Virginia Woolf as ballet
Woolf Works premiered in 2015 and returns to Covent Garden. Dramaturg Uzma Hameed tells Griselda Murray Brown about Woolf's love of ballet
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping. Footage courtesy of The Royal Opera House. Pictures by Tristam Kenton. Music by Max Richter, whose album "Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works" is out on Deutsche Grammophon on January 27.
SPEAKER 1: Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations, naturally. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses and streets, in the fields for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing of the dead.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Woolf Works is a ballet by the choreographer Wayne McGregor, inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf. It was a hit when it premiered in 2015, and it's now returning to Covent Garden, where McGregor is resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet. But how do you translate Woolf's complex stream-of-consciousness novels into dance?
The writer and theatre director, Uzma Hameed, worked with McGregor to help him realise his vision. You and Wayne have been inspired by three different texts by Woolf. Can you tell me a bit about how those work?
UZMA HAMEED: Originally, actually, we did think about doing one novel. And then we thought, hang on. That's not going to be true to the spirit of Woolf, who was so diverse and who, you know, is very rarely one thing.
So it made sense to take three very well-known novels, each of which is very different in nature. So the first act is drawn from and inspired by "Mrs. Dalloway." It's entitled, "I Now, I Then." It's about a woman remembering her past. And as she remembers them, the ghosts of the past come to life.
Act 2, we decided to base it on "Orlando." And this is really an amazing kind of magical-realist, almost-science-fiction, very flamboyant, very bombastic, very out-there kind of a novel about this amazing character who starts off as a boy, aged 16, and travels through 300 years of time and changes sex as he goes, becomes a woman, and ends up in the early part of the 20th century. And then in the third act, we chose to do "The Waves," which is perhaps her most abstract work.
She called it a play poem and was trying in that to sort of really pare back the narrative as much as possible and try to reach the essence of the inner life. And it's very much about the lifecycle of a human being, set against the sort of vast and really quite dispassionate landscape of the sea. But as we began to work on this, it seemed so natural that Woolf's own life story should come into this piece because throughout her work for her water was such an important image. And this idea of merging with something, she very much yearned for that.
SPEAKER 2: And fold, great.
UZMA HAMEED: When I talk about being a dramaturge, for me that role is about helping to clarify the intention of the piece. And that means working with Wayne at an early stage to work out really what the piece is about. So, for example, we know it needs to be about Virginia Woolf. But obviously there's so much work with so much in her, not only her fiction but her letters, her diaries, her essay.
SPEAKER 2: Easy, easy.
UZMA HAMEED: Wayne creates so much material so fast. And what's very helpful is for us both to be in the room and for me to be able to say, oh, actually that, what you just created there, reminds me of that particular moment. And then really much closer to curtain up, I would work closely with the dancers. At the beginning, they're very much focused on learning the movements and making sure that it's all completely instinctive. But then later on, we talk much more about the acting side of it and what we're trying to convey.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So do you think the experience of kind of being a member of the audience, watching the ballet, I mean, is that kind of comparable to reading Woolf? Is there something about the experience of both?
UZMA HAMEED: I hope so. I think so. I mean, that's what we wanted. Rather than adhering very strictly to any kind of plot or narrative that might be in the novel, we very early out set out to create that experiential, impressionistic feel, because that's so much part of Woolf. And she so envied dance and music and these art forms, and painting as well, of course, that could really cut through the kind of structure and the plot that you need in fiction. So I hope that what we've created is something that's full of feeling and that even if you know nothing about the novels or know nothing about Woolf, you will come. And you will be able to see the themes being unfolded before you, and you will have a personal, emotional reaction to them.