Prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri, another great to add to the band of remarkable dance artists who continue to defy expectation. Born in 1963, Ferri at 51, could be seen as past that “assumed” age when one’s dance career ends, but as I soon learn when we begin our phone interview, she is a woman who speaks with distinct clarity on this topic. “I think I have to point out something,” Ferri stops me mid-sentence to assert, “ I don’t think of dance as my career, so don’t use that word with me. It’s not my career; it’s my life. A career is something that you do as a job. You can be passionate about it, but it’s your job. And dance is not my job. It’s my life. It’s who I am.”
Alessandra Ferri. Copyright: Fabrizio Ferri
Young dancers spend a great deal of time in the studio where they begin their training. They build relationships that become familial and cherish these early experiences as the groundwork for their artistry. Ferri is no different. She began her training at Milan’s La Scala Theatre Ballet School, then transferred to the Royal Ballet’s upper school before joining that company. “We were all very nurtured,” she remembers, “everybody knew each other and it was a very protected environment.”
Suddenly at the age of 21, Mikhail Baryshinkov invited the young ballerina to jump across the pond and join the American Ballet Theatre. “It was a very unique, wonderful opportunity,” Ferri reflects.
She made the move from London’s Royal Ballet, a company she loved and was familiar with, to the gritty streets of 1980s New York. Luckily Ferri’s mentor and “artistic father,” Sir Kenneth MacMillan who was working as an Artistic Associate at ABT after a seven-year tenure as Director of The Royal Ballet, helped smooth her transition. “You had to look out for yourself a bit more,” Ferri recalls, “I felt very lonely in the city, and I felt a lot of pressure because I came in as a principal, but I was only 21.”
Kenneth MacMillan created many roles for Ferri, constantly challenging her to bring theatricality into her performance. Every movement had to translate a glimpse of reality. “He forged who I am, even now, as an artist. He made me aware of dramatic abilities that I wasn’t aware of. He initiated a creative process that I continue today…. where you find truth in the acting through dance, rather than just superficial pantomime. He helped me to dig in each role like an actor would do in a play.”
Macmillan was one of many memorable collaborators. Ferri also treasures her long-time relationship and partnership with Julio Bocca, the renowned Argentinian soloist who similarly danced for The Royal Ballet and then ABT by a personal invitation from Baryshnikov. Ferri and Bocca danced together during pivotal times in their artistic lives. Not only were they inspired by each other’s movement, but they were also motivated by one another’s humanity.
When thinking of collaborators, Ferri makes it clear that these important relationships are about more than movement and ballet. “It’s not enough to work with somebody who is good,” she shares, “It has to be a wonderful experience on a human level. It has to be a real exchange.”
Ferri also values her rehearsal processes with Roland Petit, founder of the Ballets des Champs-Élysées, the Ballets de Paris, and the Ballet National de Marseille. She was quoted in Milan’s Corriere della Sera saying, “Petit forced me to bring out the tiger that was inside me…he hated submissive women, for him women are the force that makes the world turn!”
Interaction with Petit, Bocca, and Macmillan are defined in Ferri’s memory by their intensity. While she cannot choose favorite ballets or performances, it is these and other intense moments that remain ingrained in her psyche:
“I remember the first time I stepped out on the Royal Opera House stage in a leading role in Mayerling. I remember that feeling. I remember distinctively my last performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Met. I remember Roland Petit and how he stretched me.”
In this life of dance, Ferri has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. This week, she will be performing the title role in Lar Lubovitch’s new production of Artemis along side Lubovitch Company dancer Tobin Del Cuore. She met Lubovitch during her last season at ABT, when they performed his Othello, and has maintained a connection, reverence, and understanding of his work ever since. “I really love Lar,” she shares with a tangible smile in her voice, “He’s a very sensitive man and every time I work with him I get enriched.”
In November, she will continue the tour of Martha Clarke’s acclaimed work Chéri with ABT principal Herman Cornejo in Buenos Aires. She and Cornejo have also been commissioned to present an evening of their own work later this Fall. She will return to The Royal Ballet in the spring for Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length ballet for the Company, Woolf Works. And in June, she will join Hamburg Ballet in the world premier of John Neumeier’s newest creation Tatiana. Needless to say, Ferri takes care of her body. Her regimen includes Pilates, Gyrotonics, ballet class, physical therapy, and more. “I consider my body a race car that I have to really keep completely tuned and in shape,” she reveals. “My body is an object that enables my soul to drive it.”
Ferri understands her talent is a gift that comes with great responsibility and deserves immense respect. With this understanding as her foundation, she continues creating, acting, dancing, and living. As she declares, “A career has a beginning and an end. So does life, but who I am is not going to end whether I’m on stage or not.”
Profile: Alessandra Ferri is one of the most famous ballerinas of the late twentieth century. She was born in Milan, Italy, where she studied at the Teatro alla Scala until the age of 15. She then attended the Royal Ballet School, and in 1980 she won one of the three Prix de Lausanne, allowing her to continue studying at the Royal Ballet School on scholarship.
She joined the Royal Ballet in 1980 and was made a Principal Dancer in 1984. In 1985 she was invited to join as a Principal Dancer the American Ballet Theater by Mikhail Baryshnikov who was then its Artistic Director.
Ferri appeared with the Ballet National de Marseille in the summer of 1989, where she danced in Roland Petit’s Le Diable Amoureux, which Petit created especially for her. Her guest appearances have also included dancing the role of Juliet in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet with the National Ballet of Canada, the title roles in Roland Petit’s Carmen and Notre-Dame de Paris with the Paris Opera Ballet, Pierre Lacotte’s La Sylphide with the Ballet National de Nancy and The Tokyo Ballet, John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire with the Stuttgart Ballet and the title role of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon with the Kirov Ballet at the Marinsky Theatre.