Magazine

A Prima Returns

Alessandra Ferri is back onstage, and more luminous than ever.

 

 

Photo by Lucas Chilczuk.

 

Earthily sleek in that effortless Italian way, Alessandra Ferri sits on the roof deck of her Upper West Side penthouse wearing Ray-Bans and a long black dress as she rattles off a list of upcoming performances: more touring of Chéri, the Martha Clarke dance-theater vehicle based on the Colette novella; Trio Concert Dance, a full evening spotlighting Ferri, Herman Cornejo—her dance partner in Chéri—and the pianist Bruce Levingston; Wayne McGregor’s anticipated work for The Royal Ballet, based on Virginia Woolf; John Neumeier’s new Eleanora Duse for Hamburg Ballet.

Midway through, she bursts into laughter. “It’s like I never stopped,” she says, amused yet incredulous. “I guess my dancing energy wasn’t over. There were still things that I needed to do—for me.”

Ferri, 51, retired from American Ballet Theatre in 2007 with the expectation that she would hang up her pointe shoes for good. She became director of dance programming for Italy’s Spoleto Festival, and quit ballet class. But her body rebelled; physically, she found herself in pain. So, after about two years, she went back to the studio. “After a year of taking class, I was in pretty good shape,” she says. “Once I was in shape, my brain started working. I started to have ideas of things I wanted to do.”

Her reawakening as a dancer can hardly be described as a comeback: This is a brand-new career.

“If you’re open-minded, things keep changing, and you keep having different opportunities,” she explains. “If you’re willing to mutate with your personal evolution, who knows where it goes?”

Ferri’s astonishing gifts were first made apparent as a dancer for The Royal Ballet, in ballets like Mayerling and Romeo and Juliet: the beautifully arched feet, the supple back and extended lines of the legs and arms, and the breathtaking ability to be anybody at any time. Dancing melts into her acting and acting into her dancing until both are at their purest essence, stripped raw.

 

 

 

Above: With Herman Cornejo in a scene from Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

 

Today, her luminous dancing is infused with a newfound freedom. But she knows that nothing is a given. “I put a lot of work into my machine, into my body,” she says. “Of course, the years go by. You have to have the passion for the work itself, for the challenge of the everyday.”

She also has, in her teacher, Wilhelm Burmann, the tools with which to continue. “Ninety percent of the reason why I’m still in shape the way I am is Willy,” Ferri says. “He believes in hard work—getting your body going. Your body is a machine basically, and you’ve got to keep that tuned. And for me, this approach really works. It’s thanks to him my body can still function the way it does.”

Chéri was an especially intense experience; the cast performed 50 shows in six weeks. “It was crazy,” she says. “You don’t have anxiety about performances anymore because you have so many that it frees you totally. You go onstage with the same presence and truth that you would have sitting in your living room.”

Yet the production was an incentive to return to the stage—the idea of playing an older woman involved with a younger man was both age appropriate and emotionally rich fodder. And while it initiated a brilliant new partnership between Ferri and Cornejo, it has also sparked more opportunities for dancing. After watching a performance of the dance-drama, McGregor invited Ferri for coffee, where he pitched his idea for a project about Virginia Woolf. “He said, ‘I can’t think of anybody else but you,’ ” Ferri recounts. “I said, ‘It’s great you’re thinking of me, but do you know’ ”—she pauses mid-giggle—“ ‘what I do? I know your work, and I love it, and obviously I still have a very good in-shape body, but you are very extreme.’ ”

McGregor’s sleek choreography is a shift from much of Ferri’s character-driven repertoire. But when McGregor explained that he wanted her in the ballet to stretch himself as an artist, she signed on. “For me, it’s completely new terrain,” Ferri says. “I have no idea what to think about, what to expect. I’m completely abandoning myself into an adventure.”

For the ballet, Ferri will spend a good chunk of time in London, which complicates her already complicated schedule—especially given that she has two daughters, ages 13 and 17, with the photographer Fabrizio Ferri, her former partner. The breakup and the subsequent separation and evolution of her family has made an important shift in the way Ferri lives now. Her approach to motherhood has changed.

“Love and overprotection and dependency are not necessarily the same thing,” Ferri says. “You can be a real good guide for your kids and be vigilant that they don’t get into trouble, but also have a relationship that is so authentic that you can also say, ‘Look, I need to live my life, and I need to do things I love doing, because that’s who I am,’ and they learn to respect that.”

 

Above: Ferri with mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in Luca Veggetti’s The Raven, for the Gotham Chamber Opera. Photo by Richard Termine, Courtesy The Raven.

 

And dance is something, she’s discovered, that she can’t trade in. “I love dance, and that’s what keeps me alive,” Ferri says. “I’d be killing myself to give that up completely for somebody else, even if it’s my kids—unless they need it. Of course. But since everybody’s good and happy...” She laughs. “They love it when I work,” she confides. “In fact, when I’m there too much, they’re like, ‘Don’t you have to take class today?’ ”

Trio Concert Dance, to be performed in Italy’s Teatro Regio di Parma in April, will feature three or four choreographers, including Russell Maliphant, with whom Ferri attended The Royal Ballet School, as well as Fang-Yi Sheu, the former Graham star. “It’s an evening of who we are now,” says Ferri. “For Herman and me, it’s new ground. We can have the pleasure of dancing without having to be Chéri and Lea.”

 

For Cornejo, performing with Ferri has expanded his capabilities as a dance actor and opened the possibilities for a career outside of ABT, where he is a principal. Among other projects, they will perform a new pas de deux by Demis Volpi this month at Indianapolis City Ballet, and dance Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort in Florence next year.

“She’s taking my hand and taking me along with her in many performances,” Cornejo says. “Jeune Homme et la Mort is a masterpiece and something I never thought I would be able to do, and not only am I going to do it, I’m going to perform it with such an iconic person. She’s the one—like how a fairy godmother could be.” He laughs. “There are so many dancers in this world with beautiful technique, but to be like her, it has to come from the inside. Her soul, her love for what she wants to do, is so pure that it comes out in her dancing.”

Ferri explains that there is little difference between the dancer and the woman; as she evolves, so does her dancing. “It’s like my inner world becomes real when I dance,” she explains. “I share it with people. I am glad that I have this opportunity to dance later on in life. In the world of dance today—and the world in general—everything has to be so fast, so immediate, so young and then you’re gone. You really haven’t tasted the pleasure of each different phase of your life and of dancing. It can be something that is more refined, more subtle.”

She laughs off the suggestion that, as a ballerina, she’s breaking the mold. “I don’t think I was ever in the mold,” she says. “I always did things the way I wanted to do them.” And there are no signs of stopping. “I had enough of my career,” Ferri says. “Now that I’ve started again, I don’t think of it as my career, but my luck. I’m so lucky that I have this. It’s a gift.”

 

Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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