His newest ballet is inspired by an unusual source—writer Virginia Woolf.

McGregor’s work for The Royal will tackle one Woolf novel per act. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.


Though Wayne McGregor’s work is danced by classical companies all over the world, the maverick British choreographer continues to play by his own rules. For Woolf Works, based on the life and work of writer Virginia Woolf, to premiere at The Royal Ballet May 11–26, McGregor has a different kind of three-act ballet in mind—an abstract one. And he’s asked former Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre principal Alessandra Ferri, who turns 52 this month, to play the lead.

Will this be a narrative ballet, as many seem to be expecting?

It’s funny, because I never said I was making a narrative ballet! There has been a big resurgence in full-length narrative ballets, and I think we got obsessed with this particular way of telling stories. It’s a brilliant one, but it’s not the only way you can deal with complex emotional situations or multiple narratives. I thought this was a good moment to flex the opera house’s muscles in a new way.

You’re weaving Virginia Woolf’s life and several of her novels together into one evening.

Yes, partly because her biography is so intrinsically linked to some of her seminal works. I’m looking at three novels, in chronological order: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. I want a section for each, so the three acts will feel different. But many scenes reoccur in Woolf’s work: She writes about her novels being haunted by the presence of something else.

How will the movement relate to her style?

The wonderful thing about Virginia Woolf’s work is its sense of incompleteness. Everything isn’t tied together perfectly. She didn’t write conventional narratives, so it would be a bit perverse to try and stage her works as one. There is a connection between her stream of consciousness and the way we, in dance, work with images. And she was herself inspired by dance.

What was her relationship with dance?

She wrote a huge amount about it in her diaries and writings, including critical essays. She was part of the modern group that was influenced by the Ballets Russes in London. She saw works like Nijinska’s Les Noces, which challenged the way people thought about life, and she tried to emulate those experiments of dance in her writing, in terms of rhythm, for instance.

Why did you opt for a new score by Max Richter, who also composed Infra?

I like working with living artists, because they’re solving the problems as you go. For Woolf Works, we will have a very rich orchestral score and a strong, aggressive electronic language. A lot of Woolf’s writing speaks to the senses, so I wanted to catch that spirit—it might be the sound of waves, for instance, coming from various places in the auditorium.

Why Alessandra Ferri?

I’ve always loved her. She has such a knowing body, that synthesis of amazing acting talent and brilliant physicality. I knew I would learn a lot from her.

Latest Posts

Martin Miseré, Courtesy Cinetic Media

The Best Way to Close a Century of Cunningham? A 3-D Film of His Work

In much the same way that it would be reductive to think of Merce Cunningham's choreography as steps divorced from meaning, to call Alla Kovgan's highly anticipated film Cunningham a documentary is to oversimplify. There's rare archival footage, sure, but the musings of Cunningham, his early dancers, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg are melded with contemporary performances. Members of the final generation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (coached by director of choreography Jennifer Goggans) dance sections of the choreographer's most iconic works in eye-popping locations, filmed using 3-D technology to grant audiences an unprecedented degree of intimacy. Could there be a better way to close the year-plus extravaganza of events celebrating Cunningham's centennial? In theaters December 13.

Paul Matteson teaching at Lion's Jaw Performance & Dance Festival. Photo courtesy Matteson

These 5 Mistakes Are Holding You Back from Improving

There's a healthy dose of repetition in your dance education—whether it's those same fundamentals you're asked to practice over and over as you deepen your technique or the many run-throughs it takes to polish a piece of choreography. But teachers also see the same missteps and issue the same reminders from student to student, perhaps over decades in the studio.

We asked five master teachers to describe the things they wish they no longer had to correct—because if students could just remember to incorporate the feedback, they'd be on their way to becoming better dancers.

Getty Images

How Can We Confront Implicit Bias? The Director of Jacob's Pillow Shares Her Ideas

At Jacob's Pillow's June gala, something happened that outraged me: A patron who identifies as black/biracial felt a white man seated behind her touch her tightly coiled hair. When she ignored him, he audibly complained that her hair would block his view of the stage. At dinner, the patron was further subjected to a series of objectifying questions. "What are you?" asked the white woman sitting next to her. Not "who are you," but a dehumanizing "what." "Who was black? Was it your mother or your father? What do your children look like?"

Enter Our Video Contest