Alessandra Ferri has had a long career – albeit interrupted for six years when she retired – though ‘career' is a word she doesn't like.
It implies a job more than a vocation. It implies a certain strategy rather than a fulfilled dream. Because I am happier when I am working than when I am on holiday.
Which explains why retirement wasn't for her and why her vocation brought her back to the stage.
Last year she started touring in Maurice Béjart's piece of dance-theatre L'heure exquise based on Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days, and it opens in Milan tonight. Béjart created the work for Carla Fracci in 1998 at the Turin Dance Festival. On 9 April Ferri danced an extract of L'heure exquise during the Fracci Gala at La Scala.
The first time I saw Carla, I was a child at the dance school and brought a bouquet of flowers to her dressing room. For me, she was an icon. Later, we shared the same stage, and she gave me advice. She told me, “They always say that I'm tough, but you have to be like that, or they'll roast you like a steak.” She was right… it's very true.
Like Fracci, Ferri is continuing to dance well past the age that most dancers have stopped. Yet in 2007 she danced a series of farewell performances and retired.
The first three years felt like a holiday. Then, I started to feel like I was locked in a room with the light off. In so many moments of life, even during pandemics, having to get up every morning and do a class that you sometimes hate, absolutely hate, is a life-saving discipline. Willy Burmann, my teacher in New York, used to say to me, “Alessandra, you take a shower in the morning, you come to class, and afterwards you think.” Sometimes you're so happy to do it, but having had so many good days and so many days when I couldn't take it anymore, made me very strong.
So, in 2013 she announced her return, cleverly choosing new works created on her, or roles like the current one, made for a mature dancer.
I had not imagined a second chapter in my dancing life, but Wayne McGregor created for me the role of Virginia Woolf in Woolf Work and then Afterite, which I will bring to La Scala in June; John Neumeier created Duse; Martha Clarke created Chéri… all roles that make me happy because I am convinced that, even as we age, we are still wonderful creations. I love this part of my artistic life, and my life as a woman, because it focuses not on physical prowess, which can no longer be that of a 20-year-old, but on introspection and self-knowledge. If I wanted to redo Manon, Juliet, or Carmen, it would be through weakness.
Returning to performances inevitably means appearing in front of audiences and critics.
I was terrified. If you've been standing still for six years, your body doesn't return as it was with a snap of the fingers. There's a little voice inside you that says, “You're crazy, you won't make it.” The other little voice says, “Shut up and do it!” Dance is an inner mirror, and you learn to distinguish the little voice of fear from the voice that says that this has to be done, full stop. The voice of the physical body is small; the voice of the soul is immense.
[Dancers] have pain all the time. When my daughters were children, I would arrive home after five hours of rehearsals, exhausted, and I would spend the afternoon lying down. Now it's more tiring and there are more aches and pains. When I was a girl, you had breakfast and bam! You jump. Now, I need two hours of preparation. I have a problem with my ankle that can't be resolved, and I need to warm it up carefully. My partner on stage made a wrong move and I broke it, and now I have no ligaments or cartilage left.
It hurts. But if you learn about physical pain, you can overcome it.
Alessandra Ferri was talking to the Corriere della Sera's Candida Morvillo
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.