Dance Review: WOOLF WORKS (American Ballet Theatre – North American Premiere)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on April 12, 2024

in Dance,Theater-International,Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-New York


Virginia Woolf’s novels have had a profound impact on literature, inspiring adaptations in ballet and opera. These adaptations face the unique challenge of capturing the innovative narrative structures and exploration of inner lives that are central to Woolf’s work. Wayne McGregor‘s Woolf Works, originally choreographed for the Royal Ballet but now staged by American Ballet Theatre (ABT), ambitiously tackles this challenge, weaving together the threads of Woolf’s storytelling into the kinetic language of ballet.

Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside

The stage at Segerstrom Hall — where the North American premiere opened last night — becomes a canvas on which Woolf’s prose, introspection, and audacious character constructions come to life through movement (dramaturg Uzma Hameed). McGregor, known for his minimalist approach, dives into Woolf’s stream of consciousness, creating a triptych that pays homage to her genius while pushing the boundaries of ballet.

Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside
Devon Teuscher and Léa Fleytoux

The opening section, I now, I then, draws from the 1925 stream-of-consciousness novel Mrs. Dalloway, encapsulating the novel’s essence of a day stretching into a lifetime. Reflective and interconnected dances mirror the exploration of self and time in the novel. Dancers become manifestations of Clarissa Dalloway’s psyche, memories, and present, converging in a balletic representation of internal dialogues and societal observations. The minimalistic set, with its interplay of light and shadow, complements the fluidity of the narrative.

Scene from Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works
SunMi Park and Joseph Markey

In Becomings, inspired by Orlando, McGregor ventures into experimental terrain. The electrifying choreography matches the novel’s fantastical journey across centuries and genders. Max Richter‘s score provides a pulsating backdrop, challenging traditional notions of identity and form. The dancers embody the fluidity of time and self through body language.

Devon Teuscher and Daniel Camargo

The final section, Tuesday, draws from The Waves, presenting an elegy that pays tribute to Woolf’s exploration of interconnectedness and reflects on the writer’s tragic end. A projected seascape sets a tone of contemplative melancholy. Dancers move in waves, embodying the individual yet interconnected voices of the novel’s characters. It is a poignant meditation on existence and cessation, capturing Woolf’s introspection.

Devon Teuscher

Devon Teuscher, principal ABT dancer, delivers a clean and elegant lead performance. Fellow Principal James Whiteside brings a sense of sexiness to his role, adding a subtext of titillation to the otherwise austere proceedings.

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo

The masterful lighting by Lucy Carter with associate Simon Bennison enhances the performance with clever and visually stunning effects (film design by Ravi Deepres). From a golden-yellow glow simulating the tender concluding group sequence to laser beams illuminating the auditorium, the lighting creates captivating moments. The vibrant laser colors gradually shift to a monochromatic grayscale for the finale. The scenic designs are by Ciguë (I now, I then), We Not I (Becomings), and Mr. McGregor (Tuesday).

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo

Richter’s minimalist score is a wondrous mix of electronic and orchestral music. The orchestral sections are played beautifully by the Pacific Symphony under the baton of ABT musical director Ormsby Wilkins. It is a lovely score, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Philip Glass’s film score to The Hours, a modern minimalist masterpiece.

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo
Catherine Hurlin

Throughout Woolf Works, McGregor’s choreography speaks in a vocabulary that is both novel and deeply reverent to its source material. The ABT dancers, with their technical prowess and emotive capacity, traverse the emotional and intellectual landscapes of Woolf’s work, bringing her literary experiments to life. McGregor’s translation of Woolf’s essence into a new medium offers a sublime experience that defies the boundaries between art forms.

photos by Ravi Deepres

Woolf Works
American Ballet Theater
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
running time 143 minutes
ends on April 14, 2023
for tickets, call 714.556.2787 or visit SCFTA
New York Premiere plays June 25-29, 2024
for tickets, visit ABT

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