To the lightshow: how astronomy and Virginia Woolf inspired the Royal Ballet

Space News

Woolf Works by the Royal Ballet takes its inspiration from Virginia Woolf and her fascination with the huge changes in scientific thought during her lifetime.

Virginia Woolf lived and worked at a time of monumental change in our understanding of the universe. The initial decades of the 20th century saw the biggest revolution in our thinking since Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century and this generated a great deal of popular interest in the subject, too.

In 1915, Albert Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity, which explained gravity as an invisible landscape of contours in space. In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, a natural phenomenon that can only be explained by Einstein’s ideas of space and time.

1e95dc11-5198-4526-a73c-d1aa0861f0fa-2060x1236Woolf Works, a new ballet, explores the smallness of the individual against the vastness of the cosmos.

She wrote in her diaries of making astronomical observations with telescopes, particular of the craters on the Moon. She wrote a stargazing scene into her novel Jacob’s Room and even considered having a planetarium installed in her home. The cost of £20,000 put her off.

At the same time, astronomers on both sides of the Atlantic were making strides in understand the nature of the stars as gigantic nuclear furnaces. Radio programmes and books, often by British physicist Sir James Jeans aimed to explain these wonders to an eager audience.

Jeans’ and Einstein’s work was familiar to Woolf. She wrote about reading Jeans’ popular accounts and penned a letter to a friend in 1930, while she was writing her novel The Waves, that she had been trying to “imagine what is meant by space bending back”. This is a clear reference to Einstein’s concept of space as a malleable thing.

Woolf appears to have used this burgeoning of astronomical knowledge to fuel her own creativity, and this is interpreted in the second act of the Royal Ballet’s new production, Woolf Works. The second act is titled Becomings, and the production’s dramaturg Uzma Hameed tells me, “Becomings, is based entirely on Woolf’s vision of the smallness of human life set against the vastness of the universe. Lasers will be used to create corridors of light and shifting reality planes through which dancers pass at various speeds and in varying relationship combinations. Max [Richter]’s music here provides a shifting cosmic landscape in which orchestral arrangements are embedded in electronic sound – the effect is both weird and grandly virtuosic.”

To help make the connection for the audience, I have contributed a short piece to the programme about the astronomy of Woolf’s time, which this blog post is based upon. There is also an excellent book on this subject. Titled Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science it is written by Holly Henry, Assistant Professor of English at the California State University, San Bernardino.

As I have said in the past on this blog, when I advised the RSC on their production of Galileo, or when I commented on the European Space Agency’s funding of the science fiction short Ambition, the art and science crossover is something to be encouraged and enjoyed.

Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, runs until 26th May.