"I feel certain that I am going mad again," Virginia Woolf wrote in her oft-quoted suicide note to husband Leonard Woolf. "I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came."
Suffering from what scholars have posthumously diagnosed as bipolar disorder, Woolf put an end to her own misery by filling her pockets with rocks and walking into a river. The final hours of the great English novelist and essayist's life have long fascinated the acclaimed choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who is best known for work on Broadway shows like Chess and Swing, and movies including Footloose and My Blue Heaven. She spoke with Scene by phone from New York, where she was casting the dance company for a touring production of the Disney musical Tarzan.
"Virginia Woolf is, for some reason, an author that affected me when I was in my 20s," she says. "She's so much in our culture. I was fascinated by her hearing voices as her depression was coming on." Taylor-Corbett is in town this week for GroundWorks Dancetheater's premiere of her yet-to-be-named work, a fantasy based on the imagined final hours of the writer in the room of her own - a time during which she decided she couldn't go on living and drag her husband through her depression, but had the presence of mind and awareness of their mutual love to write such a cogent and heartfelt letter.
"She was suffering," the choreographer says, "but this woman was not insane."
The resulting work of dance theater is what Taylor-Corbett describes as a loving portrait, like a play with scenes in which the great novelist is the central character, visited by people from her life and work.
Action is focused around a writing desk. The tale in movement doesn't portray her death but ends with Woolf donning her cloak and hat, and walking with her cane proudly out of the scene, on her way to the river. "I'm really not making a moral comment on it," Taylor-Corbett says. "Just reflecting."
It's different from her usual work in that the dance tells the whole story, rather than supports it. Choreographing the piece was "kind of like writing a play with bodies," she says. "There was a certain vision, if you will, but certainly in the development it was collaborative" with the GroundWorks dancers. Taylor-Corbett was in town to work with the company in May and again in August before returning this week for final rehearsals. Casting, she says, was easy.
"Amy Miller was just the right person for the role of Virginia. Felise [Bagley] was perfect for [the English poet] Vita Sackville-West. The people were very, very right."
Taylor-Corbett envisioned the story based on Woolf's books and books about her life.
"Some of the very defining moments of her life were integrated in her books," she says. "That she was abused by her half brothers when she was 13 years old, that she was very enamored and had a romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West, and that she had a nephew who died in the Spanish Civil War. And her husband was a huge figure.
"I imagined her sitting down to write that letter to her husband, and having these characters visit her." The ensemble of four other dancers emerge as characters from her life, as well as work as a collective body. Music is by the late Howard Hanson, a composer Taylor-Corbett describes as "a little behind his time," because he wrote lush, melodic scores during an era when other composers were trending toward minimalism. Taylor-Corbett chose not to use any of Woolf's words in the piece but instead rendered the writer's final day entirely in music and movement. She describes the costumes as "abstractly realistic."
Groundworks Artistic Director David Shimotakahara says he has known Taylor-Corbett since she worked with the Ohio Ballet years ago, when she created her ballet "In a word" for the company. He saw the relationship as an opportunity to bring a top quality artist to town and meet one of GroundWorks' goals: the production of new work.
Also on the program are a new piece by Amy Miller, For the Life of Me, and the reprise of Shimotakahara's Migration, which has an original score for voice and marimba, performed live by Groundworks Music Director Gustavo Aguilar and Gaelyn Aguilar.Ê