A Prima Returns
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.
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