's own biography
set against a vast video projection by Ravi Deepres.
We're going to hear something really special now -
some of Virginia Woolf's writing in a series of extracts
from her poetic novel The Waves
and from her autobiographical fragment Sketch Of The Past.
The selections were made by dramaturg Uzma Hameed
and are read here for us by the one and only Maggie Smith.
If life has a base that it stands upon,
if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills,
then my bowl, without a doubt, stands upon this memory.
It is of lying half asleep, half awake...
..in a bed in the nursery at St Ives.
It is of hearing the waves breaking,
one, two...one, two...
..and sending a splash of water over the beach.
And then breaking...
one, two...one, two...
..behind a yellow blind.
It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn
across the floor as the wind blew the blind out.
It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light...
..and feeling it is almost impossible that I should be here,
of feeling the purist ecstasy I can conceive.
We launch out now over the precipice.
Beneath us by the lights of the herring fleet,
the cliffs vanish...
rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves
spread underneath us.
I touch nothing.
I see nothing.
We may sink and settle on the waves.
The sea will drum in my ears.
The white petals will be darkened with sea water.
They will float for a moment and then sink.
Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.
Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.
"..I feel certain that I'm going mad again.
"I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times.
"And I shan't recover this time.
"I begin to hear voices...
"..and I can't concentrate.
"So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.
"You have given me the greatest possible happiness.
"You have been in every way all that anyone could be.
"I don't think two people could have been happier...
"..till this terrible disease came.
"I can't fight any longer.
"I know that I am spoiling your life.
"But without me, you could work.
"And you will, I know.
"You see, I can't even write this properly.
"I can't read.
"What I want to say is, I owe all the happiness of my life to you.
"You have been entirely patient with me, and incredibly good.
"I want to say that.
"Everybody knows it.
"If anybody could have saved me, it would have been you.
"Everything has gone for me but the certainty of your goodness.
"I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.
"I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.
APPLAUSE AND CHEERING CONTINUE THROUGHOUT CURTAIN CALL