I recently attended a talk at the Royal Opera House given by the magnificent dancer, Alessandra Ferri. She has been in London rehearsing for the Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, an imaginative and inspiring response to the legacy of Virginia Woolf (Royal Opera House, 21 January to 14 February).
Ferri dances with fluidity, intensity, personality. Her body is strong and supple; her mind alert and acute. Her long dark locks flow freely down her back. She is composed, quietly spoken, modest. And she talks with complete clarity and conviction.
‘I was an introverted child who lived more in my imagination. At 10 I knew that the inner world is bigger than the outside world.’
Born in Milan in 1963, Ferri had no family connection with ballet, but she instinctively understood it was her calling. At 15 years of age she left Italy for the Royal Ballet School, and by 19 she was a Principal in the Royal Ballet.
‘I learned to dance, not as a ballerina, but as flesh and bone. When I dance I am not aware of the limitations of my body. I dance outside my body. I dance in space.’
Within two years of her promotion, Ferri was recruited by Mikhael Baryshnikov to American Ballet Theater in New York. Though much loved in London, she saw an opportunity to learn and grow.
‘Jerome Robins [the choreographer] taught me to play my body like music; not just as an exhibition of beauty, but as research of an inner life; not as a ballerina, but as a woman.’
In 2007, aged 44 and after 22 years with American Ballet Theater, Ferri determined that she wanted to spend more time with her two children. And so she retired, at the top of her game. Then, six years later, she changed her mind. Ferri came back to ballet. And she committed herself to the extraordinary regime of training and self-discipline that the decision entailed.
‘I didn’t miss being onstage or the applause. I missed feeling alive. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to be there.’
Consistently throughout her life Ferri has followed conviction, not convention. She has demonstrated a rare self-knowledge and freedom of thought. Next summer she returns to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to perform as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a role she first danced in 1984 when she was 21. She’ll be 53.
‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to doubt. I asked myself ‘What are you afraid of? Your own memory?’’
Alessandra Ferri teaches us not to set too much store by custom, practice or tradition. We are too often constrained by what others have done, what others might think, what others expect. She is an advert for spontaneity, instinct and intuition. What do I want? What do I think? What do I expect of myself? She decides for now, for the moment. And leaves the rest to fate.
‘If you say of anything that it’s just for now – then you never know, it might end up being for ever.’
We have all been gifted with instinct and intuition; with infinite imagination and internal lives. Do we set aside enough time to think and reflect, to fancy and dream? Or are our decisions determined by the job and the boss; by precedent and convention; by the irresistible force of inertia? Do we listen to the ‘still small voice’? Or are we endlessly calculating the smart choice, the sensible option? Are we supporting actors in someone else’s drama or are we stars in our own?
That’s it for 2016. We all deserve a break.
The next piece will be published on Friday 6 January 2017. I’ll see you on the other side.