Words into ballet, dance from the rhythm of a novel: this is the transformation The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor achieves in his beautiful, utterly contemporary Woolf Works. Seventy five years after Virginia Woolf walked into the river with stones in her pocket, in March 1941, Woolf still works – and works magnificently.
Virginia Woolf was no dancer; it was her mind that was limber – her mind and her language. As McGregor reminds us, dance was already there in her words; his task was to delve down to their essence, to give those words the language of dance, the physicality of ballet. 'Respectfully', was the word he used when asked how he approached the task. Respectfully but not literally. His aim was transformation, and discovery – not adaptation.
Virginia Woolf lived and worked in turbulent times, as do we. Her first novel was published in 1915, during World War 1, but her great works – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves – from which McGregor creates Woolf Works, were written and published in its aftermath, between 1925 and 1931. 'Death’s enormous sickle' had cut its swathe through the youth of a generation, leaving 'a well of tears'; tears and sorrows, turmoil and uncertainty. War had disrupted old rigidities and pomposities that were passing anyway; political protest and economic depression were all around.
That was her world, the world in which she lived and worked – as a novelist and an essayist, as a critic, as a publisher at the Hogarth Press which she and her husband Leonard set up in the basement of their house in London’s Tavistock Square. It was a time when new ways of writing, new ways of thinking, were coming into being. Across the arts, it was the era of the Moderns, a radical and necessary break. English fiction, Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her 1919 essay Modern Fiction, once the most fluid of forms, had become rigidified in the years before the war. The novelist could no longer inhabit the comfortable high ground, the 'pinnacle' of 'accepted style', and look down with measured plots and careful narratives and neat resolutions. If the characters from those novels came to life they’d 'be dressed', she said, 'down to the last button in the fashion of the hour.' No more. Doubt had set in, 'a spasm of rebellion'.
“Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments.”
The task of 'modern fiction', and the challenge, was to convey this shifting pattern, the turbulence of competing views, competing voices. If a character were to step out from modern fiction, he, or she, 'would have not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.' Nor did they. James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922 by the Shakespeare Company in Paris. In London, in the Woolfs’ basement, the Hogarth Press published TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, an English translation (by Virginia Woolf) of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils – and all three of the novels that in another century Wayne McGregor would transform into ballet.
In Mrs Dalloway, this philosophy of art, of modern fiction, is given shape in words. It is a London day in June, the weather is sweet, the trees are green, and Clarissa Dalloway is to give a party that evening. She sets out for Bond Street to buy flowers, and as she walks through the crowded streets, she thinks back through her life, to her love for Sally Seton – a love that only now, maybe, can find a name – back to her childhood before the war when the days themselves seemed dependable, before the tumult was upon her – of love, of passions that couldn’t be named, of a marriage that was dependable, and dull. As she walks, her mind moving back and forth – the people passing, the cars on the streets, the party that night, figures from the past, long ago, vivid, part of her, gone, still there. 'I now, I then', McGregor calls the first of his Woolf Works triptych, the flow of past and present, the flow of mind and consciousness, that long ago kiss transformed – triumphantly, delicately – into the dance, the rhythm of Woolf given perfect expression.
Woolf’s way of writing, McGregor has said, her 'stream of consciousness' is not so different from the process of choreography; that flow from one idea, one perception, one moment into the next, is as much the essence of ballet, for him and the dancers of Woolf Works, as it is the spirit of Woolf’s language. 'The Crowded Dance of Modern Life,' Woolf called it, and as a writer she has no compunction in leaving the stream of Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness to rise up as if looking down, not from a knowing pinnacle, but as if with the air that lifts the leaves in the park, seeing, just for that moment, the housemaids at their windows, a fat lady in a cab, 'a voice bubbling up without direction', before descending again into the life and being, the consciousness of others there in the street, some known to Clarissa Dalloway, others not known to her, but known to us. Poor Septimus, shell-shocked from the war, his friend Evans killed in front of him, weeps at the London sky, engulfed by 'the gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes as if some horrors had come almost to the surface'. He is taken away by the doctors, as Virginia Woolf had been when she was engulfed by depression: closed in, another form of horror, an unbearable transformation of the self. That night Septimus jumps from the window. Mrs Dalloway hears of it at the party where the guests bring their own memories, intersecting and diverging, some shared, some known, some not known, passing, patterning, some still clinging onto their buttons, oh so correctly.
