Mesmerizing balletic ode to Virginia Woolf new signature work for American Ballet Theatre

Dance · Reviews

American Ballet Theatre, now in its eighth decade, reclaims its mantle as a font of top international dance, dancers, and repertoire with “Woolf Works,” an evocation of three novellas written by the most poetic of 20th century authors, Virginia Woolf, rendered into an ambitious full-evening ballet by contemporary-classical choreographer Wayne McGregor. The work, a 2016 commission by the Royal Ballet, this past weekend put down roots in U.S. soil under the aegis of ABT’s new artistic director Susan Jaffe in its American premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “Woolf Works” heads this summer for a long run at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, where, one prognosticates, this thought-provoking, deeply engaging and highly visual (in this realm, “Woolf Works” is gorgeous) dance experience, staged to composer Max Richter’s moody and rambunctious original score, will find a keen audience. Called by its choreographer a “triptych” for its joining of three discrete mini-ballets, “Woolf Works” seeks to meld the feelings and ideas of the written word with the physical language of classical ballet. Much aided by striking if not spectacular production design, McGregor spins an admirable, wide-ranging array of choreography that gives the ABT dancers the platform to evince strong acting skills as well as the room to inhabit, as it were, their humanity. This, in our view, is a good thing.

Of ABT’s several casts on offer, we saw principals Devon Teuscher and James Whiteside in leading roles; both were superb, particularly the long-and-lean Teuscher in what is essentially a woman’s ballet.

catherine hurlin/daniel carmago

If conventional wisdom holds that making a movie that interprets the life and work of a writer is a difficult task, then try doing so in a ballet. The written word does indeed appear in “Woolf Works” in scrims; in the sound of a quill pen scratching a paper’s surface; and in Woolf’s own recorded voice heard in voice-overs. But the ballet is predominantly steeped in conceptual interpretations arising from Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). Each mini-ballet has a discrete look and feel of choreography, music, production design, costume design, hair and make up, soundscape, dramaturgy and lighting. But the trio shares a familial DNA; one grounded in Woolf’s nervous-making tonality that juxtaposes a deep joy in nature and human relations with a terrible foreboding, a sense of a fearsome fate. Of McGregor’s choreography, I most enjoyed the muted, highly classical dance palette of parts one and three. Part one, in particular, was rapturous, in its minimalism brought Anthony Tudor’s surging but contained emotionalism to mind. In “Woolf Work”‘s middle section, to thrusting, driving music, the dancers — dressed in gold glow-wear as the bisexual Orlando, with pie-plate tutus — looked extremely uncomfortable if not wobbly and under rehearsed. Is the smoke device absolutely necessary? It seemed to cause a big slip to the floor.

Seen above, a sly choreographic trick that worked seamlessly, a simple scenario in which a stageful of dancers present a single leg to the front, finished by a strongly pointed foot, and then the tracing of that foot on the ground, in a semicircle to the rear. This the basic balletic ronde-de-jambe. Change direction, rinse and repeat. It unifies disparate bodies and in its repetition, deconstruction and unison undertaking, evokes the kinds of language experimentation Woolf herself manifest in her texts. Orange County’s ballet-savvy audience gave a kind of solemn respect to this extenuated sequence, along with other headier atmospherics, for example, the amazing laser-beam lighting by Lucy Carter, that above our heads in the theater’s airspace inserted white 3-D cross-hatching. It wasn’t that there was an “adult in the room”; rather, it felt like a roomful of adults, something that in our day and age, in a shared public space, feels like a rare pleasure.

Costumes by Moritz Junge gives dance capability to the high-necked, long-sleeved Edwardian look of the era– heads up, this is a ballet for women — in which the simple addition of a cardigan sweater evokes wartime, and the silhouette of a dough-boy similarly wrenches the heart. Two moving set pieces–two massive three-dimensional frames, literally framed and gave distance to characters as they rotated in and out of our focus. The sound of church bells evoked the break-though into a modern age in which the precepts of the religion were being undone by the indecencies of a gruesome war.

The dancers nearly glided through all this pithy content, putting to great use their state-of-the art ballet technique and imbibing what is essentially British content. But any cultural disparity seemed to melt away as the ABT dancers brought a deep passion to their performances. One sensed a big, group sigh of relief (my projection here) from dancers (can it be?) weary (is this possible?) of being transmuted into acrobatic robots (much by the likes of Wayne McGregor in earlier choreographic days, and, ahem, in that second act) when given the opportunity to dance as actual human beings conveying identifiable human emotions. Not for nothing, ABT is a house of Tudor and de Mille. Even the company’s repertoire of white ballets produces acting dancers. So, in essence, while “Woolf Works” travels back in time, it is a foray back to ABT’s future.

The choreographer, Wayne McGregor, is seen working with two of ABT’s principal dancers, below.

wayne mcgregor, aran bell, hee seo

photo credit: Ravi Deepres

Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.

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‘Komorebi’ connects us to natural world in two recent Japanese movies


We noticed it right away. Evil Does Not Exist, the new film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director of Academy Award-winning DRIVE MY CAR opens with a long montage of treetops in a forest.

Hey! We just saw something very similar in Wim Wenders’ Academy Award-nominated movie, Perfect Days (2023). This marvelous film, an artsmeme favorite, also had extensive footage of lead character, Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), as he takes komorebi pictures with his (old-school) Olympus film camera. On lunch hours, between chomps on a sandwich, he stares upward and snaps still photos of the minuscule movement of wind and light playing on the treetops.

Who knew, but this beautiful linkage between man and nature is actually a Japanese tradition, and it has a name. Called “komorebi,” it describes the dancing shadow patterns created by sunlight shining through rustling leaves and swaying branches.

Evil Does Not Exist, a rather hyperbolic title for a gently affecting movie, is also good. Both films, unsurprisingly, carry environmental messages. Our Perfect Days review here, or click image below.

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