Alessandra Ferri searched out and produced L'Heure exquise to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her joining The Royal Ballet and embarking on her career. She said, “I was looking for a significant role, one I had never performed, one that was right and exciting for the artist I am now.”
Ferri's own company AF DANCE co-produced L'Heure exquise together with the Ravenna Festival and The Royal Ballet. The piece premiered in Ravenna in June, and a significant second outing was for the Torinodanza Festival (Turin Dance Festival) on 13 September 2021 in the stunning Teatro Carignano, where the piece had received its premiere exactly 23 years before. Maurice Béjart created the piece as a vehicle for the 62-year-old Carla Fracci, who shared the stage with Micha van Hoecke. Both dancers died this year, so Ferri's performances have become something of a tribute to them too.
Béjart's ballet is an adaptation of Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days, which was written sixty years ago in 1961 (Oh les beaux jours, his French version, came in 1962) where Winnie – a woman in her fifties – is buried to her waist in a mound and follows a daily, slightly pointless, routine where her tragicomic circumstance is countered by her frequent refrain: “Oh this is a happy day.” Her husband Willie is mainly silent and often out of sight. Towards the end of the play, her situation worsens as she is buried to the neck.
Béjart was faithful to his source with Winnie (here called Lei/Her) buried to her waist in a mound of pointe shoes. Although the ballerina also speaks occasionally, especially during the opening scene, the mound opens and she is released from her confinement to express her recollections through dance and movement. Instead of being buried to her neck later in the piece, she wears a romantic tutu fixed around her neck and falling over her shoulders almost to her feet. Willie (Lui/Him) is in black and largely invisible – it's very much ‘Her' show.
Ferri said that discovering the piece seemed like a ‘sign'. In fact, it wasn't an obvious choice as it isn't well known: after Turin, Fracci performed it in Genoa and Rome over the next decade or so, and Maina Gielgud (a frequent collaborator of Béjart's) and Martyn Fleming performed the work in 2003. Ferri says, “The ballet has rarely been performed, precisely because it needs two performers who know how to ‘be' on stage, as Carla and Micha did: dancer-actors with a long artistic experience. I had no doubts that this was the role I was looking for.”
Gielgud has restaged the work for Ferri, and Carsten Jung from the Hamburg Ballet joins her as Lui.
Ferri's interpretation is very different from Fracci's, just as the stage play has seen many different Winnies. Fracci's strong cheekbones and jaw and forceful movements made her a more determined character; Ferri's rounder features and smoother gestures give her a wistful and dreamy presence.
Ferri's legs and feet are, as always, gorgeously expressive, and she has the most beautiful lines. She captures the mood of the vaudeville-style moments perfectly, and in the eclectic mix of moves (there's even a little of Astaire and Rogers) there are also purely classical ones from simple sequences at a barre to the delicate port de bras and softness of a sylph.
She's dressed in pink rehearsal garb as the curtain opens, but as the mountain of shoes parts she takes them off and underneath is wearing a semi-transparent long rehearsal tutu and her daily routine starts – the pointe shoes, the class, the rehearsals, the performance. Is it this routine that keeps her sane? It provokes the question: “Can dance make people insane?” and the answer is, probably, yes – though the same can be said of stamp-collecting or bodybuilding. There are those who study dance manically, though they've never been on stage; who put on full stage makeup for a dance class; who slowly sink into a psychological mound of pointe shoes where only ballet exists. Winnie/Lei finds joy in the memories provoked by a shoe, a tutu, music… whether they are real memories or imagined. She is optimistic and happy, even as she's being engulfed. Though maybe she's not being engulfed by dance at all, but by the passing of time, and her memories are all that remain of dance for her. Beckett doesn't explain his metaphor and neither does Béjart, but the flavour is bittersweet.
The music comes from Webern, Mahler, and Mozart, but most memorably from Franz Lehár's final duet from The Merry Widow, which Ferri sings, in French, in a sweet soprano before a recording takes over. This is where Béjart got his title: “L'heure exquise qui nous grise lentement, la caresse, la promesse du moment.” The curtain closes at the end of another day.
Peggy Ashcroft said, “Winnie is one of those parts, I believe, that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet — a ‘summit' part.” Béjart's piece could become a summit part too and is open to a multitude of interpretations, both by the dancer and by the audience. It is a gift of a role for actor-ballerinas before they finally sink out of sight into a mound of pointe shoes — though, for Ferri, that day seems a long way off.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.