After Mrs Dalloway (1925) – and To The Lighthouse (1927) that McGregor doesn’t use – Virginia Woolf wanted some fun. Those two novels had broken through to a style that, at last, satisfied her. 'Soft & pliable, and I think deep, & never a word wrong for a page at a time.' They had also stressed her, casting her back to the depression she describes as an engulfing wave, to the horrors of doctors and enforced seclusion. But still she wrote the novels that brought not only her, but the form itself out from the war, through the tears, circumventing the old certainties, creating new forms to hold together the 'myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel' that complicate both modern life and modern fiction.
So she wrote Orlando. She was in love with Vita Sackville-West, rocked by 'the most violent waves of emotion' for the aristocratic Sapphist, Mrs Nicolson. Orlando is her love letter. Orlando is an androgynous boy born in the Elizabethan era, who morphs and changes over the centuries to become an androgynous girl of the twentieth century. He, she, is beautiful in nakedness and clothed, a lover of love and poetry, an adventurer in love and life. 'It’s all about you,' Woolf wrote to Vita in October 1927, 'the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind…the odd incongruous strands in you.' It began as a game, and became serious: how many selves could a single self encompass, how many multiples, how many impressions?
In the final draft of Orlando the eroticism was toned down, more metaphoric, less actual; another transformation. In 1928, when Orlando was published by the Hogarth Press, the emotional realities of androgyny and gender fluidity were lived experience, articulated and explicit among her Bloomsbury friends and colleagues; their loves and alliances were as fluid as their art. But change brings with it resistance, and 1928 was also the year of Radcliff Hall’s prosecution for her lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness.
Writing may have the lightness of humour, the bite of satire as Orlando does, but it is also serious work.
It was in 1928, and it is now. If it is to remain alive, it must move, always in the moment, changing, dancing, resisting the censors, resisting those who resist change, those who want to remake the certainties.
And so we come to The Waves, Woolf’s most radical work, a stream of six consciousnesses, a patterning of being, a further step back from narrative. Voices rise and fall, connecting, missing, overlapping as six friends cross and separate, merge and part. The writing rises and falls, wavers, falters, advances and retreats – like waves, like changing light, or shadows falling, perspectives shifting. It is a mighty novel, and the dance that McGregor works from it rises to its challenge. 'Tuesday', he calls this last work of the triptych. Tuesday, the day Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse at Rodmell just before the tide turned, sweeping her body downstream until it became snagged. She could feel the wave of depression rising, she wrote in her note to Leonard, and this time she knew it would engulf her, she would not return to shore.
The one thing she’d never be able to do as a writer was describe her own death. There’s the note to Leonard with that one word 'Tuesday' written at the top. Then nothing. Nothing, that is, of the living, breathing woman who was bound by the brief span of human life. Yet her words have lived on, gathering readers, writers, dancers, film-makers, actors. 'Creative energy', McGregor calls it. So when he incorporates her death into his 'Tuesday', it is not as 'a moment of depression and hopelessness; it’s a moment of this energy, this collective energy being atomised and delivered into the universe.'
The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.
Virginia Woolf’s essay Modern Fiction can be found in her collected Essays (ed. Leonard Woolf) Vol II; the 'Soft & pliable' quotation is from her diary, 21 March 1927 is from The Diary of Virginia Woolf (ed. Anne Olivier Bell) p. 132; the line from the letter to Vita Sackville-West, 9 October 1927, is from The Letters of Virginia Woolf (ed Nigel Nicolson) Vol 111, p. 429. Quotations from the novels are from the Penguin editions. All references to and quotations from Wayne McGregor can be found in an interview with Bonnie Greer, 8 May 2015.
Image Credits: Virginia Woolf image: Portrait of Virginia Woolf ( January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941), a British author and feminist. By George Charles Beresford (1864-1938) restored by Adam Cuerden. This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighbouring rights under Public Domain Mark 1.0.
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Drusilla Modjeska’s books include Exiles At Home (1981), Poppy (1990), a ‘fictional biography’ of her mother, The Orchard (1994) and Stravinsky's Lunch (1999), which explored the lives of the Australian modernist artists Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen. The Mountain (2012), is a novel set in Papua New Guinea, where she has worked with the literacy project ‘Making Books’ with children in remote schools (seamfund.org/making-books). Her latest book, Second Half First (2015) is a memoir that begins the night before her fortieth birthday.
Image Credit: Antonia Hayes