The drama queen

Alessandra Ferri calls it quits.

WATCH HER BACK Ferri performs Manon.

WATCH HER BACK Ferri performs Manon.

[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

Alessandra Ferri, swaddled in chic ballerina layers of black, twists and unravels her limbs like a soft pretzel in the pressroom at the Metropolitan Opera House. (Frankly, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Met without her in it.) Born in Milan in 1963, Ferri left the Royal Ballet to join American Ballet Theatre in 1985, at the invitation of then-director Mikhail Baryshnikov. Revered as a dramatic ballerina, Ferri is a majestic presence, best known for her interpretations of roles created by Kenneth MacMillan. When she retires from ABT on June 23, her final ballet will, aptly, be MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (she also performs his Manon on Monday 11 and June 14). A mother of two (with the photographer Fabrizio Ferri), it’s disconcerting to realize that in person she’s such a tiny thing—her legacy is huge.

I’ll start bluntly: Why are you retiring?

Well, you gotta do it at some point! [Laughs] It’s been something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, for different reasons. Either you make the decision of carrying on—and some dancers actually do, they continue into another space of dancing—or you stop, and I wanted to stop before I reached the point of not enjoying my performances. Luckily, I haven’t yet gotten to that point. I’m having a wonderful time onstage, and everything is holding on—my body’s still fine, touch everything. [She engages in a flurry of knocking-on-wood gestures.]

I’m actually at a very nice moment where I think the maturity of a human being, the experience as a dancer and the fitness of the body all come together. I feel very free onstage, where I’m just dancing. So I thought, This is it. It can’t get any better. I can only lose some of this. I had a very lucky, long career. I started so young, and I thought, I want to remember it like this. In a few more years, I’m going to get to the point where it’s not so nice. One day, it was clear. I just woke up and it was an easy thing to say, and I felt very light about it. Now I’m very excited. There’s a part of me that, of course, is going to miss it because ballet has been my life since I was four-years-old. But I’m fortunate. I have a very happy private life, and I feel I’m at a turning point where I’m starting a new moment in my life as a woman.

Will you continue to take classes? In other words, how abrupt will the end really be?

[Laughs] You know, truly, I haven’t thought about it. I’m actually stopping August 10th. That’s my day, and I haven’t even thought of what will happen on the 11th. I mean I know what will happen, because I will go on holiday with my kids and husband, but in September, when we come back to reality in New York and the kids go to school? I don’t know. I will deal with it then. Interestingly enough, I was asked to direct the company at La Scala, and I actually said no. I feel that in order to do anything else, I want it to be a real passion and something that comes from me, not just because it’s a great job offer. I thought that to do that I needed to step away from “me” as a dancer, so that I would be able to look at other dancers.I really need to have some quiet time away, and then I will see if it’s a need of mine or not. Maybe I don’t want to do it, or maybe yes.

That would be fantastic.

[Laughs] You never know.

But you and your family will remain in New York?

Yes, this is where we live. I go back to Milan often. I’ve really had two homes, but lately, because of my children, we have been more stable here for them, for school. It’s our main home, whereas before we were going back and forth much more.

How has your relationship to New York City changed? What was it like when you first moved here?

It’s been up and down, and it’s been interesting. When I first arrived, I was coming from the Royal Ballet. I was in London for almost seven years, including a couple of years in school, and the first few times I came to New York, I was with the company. I loved New York then. I was 18 or 19, and it was fantastic and exciting and crazy. Then, when I was 21, I came to join the company. It was a little difficult from the beginning because I came from a situation in London where we were very nurtured. We all came from the school, and it was like a big family. We were taken literally by hand into every role, and when I came to ABT, I joined as a principal full of expectation—but I was still a kid.

So you made friends fast?

[Smiles] Everybody was like, “Who is she? Why is she coming in like this?” Although they were all very nice, I didn’t feel I had that big friendship, that community like in London. I felt very lonely. I would say the first four or five years, it was hard, and this city, if you’re alone, doesn’t help. It’s not a city that helps lonely people. [Laughs] So it was a little tough. And I grew up and things changed, and now I’m in a stage where I absolutely adore living here, to the point that when Fabrizio and I had to decide where to put the kids in school, either in Milan or here, we decided it had to be New York.

