Showing the Rhythm

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite writers, pointed out Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation with style and rhythm in writing. Woolf first shared the thought in a letter to a friend, and I share it here:

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for the lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.

Almost exactly a year ago, Wayne McGregor (one of my favorite choreographers) considered Woolf’s life and work significant themes on which to build a dance piece–and I understand why. Dance might be the best medium to capture Woolf’s fascination with rhythm and style in a work of art; nothing else can articulate the idea of an initial wave in the mind–that surge before the right words come–more effectively.

The Royal Ballet in London posts videos of public rehearsals on YouTube. This format is incredibly useful in engaging the company with its audience, and in allowing a wider public to see how dancers work together when applying ideas to their bodies. I find these rehearsals fascinating to watch, and think that more companies should share and promote their work in this way.

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli rehearse Wayne McGregor’s “Woolf Works”

This particular video shows Wayne McGregor rehearsing with Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli for the ballet Woolf Works. The rehearsal demonstrates how healthy and respectful the exchange between dancers and their rehearsal directors can and should be (not always what we’re exposed to in movies). It also shows how well-spoken and well prepared this choreographer is when describing his work, and how effectively he is able to communicate these ideas to the dancers.

The pas de deux is based on Woolf’s “The Waves.” Ferri and Bonelli are breathtaking to watch; I found it easy to become hypnotized by the sound of rolling waves paired with the fluid and cyclical movements in the dance. McGregor’s accompanying vocal sighs and hums describe his intended dynamic for each individual movement better than words might. He is hands-on in the rehearsal, observing the dancers closely from all angles. He makes suggestions, but always honors the efforts that the dancers contribute to the work. (Side note: Ferri, now in her early fifties, approaches the dance with all of her acquired wisdom and experience, yet is still daring, curious, and technically exquisite. It’s pretty incredible to witness.)

The care and attention with which McGregor has built his movement vocabulary is a nod toward the incredible and unique voice that Woolf developed in her writing. The experienced viewer can recognize the specific style of both McGregor’s dance and Woolf’s words within seconds. But I think that it’s possible for both to be appreciated as beautiful and meaningful by any observer. For those who might consider Woolf’s prose difficult to swallow, maybe the dance can offer that initial current to help you follow the wave. For those who feel a distance to the dance world, maybe approach the movement like you would read words on a page; the language weaves together to create something beautiful. Whether that beauty is captured forever in print, or disappears as soon as it is expressed, how nice to have been carried along.

Thanks for reading! I am very interested in your thoughts. Were you ever moved by an author’s work, dance performance, or other work of art, that made you consider the world differently? How do you think dance companies could connect with their audiences better? Please leave your comments in the box below.


  1. I never thought about style as a function of or product of rhythm. It makes sense but I don’t know why. I think of how your writing repeated the phrase “one of my favorite…” In the first paragraphs. That’s a use of rhythm and I admired the effect! Very nice article.


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