In philosophy and theology, there is a lot of discussion about what a self is. We often think of it as the true kernel of a person hiding inside the body, but most now agree that the matter is not that simple. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it this way:
“I desire peace, I desire to be at home with myself; but the edge and the energy of the desire, the movement involved, comes from the already experienced knowledge that I am irretrievably dispersed in a multiplicity of unstable feelings and changing relationships…The self I know is the self that is not at one with itself but is moving and changing; the self is always ‘in question,’ under criticism, a matter of thought.
Williams talks about the self in terms of energy, movement, multiplicity, and change. It is not a static and identifiable object, but many different currents of movement. But what kind of movements are these and how do we understand them? Ballet is a helpful way of presenting different ideas about what it might mean for a person to be multiple movements. It has the capacity to render visible and visceral the connectivity of people who, in their confrontations with one another, form fluid, ever-changing shapes. This helps us to to visualize different ways in which people move, change, and become themselves in and through relationship to others and the surrounding environment.
In particular, Woolf Works, a ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor and based on three novels by Virginia Woolf, is well-suited to this task. Woolf’s novels are all, in different ways, about the relationship of the self to time, and how time fragments and multiplies the self. The three novels on which the acts of the ballet are based are: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. The transposition of these novels into ballet renders visible the ways in which a person is a nexus of cosmic, personal, and societal rhythms. McGregor presents three variations of Woolf’s multiplied and moving self through different representations of the relationship of the self to time.
The first act is based on Mrs Dalloway. The Dalloway family dances together on stage to the chiming of Big Ben; however, this includes not only Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway and their daughter, but Mrs. Dalloway also brings her younger self and the lover she wishes she had married to the relationship. Of the three, this act has the form that comes closest to a narrative, but its time is not linear. Past and present characters are all on stage at the same time, relating to one another through the dance. It is remarkable to see how a relationship can be so crowded. The visualization of this dynamic powerfully represents how any relationship is more like a group of ballet dancers than a waltz, even when there are only apparently two people involved. A person brings past selves, and the others through which those selves were forged, to each subsequent relationship. The result is that the person is presented as multiple selves that are acting concurrently; the self is not fractured, but its unity is also not a given. It is more like a process, a fragile network of movements evolving through time.
The second act is based on Orlando, and here the self is fractured. Rather than the ticking of Big Ben, time in this act is represented spatially by the intersection of lasers which cut across the stage, dividing it into shapes and planes. This is congruent with Woolf’s presentation of time in Orlando as a house with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. This presentation leads to a more violent fragmentation of the self, as though time were a knife that lacerates a person into multiplicity. Structures of identity such as gender, language, nationality, and class are overthrown by the protagonist Orlando. The self is fragmented across male and female, rich and poor—in obedience only to his/her whims. While there is arguably a trajectory of development in the Orlando of Woolf’s text, McGregor does not represent this dimension on stage. McGregor interprets this novel through more chaotic relations between the dancers. The dancers all appear as variations on a single persona, dancing sometimes one at a time and sometimes in legion, sometimes in synchronization and sometimes in their own isolated dances; there is little apparent structure. In contrast to the first act, the selves’ relations are more disjointed and seemingly unguided.
The final act is a presentation of The Waves, in which the inner lives of six persons, from childhood to old age, are juxtaposed with the larger cosmic cycles of a single day. In the novel, each character is presented through how he or she experiences and responds to the rhythms of the surroundings. Interestingly, these responses remain consistent throughout the characters’ lives, but they manifest as different permutations of that rhythm in response to the changing environment. In this act, McGregor represents time through the dancers themselves. Characters are depicted by several dancers, which roll forward to replace one another like waves. So, while time is portrayed externally in the first two acts, as the chiming of the clock and by visual planes, in the final act time becomes a function of the movement of the dancers themselves. Time is internalized.
What this image suggests is an interconnection with surrounding reality to the extent that the self is not a discrete object: the waves cannot be separated from the water that surrounds them. However, despite not being representable, the self is, to a degree, continuous as a history of encounters and surges, which emerge and recede in a forward-moving pattern. While the self in Orlando is fragmented and constructed according to its own choices and movements, persons in The Waves roll forward gently, changing in response to conditions beyond their control in a way that is nevertheless patterned, continuous, and coextensive with the environment. The person is not a brittle thing smashed into shards on the sharp edges of time but is fluid and responsive and, in this way, is continuous despite variation.
Woolf Works offers three different images of the self: the multiple concurrent selves of Mrs Dalloway, which work together to create ever-changing shapes; the fragmented and non-continuous self of Orlando; and The Waves’ self as patterned surges of encounter and consciousness that are co-extensive with their larger environment. What Woolf Works shows is that there are many versions of the non-unified self. While many now agree that the self is not a timeless internal core, there is still uncertainty about what to replace it with. Woolf Works presents three possibilities to the imagination. Are any of these images a better representation of the person than the others? While the presentations of Mrs Dalloway and The Waves both show something true about the nature of persons, the fragmented and non-continuous human represented by McGregor’s character, Orlando, is problematic.
Rowan Williams again lends insight when he expresses concerns about the rejection of the idea that there is some kind of continuity or cohesion of the self through time. If there is no continuity, then my self, my “I,” is just something constructed out of exchangeable identities purchased or selected at different times—much like the Orlando McGregor depicts. In other words: a person in this case is not a product of time, but a will abstracted from time. The truth, however, is that I do not belong to myself and so am not a product of my own will. My actions have consequences beyond my control and thus represent me to others in ways that I do not intend. I am continuous, not because I have a unified and invulnerable core or a true identity that can be reconstructed free of historical contingencies, but because my choices have internal and external consequences for the sorts of actions and responses that become available to me. I am not a timeless object, but a sequence of encounters (waves perhaps) that make a certain narration of my life, and certain future actions, possible.
While Orlando’s self (or at least McGregor’s depiction of it) is problematic for these reasons, the other two acts demonstrate how one can reject the idea of the self as a static monad but retain the idea of continuity through time and relationship. The first act, the representation of Mrs Dalloway, shows how one’s representation of one’s self is always bound up with that of others and is therefore always open to being questioned by those others. It is always in motion, always changing shapes. McGregor’s representation of The Waves likewise depicts a person in motion, as the product of choices and accidents in the environment, shaped by and coextensive with what cannot be controlled or understood. Persons are a nexus of multiple movements, not because they construct or buy a variety of identities at will, but because they meet themselves through a variety of other people and environments.
Ballet as a medium is particularly helpful for making these sorts of distinctions clear, since the person is necessarily presented to the audience through the history of its movements, always in the context of time and through the space that is created through its relations to other dancers. Moreover, while these relations appear smooth to the audience, the dancers know that such unity of movement is never something unproblematically achieved, but is always being negotiated in time and always at risk of going wrong. Significantly, the only way in which this risk is reduced is through practice — because it is through this practice that one experiences one’s body, and therewith one’s self, through others and through time. Ballet shows and practices what Williams expresses above: being at home with one’s self and with others is not a state attained, but the propulsion that directs how one moves through the world.
Featured Image: used with the kind permission of Alice Pennefather, the Royal Opera House
 Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 145.
 Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 73; Rowan Williams, Lost Icons, 101.
 Williams, Lost Icons, 109.
 Williams, The Edge of Words, 79.
 Williams, Lost Icons, 116.