A Prima In Her Prime

International ballerina Alessandra Ferri reflects on her astounding career just before her retirement.
Published in the June/July 2007 issue.

Photo by Fabrizio Ferri

For Alessandra Ferri, the greatest dramatic ballerina of her generation and possibly the most famous Juliet of today, parting is not going to be “such sweet sorrow.” On the contrary, Ferri, who is retiring this year after more than 20 years on the world’s stages, is going out with a bang.

At the height of her powers, Ferri prepared to take on two new leading roles in full-length ballets: Marguerite in John Neumeier’s romantic The Lady of the Camellias for La Scala Ballet of Milan, Italy, in March, and Desdemona in Lar Lubovitch’s revival of Othello for American Ballet Theatre’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

She was scheduled to perform both roles years ago, but missed the opportunities when she had her daughters. In her melodious Italian accent, Ferri says, “This year I have these big debuts, which is very nice for me, and I’m very happy that it is happening in my last season.”

Her farewell performance with ABT will be the title role in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, on June 23, 2007, with Italian premier danseur Roberto Bolle. For her, Juliet is as new as if she were doing it for the first time: “You can’t act the role, you have to let Juliet live through you and let the music propel your emotions.”

Going to one of Ferri’s performances is like getting on a roller coaster; you’re not quite sure where it will take you, but you know the ride will be thrilling. Her preternaturally long, slender hands and incredibly arched insteps amplify every movement, and her beautiful elfin face and expressive dark eyes telegraph every emotion to the gallery. At 44, Ferri possesses the kinesthesia of a teenager: Her speed, agility, elasticity and strength make her youthfulness so convincing.

“That part comes from just pure hard work,” says Ferri. “There is no magic.” She spends two hours in the studio working with Gyrotonics apparatus before she goes to ballet class. “The Gyro keeps my body young, makes space between my joints, keeps my muscles elastic and strong, and keeps me properly aligned, so I don’t hurt myself when I dance,” she says.

An elegant sliver of a woman, Ferri, dressed casually chic in a tailored mole-gray shearling coat, brown turtleneck and slim pants, radiates warmth and energy at a cozy cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the apartment she shares with her longtime partner, famed photographer Fabrizio Ferri, and their two daughters, Matilde, 10, and Emma, 5.

Taking a deep breath, she talks about the upcoming turning point in her life: “I have to say, now is the happiest moment for me, ever, as a ballerina. I feel that I have never danced better. I have achieved freedom and gone back to the times when I was a little kid and I loved to dance. And I think it is for this reason that I have decided to stop. I love dance so much that this is what I want to remember.”

The Milan-born ballerina knew from the age of 4 that she was born to dance. Though there was no arts background in the family, her parents supported and encouraged her from the beginning. She studied at the school at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan until the age of 15.

At the Prix de Lausanne in 1980, she won a scholarship to continue her studies at The Royal Ballet School. MacMillan, the eminent British choreographer, recognized her talent early. He began creating roles for her, such as L’Invitation au Voyage, soon after she joined The Royal Ballet, and Valley of Shadows, for which she won the 1982 Laurence Olivier Award. When Ferri reached principal in 1983, the floodgates of fame flew open with leading roles in classical and contemporary works, and she particularly excelled in MacMillan’s full-length ballets.

Her meteoric rise at the Royal caught the attention of Mikhail Baryshnikov, then artistic director of ABT, who made Ferri an irresistible offer: join ABT and be his partner.

She arrived in New York City in 1985, unprepared for the harsh new world she encountered after the sheltered environment she enjoyed at The Royal Ballet. Only 21, she felt intimidated by Baryshnikov as a partner, who was at the peak of his career, and considered herself technically sub par to take on the demanding classical roles that she danced with him. Ferri remembers thinking, “Oh, my God, this is too much. My whole life is too overwhelming.” But looking back she says, “Misha has been my toughest teacher, but a great teacher. He made me realize that you have to work hard, because just talent will get you nowhere.”

