Alessandra Ferri Gives a Performance for the Ages

Alessandra Ferri’s return to Romeo and Juliet nine years after her supposed retirement from American Ballet Theatre was a triumph. She displayed the exquisite lines, gorgeous feet and dramatic flair we know and love her for. But more than that, her portrayal cut to the quick of human emotion. At the end, the whole audience rose for an immediate standing ovation.

Her onstage chemistry with Herman Cornejo was ignited in 2013 when they premiered Martha Clarke’s dance-theater work Chéri, about a passionate, ill-fated love affair. In this performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, just seeing the way their eyes met could melt one’s heart.

Cornejo and Ferri in Romeo and Juliet, photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Cornejo and Ferri in Romeo and Juliet, photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Ferri’s success seemed to prove that a woman dancer can still have charisma and chops at 53. Some posts on social media declared her performance a victory for all women dancers. But I felt it was also a victory for an artist’s freedom onstage. Ferri has always been impulsive—that was part of her appeal—but this night glistened with an added frisson of risk-taking. At one point in the ballroom scene, way before the much anticipated first kiss of the balcony scene, she suddenly took Cornejo’s face in her hands and gave him a quick kiss—as though she couldn’t help herself. (I wonder if MacMillan would have approved.)

In our November 2014 cover story, Ferri told Gia Kourlas “It’s like I never stopped.” When Ferri returned from retirement, her momentum picked up where it left off in 2007. She danced and choreographed a work called The Piano Upstairs in the summer of 2013, teamed up with Cornejo for Chéri, created the lead role in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet and last December danced the premiere of John Neumeier’s ballet, Duse, based on the legendary actress Eleanora Duse. In between these starring roles she’s been touring a small repertory show, TRIO ConcertDance, consisting of herself, Cornejo and pianist Bruce Levingston.

Ferri as Juliet, photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Ferri as Juliet, photo by Rosalie O’Connor

And now, the reprisal of Juliet. Sure, her technique wasn’t as sparkling as before. But perfect technique was never her thing. In our November 2013 issue, she told me, “As my career progressed, I was trying to break the barrier between dance and acting and to really meld the two. It was a particular path I was following; it wasn’t just casual. It was a real search and experiment.”

That melding was visible last week in Romeo and Juliet. Her dancing and acting were seamlessly, gloriously entwined. We believed every minute of her portrayal of a love-torn teenager; her moments of stillness barely veiled the turmoil underneath. In the last scene when Romeo tries to dance with her limp body, the looseness of her balletic limbs was spectacular.

We left the theater feeling emotionally sated. Here’s to a possible annual visit from Ferri to ABT.

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