The Arc of Artistry

How three ballerinas have deepened their approach to a career-defining role

Some ballerinas seem destined to embody certain roles. At her debut, there’s a palpable buzz. Over a career, however, her interpretation begins to reflect her maturity and worldliness. A deepening occurs that doesn’t lessen her former renditions, but that instead gives an audience—especially those lucky enough to follow the career arc—a delicious new experience. Here, three beloved ballerinas speak about the trajectory of their signature roles.

ALESSANDRA FERRI: JULIET

As Juliet, Ferri has learned the power of stillness onstage. PC Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT

When Alessandra Ferri made her debut as Juliet, she was 21. “At the time I was just a sheer force of nature,” she says, laughing. “I don’t recall it exactly, and if I did, I would be lying. But I remember exactly how I felt: It was like an explosion—everything blown out of me.” The performance with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden that night was an open “Promenade Evening,” where audience members paid a pound for admission and often left chewing gum on the seats. But at the curtain calls, the crowd went wild.

When Ferri performed Juliet with American Ballet Theatre last summer, she was 53—and again, the crowd went wild.

No one would dispute that Juliet is a role that Ferri was born to dance, or, as she says, “It’s the role of my soul.” (She claims that no ballerina’s interpretation influenced her; her Juliet is hers alone.) But over the last 32 years, Ferri’s Juliet has evolved. Early in her career, she says, her approach “was super-instinctive, like a puppy.” Over three decades, an emotional awareness and consciousness blossomed to deepen her character’s involvement with the story, and that enabled her to bring more nuance to scenes such as the bedroom pas de deux. “Once I started having experiences that were happy or painful, I was looking at myself, and I was looking at the role,” she says.

No matter when she dances Juliet, she says, “that girl is made of fire.” It’s how the fire is handled that’s different. “When you’re young and naive you don’t fear as much because you don’t understand the repercussions,” she says. “I think that is a very hard balance to find—the purity of feelings and also the curiosity of discovering your own woman. The older I got, the more I understood that.” Ferri also discovered the power of stillness—simply being rather than doing.

Working with different partners—and there have been many: Wayne Eagling, Julio Bocca, Angel Corella and, most recently, Herman Cornejo—changes the onstage chemistry of the ballet. “There are people you feel an affinity with that is very clear and others which are more complicated,” she explains. “I enjoy dancing this role with people who dance completely with their heart out, because I put the whole of  myself there. I need that from a partner. I hate to be alone onstage.”

One thing has remained constant in this role throughout her career: She hasn’t tampered with the flighty girlish innocence of the opening nursery scene.

Juliet has become central to her in many ways. “It’s part of me, part of my DNA,” she says. “I know everything about that period, where the story takes place. I don’t know why, but I imagine what the streets were like, I know the texture of the clothes, everything speaks to me about that role of Juliet.” Once you open that door, she says, “the role becomes eternal.”

John Neumeier’s coaching in The Little Mermaid helped Tan make her mad scene feel more authentic. PC Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

YUAN YUAN TAN: GISELLE

The character of Giselle possesses a vulnerability and an ethereal essence that comes completely naturally to Yuan Yuan Tan. She has immersed herself in the character since she was 16, when she danced the second-act pas de deux at the Shanghai Dancing School and, later, at international ballet competitions as a teenager. “You are human in the first act, with a mad scene that is a test for your ability to act,” says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “Then in the second act, you transform yourself into a Wili, which is technically very demanding because your dancing has to be as weightless as possible. It’s hard to do, but this ballet gives me such joy.”

The first time she danced the entire ballet, Tan was 23, coached by Helgi Tomasson in his production of Giselle. She had watched tapes of Natalia Makarova and Carla Fracci to absorb nuances of the port de bras and hands and the focus of the head and eyes. While technically strong in the ballet, Tan felt that her artistry came more slowly, even though she had opened herself up in the mad scene to the point where, she says, “I had real tears in my eyes, and I hope the audience did, too.”

