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ABT Journeys into the Heart of Virginia Woolf's Universe in 'Woolf Works'

Wayne McGregor’s first full-length ballet for American Ballet Theatre was inspired by the late writer’s nonlinear approach to narrative.

“Woolf Works” was created for The Royal Ballet in 2015. The final act is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves” and features a film by Ravi Deepres. Photos by Asya Verzhbinsky, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

The multi-award-winning British choreographer and director Wayne McGregor is known for innovating on traditional dance performance, often exploring the space where movement and technology meet and pushing the art form toward the unknown.

His ballet “Woolf Works” was created for the Royal Ballet in 2015 and will be performed by American Ballet Theatre for the first time in the United States at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, starting April 11. The production is inspired by the writings of 20th-century modernist author Virginia Woolf and features an original score by Max Richter that will be performed live by the Pacific Symphony.

Virginia Woolf, who lived from 1882-1941, is renowned for her stream-of-consciousness writing style. She seldom followed conventional narrative structures either in plot or character and weaved together her protagonists' thoughts, memories and emotions in a seamless flow of prose. 

With that in mind, don’t expect a typical story ballet from “Woolf Works,” which focuses on the writing of three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Orlando,” and “The Waves.”

The Orlando pas de deux from the Royal Ballet's original production of "Woolf Works", featuring Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson.


“‘Woolf Works’ is not a literal description of Woolf’s writing,” said McGregor in a press release.  “It’s very lavish, with new visualization techniques and a collage structure; a full-on assault and collision of the senses. The idea was to choreograph and design the piece in the spirit of Woolf’s writing, in an unfolding stream of consciousness, rather than as a literal translation of the novel’s narratives.”

Dancers Devon Teuscher, Hee Seo and Gillian Murphy will perform the role of Virginia Woolf, a role that was originally created for international-acclaimed ballerina Alessandra Ferri.

“So much of the movement is inspired by Woolf’s mindset. When we create a phrase of choreography it emulates a phrase of writing,” Murphy said in a recent interview. She shared that for this role, getting into character is paramount to perfect technique. 

“With this (show) in particular, it’s not about the steps. There is no long balance, no sequence of fouettés or a tricky petit allegro, every moment really starts from a place of what the character is feeling, what they are trying to stay, or how they respond to another character,” Murphy said.

In preparation for the role, Murphy said she had been reading “Mrs. Dalloway” and quotes from Woolf’s other works as a way to incorporate the writer’s cadence, intention and essence into the choreography.

Murphy has found it particularly interesting to engage with the parts of Woolf’s stories where she ruminates on the end of her life because Murphy is contemplating the end of her career as a ballet dancer. 

“I am in a place in my career where the clock is ticking, so the parallel is interesting,” she said. “Of course, my life won’t be over when I quit dancing in the next year or two or whenever that happens, but I do think it feels like a little death because it is such a huge part of one’s identity and passion and form of expression.” 

Murphy also appreciates the chance to portray what she described as a “full-fledged” woman, which is in stark contrast to the 16 to 20-year-old princesses and swan queens of other ballets.

“It has been quite amazing to take these words and translate them into this universal language (of movement) that might help people get closer to the language Virginia Woolf was striving for.”

Dancers from in the Royal Ballet's production of "Woolf Works."

Photos by Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Storytelling and the Way We Think of Ballet

When asked about adding “Woolf Works” to a season that includes classic ballets like “Swan Lake,” “Onegin” and “Romeo and Juliet,” ABT artistic director Susan Jaffe expressed the importance of having a wide array of works to expand the understanding of what dance can be.

“I think we can all get stuck in our ways. I love chocolate ice cream, for example, but sometimes when there is a new flavor you should try it!” said Jaffe, who refers to herself as a “classicist” who loves the dramatic ballet works of the past.

“When ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Giselle’ were created they were innovative at the time. They were brand new, something people had never seen before,” Jaffe said. “That is how the dance world moves forward – with new creations. In 20-50 years people will be calling these ballets the classics.”

Artists of the Royal Ballet in “Woolf Works” with lighting design by Lucy Carter. Carter is also lighting the ABT production. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

“Woolf Works” is structured into three acts – “I now, I then,” “Becomings" and "Tuesday” – and will feature the character of Woolf throughout, though the plot is not tied to time or place. Audiences can expect abstract sets and multimedia elements such as lasers, projection and spoken word.

“I think production values have changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years and people are used to the technologies, so it is hard to go back to just a plain backdrop when we can really knock the socks off of people with elements that add more magic,” Jaffe said.

As Jaffe looks forward to the company's future, she is adamant about attracting a younger, more diverse audience even if that means going against the grain of what some patrons expect. 

“When you think about ABT, it’s very easy to decide that we’re living in the past, but with ‘Woolf Works’ I think you’re looking at ABT now and seeing that we have a finger on the pulse of what is current today, what’s going on not only in the U.S.,” Jaffe said. “(McGregor) is a European choreographer, and Europeans have an incredible, creative dance scene. Being able to bring some of that to a North American audience brings me tremendous joy.”

Said Jaffe: “I hope people who see the production walk away with a feeling that ABT is so versatile and can not only perform the greats of the past but is currently performing the greats of the present.”

‘Woolf Works’

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. April 11-13, 2:00 p.m. April 13, 1:00 p.m. April 14

Admission: $39 to $129

Information: or 714- 556-2787 

Director Wayne McGregor works with Royal Ballet dancers Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli as they rehearse a pas de deux for "Woolf Works."


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