For the next few years she toughened up, added many new ballets to her rep and, perhaps most significantly, found her ideal partner in Julio Bocca, a 19-year-old Argentine prodigy, who joined ABT in 1986. Together they
created magic for nearly 20 years until Bocca retired last summer.

Their legendary partnership was built on trust, timing and truth. They shared the intensity and intuited each other’s moods. Some memorable moments were Roland Petit’s fiery sparring duet from Carmen, their ethereal Giselle and the emotional whirlpool of the final pas de deux from John Cranko’s Onegin. Ferri, who likes to dance on the wild side, says Bocca gave her freedom to fly: “He let me dance. He felt my musicality, he sensed what I was going to do and he let me do it, and caught me at the end, which is what made it exciting.”

In an e-mail, Bocca expresses his deep fondness for his adored former partner. “I knew that being next to Alessandra,” says Bocca, “I would shine much better. She always trusted me to find her in the exact place onstage, to hold her in my arms at the right moment—not before and not after. I had never felt that kind of instant and complete understanding onstage until I met Alessandra. From the first minute we had absolute compatibility and special chemistry. The ballets I most recall and those that left me with tremendous emotion each time we danced together were Romeo and Juliet and Manon.”

By 1990, Ferri was already an international attraction. Having worked with Roland Petit in Europe and the Royal, she began globe-trotting from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, Paris to Hamburg, Stuttgart to Canada—always with the crème de la crème of companies. In 1992, Carlo Fontana, then director of Teatro alla Scala, signed her as permanent guest artist with the ballet company. Fontana says, “I began loving ballet, thanks to Alessandra Ferri. I have been director of La Scala for 15 years, and I considered one of my best results the cooperation with this great dancer and woman... an étoile. Alessandra is not only the great artist, she is first of all a true person, sensible and a sensitive woman.”

Ferri credits Wilhelm Burmann, her teacher in NYC for the last 15 years, for making her the dancer she is today. “Willie gave me the freedom to be who I am onstage, to move with the music however I wish, because my body is so finely tuned.” She goes on to say, “You have to translate your emotions in your body, that is how you speak onstage. That comes naturally for me, but your body is your speech. Technique is not the ultimate but the beginning.”

Burmann, who dispenses praise sparingly, says, “Alessandra has been in the best shape of her life for the past several years. I consider her number one among international ballerinas. We are losing an incredible dancer and an incredible person.” 

Looking over Ferri’s vast repertoire, it seems there isn’t a ballet or a choreographer whose work she hasn’t performed. Yet for a ballerina of her stature, relatively few roles have been specifically created for her after the early years at the Royal. Blame it on timing; nonstop guesting created scheduling problems with choreographers and artistic directors. But Ferri has few regrets; never having met or worked with George Balanchine is at the top of the list, though she has danced several of his ballets including Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Apollo, Duo Concertant and, most recently, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with La Scala.

In the summer of 1996, she met Fabrizio Ferri at a Vogue photo shoot for her friend Isabella Rossellini. “I met Fabrizio, and it was love at first sight,” she says. A year later Matilde was born. Soon after, Ferri lost a baby 7 1/2 months into her pregnancy, the worst tragedy she has experienced. “But,” she says, “thank God Emma came right after that.”

At the Pointe photo shoot, Fabrizio Ferri instinctively blended their individual skills for the cover shot. Their bond is unmistakable. She says, “I think what makes my retirement easier is that I am a happy mother of two wonderful kids, and Fabrizio is there, and we are happy. I want to be with them a lot. I am at a point where I can stop. The scales are even.”

Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, reflects on Ferri’s place in the company over the last 22 years. “It’s
that turn of the page in history,” he says. “Alessandra is the type of artist who can reach across the footlights and transcend the title of ballerina. The best is that she has been part of our identity and growth. One can never replace a unique artist. I really believe she is ready [to retire]—she is in a little state of grace—so how can you feel bad about that?”

Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to several dance and theater publications in New York City and is the dance editor and critic for Show Business Weekly.