Virginia Woolf ballet should be a subtle and moving spectacle

“We are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.” Wikimedia Commons

Interest in all things Bloomsbury certainly seems to have taken an upturn. The National Portrait Gallery is planning an exhibition of the seminal modernist writer Virginia Woolf, to open later this year. The paintings will largely be by the post-impressionist artists in her circle, her sister Vanessa Bell and her sister’s lovers Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.

But more intriguingly, The Royal Opera House has also announced a Woolf-inspired event – a new ballet called Woolf Works, suggested by Virginia Woolf’s life and writing, for the summer 2015 season.

The ballet, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, will be based on three of Woolf’s novels (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves), as well as on moments in the author’s life. Interestingly, the parallels between Woolf’s novels and dance have already been made by a number of different literary critics, most recently by Susan Jones and Evelyn Haller. Indeed, responses to her life and work have already been made in contemporary dance by The Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre.

Woolf was certainly enchanted and inspired by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when she saw the dancers in London. She also knew Lydia Lopokova, the Russian prima ballerina who married John Maynard Keynes. The artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, also part of the Bloomsbury Group, designed sets and costumes for other ballets and theatrical productions.

Woolf’s novels respond to dance in various ways. There are the actual dances, such as the ball in her debut novel The Voyage Out (1915), as well as her use of dance as an image that expresses a character’s experience of the world. We see this in Jinny from The Waves (1931), who says of herself:

I flicker […] I leap like one of those flames that run between the cracks of the earth; I move, I dance; I never cease to move and to dance.

But Woolf’s response to dance was more than a plot device or means to express a lively character. It was absorbed into the fabric of her language, in her attempt to express the rhythms of life and, more specifically, the movements of human consciousness.

In her writing, Woolf endeavoured to achieve a cross-pollination of various artistic forms. Trying to create the “novel of the future”, she described her works as play-poems, elegies, essay novels and rhapsodies, and often found parallels between writing and painting.

In her 1927 essay “Poetry, Fiction and the Future” she describes this novel of the future, which will be written in prose, “but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry” and would be “dramatic, yet not a play”. It was this desire to fuse different forms and genres in order to create a new work of art that makes her writing so different.

“Style is a very simple matter;” she wrote to Vita Sackville West in 1926:

It is all rhythm. […] A sight, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it […] and then as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.

Her style was clearly a fusion of shape and movement before it reached the page. In light of this interest in dance, pattern and rhythm it seems fitting that the Royal Ballet will try to transfer Woolf’s words back into the shapes and pulses that first formed them.

If the intention is to create a ballet that, as the Royal Opera House claims, “break the rules” of narrative, rejects the traditional laws of character, time and action, and seeks a translation of consciousness into a tangible form, taking flight from Woolf’s often poetic language, it will surely be a subtle, challenging and moving spectacle. This ballet will, I hope, make Woolf’s claim in her early memoirs come true: “We are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.”