What Makes a Ballerina Great and Why Do We Have to Lose Her?

June 25, 2007

Alessandra Ferri is a beautiful and exquisite dancer, but her greatness lies in how much she makes us feel, not how much she makes us admire. When she dances Juliet, you feel her childishness in the first scene with her Nurse; you feel her attraction to Romeo at the ball, her embarrassment at dancing with him in public. She takes you along with her on an emotional ride. Even in stillness, you feel what she is going through. Standing on the balcony, the moment she sees Romeo, she freezes as though her heart is caught, like she can’t believe this is true. Slowly, she melts inward with a purring kind of happiness. That moment is the seed of all the ecstatic entwinings, swoons and lifts to come.

    Earlier, when Paris first takes her hand, she looks back at her Nurse, and her eyes say it all. “I want to obey, but do you think I’m ready for this? Can’t I stay with you and play with my doll?”

    This ability to express volumes with the smallest look or gesture brings her close to our hearts. We feel we know Juliet intimately. We know the moment the girl becomes a woman; we know she will throw all to the winds to be near Romeo.

    During Ferri’s ABT farewell on Saturday, she danced her last Romeo and Juliet with Roberto Bolle. At her first entrance, I got teary just thinking this would be the last time. But she swept me up in the story. Just before she died, she touched Romeo’s lips with her hand. I saw this as if for the first time. Again, every small gesture is not only exquisite, but deeply felt.

    In Ferri’s pre-performance talk a few days before (which I moderated), she said that what daunts her about the role ni MacMillan’s ballet is that there is so much time when “you have nothing to do” onstage. More than any other ballerina I’ve seen, she knows how to make something happen from nothing. About the Prokofiev score, she said, “The music tells you what to do.” Indeed, she seems at one with the skittering playfulness, swelling strains, and ominous overtones that make this a great ballet.

    ABT presented her with mounds of flowers, and the audience pelted her with bunches of their own. Many of her former partners (and the female leads) came up to kiss her, including her teacher Willie Burmann. Julio Bocca, her favorite partner, came in during a burst of glittering confetti. Many curtain calls later, alone at the center of the stage, laughing and crying, she ran to the stage right wing to kiss her husband, Fabrizio Ferri. Her two daughters were brought in, and she encircled them, Isadora-like.

    She put her hands on her chest, and later waved a big good-bye, crossing her arms back and forth overhead. We cheered and waved back. No one falls in love onstage the way Ferri falls in love.

    And why do we have to lose her? I don’t know; I think she just thought it was time. At 44, she is still at the height of her dramatic power. We were met with the expressiveness of her entire body, not just part of her—the better to remember her by.