29 April 2015 at 1.55pm | 1 Comment
Anyone who was watching The Royal Ballet in the mid-1980s will have vivid memories of Alessandra Ferri – long hair flying, deep, dark eyes filling her face, her body slender and flexible, her shapely feet encased in the silkiest of pointe shoes. She seemed to illuminate the stage with a kind of dark beauty, an intensity of concentrated movement that inspired Kenneth MacMillan not only to cast her as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling when she was just 19, but also to create sombre, tormented roles for her.
She was the abused Marie in Different Drummer; the anguished Micol, a privileged young Jewish girl who dies in a concentration camp, in Valley of Shadows. In these and other parts, Ferri was sensational. Then suddenly, in 1985, a year after she had been promoted to Principal dancer, she vanished to take up Mikhail Baryshnikov’s offer of dancing with him at American Ballet Theatre. She was just 21 years old.
Since then, apart from a brief return in Romeo and Juliet, she has not danced in the place where she first made her name. So her appearance in Woolf Works feel like an unexpected bonus, especially since she has already retired once from the stage in 2007.
‘I don’t like to say I am coming back’, she says. ‘It is almost like I am starting a new chapter in my career and it is very sweet to start it from here. Everything has changed but the spirit is the same. I have a lot of flashbacks. I walk into the theatre every day with a lot of joy.’
Now 52, she met Wayne McGregor when she booked his company Random Dance to appear at the Spoleto Festival. Then he came to watch her perform Chéri, based on the novella by Colette, and choreographed by Martha Clarke – a piece that marked part of her re-emergence as a performer [and which Ferri performs at the Royal Opera House in autumn 2015]. Ferri takes up the story:
‘He asked me for coffee, mentioned he was about to do this work and that he wanted me to do it. I was surprised because he is a whole other world. So dynamic. I am not 25. I had just come back after taking seven years completely off. I said to him, I know what you do, but do you know what I do? And he said, yes, of course.’
In fact, in rehearsal, the years simply fall away. As she glides, swoops and extends through McGregor’s twisting steps, Ferri looks as supple and elegant as she always did; her passionate engagement with the part she is interpreting has not lessened. ‘I dive in’, she says, with a smile. ‘I always see the creative process as a real collaboration. That is just the way I am.’ This is precisely why McGregor wanted to woo her back. He explains: ‘She is an amazing dancer and actress. Because of her experience, she is incredibly expressive even standing still, but I wanted to push her physically to see what that kind of body can do.’
The fact that she was older also appealed in making a work about Virginia Woolf in which Ferri embodies not just the author, but also her creation Clarissa Dalloway. ‘There is something very interesting about using a dancer in her 50s given the quality of Woolf’s writing and her thought’, McGregor continues. ‘You can see why Alessandra was MacMillan’s muse and I love the idea that she has had a history here; then there has been an absence. Given that Woolf’s work was so much about reconstructing memory, there’s something to explore in that.’
This is an extract from Sarah Crompton's article ‘The Next Chapter’ in The Royal Ballet’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.
Woolf Works returns to The Royal Opera House in 2016/17. Tickets will be available soon.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from David Hancock, Randa Khoury, Linda and Philip Harley, Victoria Robey, The Woolf Works Production Syndicate and an anonymous donor.