Nine years after Chroma, Wayne McGregor is embarking upon a new challenge in London: his first evening-length creation for The Royal Ballet. Woolf Works, which has its world premiere in May, will be based on the life and writing of Virginia Woolf, with a brand-new score for orchestra and electronics by Max Richter, the composer of Infra.
Don't expect a conventional narrative, however: "I've always been interested in making works that can engage for a full evening without a narrative theme," says McGregor. Woolf Works will weave together elements from the writer's biography and three of her novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.
To bring Woolf to life, McGregor called upon Alessandra Ferri, the former American Ballet Theatre star who came out of retirement last year. He has long admired the Royal Ballet–trained ballerina, and felt Ferri, 52, was the right age for the role. "She's a phenomenal dance actress, and still in fantastic technical shape. I thought it would be a lovely moment for me to learn from her experience."
The three-act ballet will feature Woolf's character throughout, though it won't be tied to time and place—the sets will be abstract. Woolf's modernist style helped inspire McGregor. "In many ways, there's no action in her novels—just streams of consciousness and dialogue," he says. "A lot of her writing is very kinesthetic, and we wanted to capture that."
Woolf's own relationship with dance was another ingredient. "She was obsessed with dance," McGregor says. "She was influenced by the Ballets Russes in London, by early dance experiments. She thought about dance as an amazing metaphor for the complexities of living."