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Virginia Woolf, but Make It a Polyphonic, Sensory Ballet


He was interested in adapting something of Woolf’s, because she experimented with form, and because she was interested in music and dance. After considering a “Mrs. Dalloway” ballet, he arrived at a more expansive idea: a triptych that also takes off from “Orlando,” a parodic, gender-fluid fictional biography; and “The Waves,” an experiment in collective storytelling that elegiacally traces the arc of life. Using an original score by Max Richter, McGregor also wove in Woolf’s biography and mental illness, blurring the boundaries between her life and her characters, and building a third act around her suicide.

When “Woolf Works” premiered in 2015, Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian that, “in the depth and the scope of its ambitions, and in its haunting meditations on memory, madness and time, it takes both McGregor — and the concept of the three-act ballet — to a brave and entirely exhilarating new place.”

The first act, “I now, I then,” is the most traditionally narrative of the three. It opens with the only surviving audio of Woolf’s voice, and has aspects of “Mrs. Dalloway,” with roles including the title character and her husband, Richard, as well as the war-traumatized soldier Septimus. But at times, it’s not clear whether the female protagonist is Clarissa Dalloway or Woolf herself; whether Richard is Woolf’s husband, Leonard; or whether the woman she dances with is Sally or Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend and lover.

Next is “Becomings,” a conjuring of “Orlando” and its breathless romp through hundreds of years of history. Of the three acts, it is the most recognizably McGregor, with athletic, hyperextending bodies bolting through space. “I wanted to make something,” he said, “that was taking the novel as if it were glass, shards of information, ideas and gender identity, and really finding a virtuosity in the body that matched the aspiration and invention of the book.”

He ends with “Tuesday,” a focused treatment of “The Waves” that includes a recording, by Gillian Anderson, of Woolf’s suicide note, written to her husband, and unfolds as a long farewell. “I see it as a celebration of life,” Teuscher said, “a collective grieving of a life, and an honor and homage to Virginia Woolf.”

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