When I was three, I was already living out stories in my head and had the feeling of another reality calling me. Even though my parents didn’t go to the theatre, I said, “I want to go to dance school.” They enrolled me and it was immediately clear to me that this was going to be my life. It wasn’t that I loved the tutus, and it wasn’t just an airy-fairy thing to do, but I really liked the study. I understood that it was my key to opening the door to inner freedom.
Then, I was walking with my mother in Milan when I saw the announcement for La Scala’s ballet school. In the meantime, we had moved to Monza [just outside Milan], but I said that I wanted to study there. I remember the family reunion, around the kitchen table. Mum had been a teacher and had had to give up her job, but she cared about women’s independence and convinced my dad to let me go to secondary school at La Scala.
When Ferri was 15, she left La Scala and joined The Royal Ballet School.
By then, my parents had understood from my teachers that I had talent. So not having my parents against me, and knowing that I didn’t have to prove to anyone that I was right, was an enormous encouragement. For my parents, it was also a big financial undertaking and as there were no mobile phones, there was just a weekly appointment in a phone box.
Ferri represented The Royal Ballet School at the Prix de Lausanne in 1980, was much-admired for her performance at the School’s end of term show later that year, and joined The Royal Ballet a couple of months later. She was 17. The following year Kenneth McMillan created a pas de deux, Chanson, with her, and in 1982 she was acclaimed for her performance as Mary Vetsera in McMillan’s Mayerling. He chose her to create several roles during her time with The Royal Ballet.
It was extraordinary meeting Sir Kenneth McMillan, this great choreographer who started to give me important roles. I was very nervous before my debut as principal dancer in Mayerling. I remember going on stage and then it felt as though a soap bubble had burst in my chest – it was a wonderful feeling of connection with the audience that I will never forget, that feeling of being bigger than our physical body.
Ferri surprised many with her decision to leave the company that had given her so much and join Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York, who was the director of the American Ballet Theatre at the time. She had been with The Royal Ballet for five years.
Baryshnikov approached me in Milan, after Franco Zeffirelli’s Swan Lake at La Scala.
This extraordinary production of Swan Lake had choreography by Rosella Hightower, Zeffirelli directed as well as designing the sets, Anna Anni was the costume designer, Carla Fracci was Odile, Ferri was Odette, and Lorin Maazel was in the pit.
[Baryshnikov] asked me if I would come to the American Ballet Theatre. I said that I would, even the next morning. I was 21 years old. The first show we did together was Giselle in Miami, and seeing him rehearse non-stop despite a big knee problem taught me a lot.
Other important encounters?
Alessandra Ferri spoke to the Corriere della Sera newspaper’s Candida Morvillo about having her first daughter in 1997.
I told myself: I am a woman who dances and the two things have to live together. I knew that if I sacrificed dance, I would hate my family, and if I sacrificed motherhood, I would hate dance. When Emma and Matilde were little, they travelled with me… I took them everywhere. Then [in 2007] I stopped. I was a mum and a wife. Then, when I went back to dancing, we were coming out of a difficult period with my separation [from her husband Fabrizio Ferri]. Taking up dancing again was important for me and for my daughters, because they saw how important it is to have emotional independence.
It was one of those moments when dance saved me. It had been a beautiful love story and the divorce came unexpectedly.
[Now I’m in love] with life. I get excited when I can say: wow, life goes on. Four years ago, I decided to leave New York and a month later I was living in London. I feel good there, and I am closer to my daughters who live in Milan. Matilde is 24 and works in fashion and advertising, Emma is 20 and studies the science of food and wine. But sooner or later, I think [I will return to Italy]. My heart is here.
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.