Woolf Works


wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.


The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.


I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)


Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.


Titian’s Metamorphosis

In 2008, I posted about the National Gallery‘s purchase of Titian‘s Diana and Actaeon, wondering whether they were worth the money, and concluding that although they probably were, I didn’t find the paintings particularly moving or interesting. Now, the NG are exhibiting Titian’s series together, reuniting Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon for the first time since the eighteenth century. As a celebration of this, and as part of the Cultural Olympiad London 2012 festival, the National Gallery are doing some unusual things with the Titians. Describing it as ‘A multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts’, ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ includes new art, poetry and even ballet in the name of reimagining and re-engaging with Titian’s work in 2012. The exhibition is on until 23rd September, and I have to admit I haven’t yet managed to see it, but the idea of it is so interesting that I thought I would blog about it. My interest was sparked by Imagine on BBC1 on 24th July, which followed the artists working on the project.

Diana and Callisto depicts the moment when Diana reveals that her servant Callisto is pregnant, and banishes her. The Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon paintings depict the story of Diana’s revenge, also based on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and there is useful information and discussion of the paintings on the NG’s website. Actaeon, a young hunter, accidentally sees Diana naked whilst she is bathing with her nymphs. In a fit of what seems like unreasonable fury, Diana pursues him to his death: he is transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds. The paintings are full of portent and symbolism, which, it turns out, is ripe for inspiring fresh work, and the idea of this chain of ideas, art inspiring art, appeals to me.

The ‘Metamorphosis’ project includes new paintings inspired by artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger, which are currently on display at the National Gallery. The artists were also asked to produce set designs and costumes for three short ballets based on the paintings. Imagine interviewed the artists, who pointed out the life and movement of the paintings, which, combined with comedy and tragedy, expression and emotion, make the paintings ideal for such an artistic collaboration. The artists collaborated with choreographers and composers to create the ballets (one of which includes a robot-Diana!), although the new works, both dance and art, are not narrative or figurative, but loosely inspired by the paintings and largely abstract.

The project also includes a range of new poems by poets including Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Seamus Heaney. (You can watch some of the poems being read by their authors here). The poems, from what I have seen, rely more on narrative and characterisation than the other works, and owe a lot to the ‘violent transformations’ of Ovid’s work as well as to Titian. I love this idea, of Titian being inspired by Ovid to produce something that, at the time, was new, cutting-edge (as well as a kind of respectable erotica), and subsequently inspiring all this new work. Perhaps there was some public doubt about whether so much money should have been spent on the Titians back when they were first for sale, but it seems to me that such new artistic engagement with the works, and the level of public interest in them, more than justifies it.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

On Monday evening we were excited to be at the Royal Opera House for the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s been hugely hyped in the national press, of course, and, especially since it’s such a difficult story to stage, I think everyone was wondering if it would live up to its press. As far as I am concerned, it did. Though some critics have suggested the first act is too long, at 70 minutes, it seemed to me to be sufficiently pacy for the length not to matter.

The ballet opens with a garden party in Oxford in 1862. The events of the garden party are carefully reflected in the narrative structure of the rest of the ballet, and the character of Lewis Carroll, who is a guest at the party, turns into a white rabbit, who takes Alice down the rabbit hole. Many of the effects – Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Alice shrinking and growing – are achieved with the use of projection onto a screen, which works very well. The Cheshire Cat is created from a number of dancers holding pieces which come together to form a whole cat, but can also then dematerialise. Combined with Joby Talbot’s atmospheric score, it’s amazingly effective but also unsentimental and humorous. Lauren Cuthbertson’s Alice is perfectly unself-conscious and childlike in some moments, but, when the story calls for it, more adult and knowing than the usual Alice, which fits the narrative of the ballet perfectly.

The second act – shorter, at 45 minutes – contains some brilliant moments, particularly the Queen of Hearts (Zenaida Yanowsky) in a pastiche of the Rose Adagio played to great comic effect with reluctant minions and a waiting executioner; and the game of croquet with the Duchess (Simon Russell Beale) in which the hedgehogs are danced by members of the Royal Ballet School, and the flamingoes have wonderful costumes and perfectly flamingo-like movements. The Queen and the tap-dancing Mad Hatter (Steven McRae) certainly got the biggest cheers from the audience at the end. The sets are numerous and complex, but they work extremely well.

This is the kind of ballet that is likely to become a classic – like favourites such as The Nutcracker, it contains many character parts (even a bit of Bollywood ballet!) and a wide range of animals too. In its themes, in the music, the characters and the choreography, it ranges from the lyrical to the humorous, the semi-tragic to the child-like. It also moves from the nineteenth century at the beginning into the present day right at the end. In many ways it seemed to me to be a very traditional ballet, though in its special effects it is quite modern; but it is bound to have a wide appeal, which is no doubt the intention.

You can watch a trailer for Alice here.