Paradoxically, a watershed change in her Giselle interpretation came from dancing a 21st-century work: John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. “That really opened my artistry a great deal,” she says. Neumeier’s coaching on his ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s poignant story allowed her to root out Giselle’s emotional core as both the earthly and the spectral Giselle. “He taught me how to tune in to my innermost feelings and dig deeper, rather than just act the part,” she says. “That experience helped me in the mad scene in Giselle, where I was able to hone in on a mixture of emotions—from confusion to betrayal and anger to sadness—to become more than just a character in a story. I’ve made it an authentic experience for myself, thanks to John’s coaching.”

She sees similarities between the tragic mermaid and the unhinged Giselle. “In Act I of Giselle, you finish heartbroken,” explains Tan. In the end, she says, “they are both stories of forgiveness.”

Nevertheless, her Giselle’s innocence in the beginning of the ballet has been consistent. “She is shy, vulnerable and happy and in love,” she says. “That never changed.”

In October 2015, Tan danced Giselle in Beijing with SFB. “I think that was my best Giselle ever,” she says. “Helgi also said that. I was proud and happy to dance in my country. The audience and the energy—that was different.”

SARA MEARNS: ODETTE/ODILE

Mearns still watches a tape of Natalia Makarova in the role before every Swan Lake. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Tchaikovsky composed his music as if his life depended on it, and Sara Mearns dances Tchaikovsky with the same sense of urgency. “With Tchaikovsky it’s very emotional and dramatic,” says Mearns. “It’s not small in any way, even in a quiet moment. Every moment means something. Tchaikovsky has a way of tapping into those really deep parts that enable you to let yourself go and let it all out.”

That connection to Tchaikovsky, along with Mearns’ obsession with a VHS tape of Natalia Makarova’s Swan Lake performance with ABT in 1975, prepared her for a shot-out-of-a-cannon debut in New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake in 2006. Even though the 19-year-old Mearns had never danced a soloist role with the company, Peter Martins wanted her to learn Odette/Odile three weeks before her scheduled matinee. Adding to the intensity, Mearns contracted a stomach flu the day before. “It was surreal, it was shocking,” says Mearns. “I didn’t really have any time to get nervous or freak out about it. Or even think about it.”

After the performance Merrill Ashley, who had taught her the role, came backstage with tears in her eyes. “I thought, ‘I guess I did a good job,’ ” recalls Mearns. “I was in a daze. I have vivid pictures in my mind of moments right after the show—it was kind of out-of-body, as if I was looking at it from above.”

Still, from the roots of that auspicious debut, Mearns has wholeheartedly expanded her interpretation of the dual role. “I definitely approach steps differently, and some steps I emphasize more now. The in-between steps are much more important to me than the tricks—every gesture, every facial expression. I’ve done the fouettés many times, the solos, the codas, all of that. Everybody does that. But what else do you have to give to it? What comes after that?”

A Valentine’s Day–weekend performance in 2011 proved to be a turning point in her portrayal. Mearns and her partner Jared Angle (she calls him her Swan Lake “soul mate”) had weathered a marathon week of repertory ballets and the opening night of Swan Lake. For the Sunday performance, she says, “We couldn’t see straight, we were so tired.” She didn’t think her way through the performance, but instead surrendered to her muscle memory and gut passion. “I never thought about a step, never thought about my turns, nothing,” she says. “I believe that was the best show I’ve ever had in my career.” The thunderous applause at the end reminded her of the ovation for Makarova on the videotape (which she still watches before every Swan Lake). 

“What I learned from that is that it’s a much bigger picture—it’s not about the steps. It’s about what you give emotionally and fully to your performance and the captivating moments at the end that everybody is waiting for.” As Odile, Mearns thinks of a type of “vicious, puppet-like person who doesn’t really have a soul,” easily capable of betrayal. “I’ve brought it to a human level, and that’s how I portray it,” she says. “Whatever I’ve gone through—either that day or that year, or for the past 10 years—all goes into that performance.”

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