Why did you want to leave the Royal Ballet to come here?

For me, life needs to be lived. I was asked by Baryshnikov to join ABT, and Kenneth MacMillan, in those years, worked here also. I thought, Why not? How can you throw away a chance like that? I’ve been like this even in my private life. You’ve got to be courageous, and I think if I had to describe myself I would say that I am a courageous woman. Like sometimes you just go, “Okay—it’s a new phase, it’s time to do something new,” because you live once. [Laughs] I feel that very strongly, and it ended up being an abrupt break with the Royal Ballet. I didn’t mean for it to end so abruptly, but I guess it just happened to be not taken well or whatever. You know, life is once, and the past is the past. I really live in the present, very much so.

What is the most courageous decision you made recently?

This one! [Laughs] I could have gone on. It’s not that I needed to stop for any particular reason, but I very much feel the turning points in my life. I know when they come. I have to say that when I was next to Julio Bocca in his last performance, I was looking at him, and in my heart I knew that was it for me too. I had thought about it before—it didn’t only happen that night—but I said to myself, “The time has come in this moment of my life.” Actually, I was ready not to come back at all and Kevin [McKenzie] said, “You have to do a show here.” They said the same in Italy: “You have to do a performance here, you can’t just disappear.” There, it actually happened that I had this wonderful chance to do John Neumeier’s, La dame aux camlias, which was a ballet that I have always wanted to do and that I was meant to do five years ago, but then I was pregnant with my second daughter. So I wanted to do that in March, and then Kevin said, “March? May is only around the corner!” I said, “Okay, I’ll do May.” And then a few little things added on. I decided August will be it. Otherwise, the good-byes never end.

Kyra Nichols once told me that she would like to just disappear, too. What was your reasoning?

Well, there’s something really emotional about doing your last performance, but for the one in Milan, it turned out to be a beautiful evening. I was born there, so it was a big deal. And when I did the last performance, it was actually a very happy scene. I thought it was going to be very sad, and instead it was just a very happy feeling. I saw so many people loving me and caring, which I didn’t even realize. So I said, “No it’s right” and thank God I did because those will be wonderful memories to have.

It’s true—I saw a picture of one of your curtain calls and you look absolutely blissful.

I was. My God! It was a beautiful feeling.

In New York, you’ll be going out with MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Do you remember when you first met him?

Yes. I was in London. I was 16 and in the school and he came to watch a class, because the school was doing his Concerto. He chose me to do the second movement. That was the first time I worked with him. Shortly after that, I joined the company and started working with him on the big roles.

What did he see in you?

He obviously saw the dramatic ability, he obviously saw a body type that he liked. I actually had no idea that I had that dramatic ability; he was the one that pulled it out of me through his work and in rehearsals. In him, I basically found my ideal choreographer—his choreography fits my body like a glove. Also in his choreography, you can be a human being. You can be real onstage. You don’t have to be the ballerina. I mean the tutu, the crown, the stereotype. That I can’t be. It freaks me out. [Laughs] He brought that out of me so early. It was very hard to pretend I was a fairy.

What was your image of yourself as a little girl? What kind of dancer did you want to become?

Actually, I was never so attracted to the fairy-tale ballets, even as a kid. When I was in the school in Milan at La Scala, we had a lot of Maurice Bjart. He came with his company a lot, and I remember that one of the things that I first saw was one of his ballets with Suzanne Farrell. I was plucked very early for the theatrical side of dance, so I never really did picture myself as Aurora. I never had that dream, even if I did them. [Laughs] That was not what attracted me to dance.

You’ve had so many incredible partners over the years. What was the experience of working and dancing with Baryshnikov?

With Misha, I actually did my first Giselle, which became my favorite classical ballet. I had a harder time understanding Giselle than Juliet or Manon. It took me years. And actually Misha did help me. He has been a great teacher, and I don’t know if he knew or if he was conscious of it. He was quite a hard man to dance next to. It wasn’t somebody who was so lovely and nice and pleasant. It was hard and also there was a difference in age. He was a superstar, and I was just in the beginning of my career. He was so serious about his work, so concentrated in every rehearsal, in every performance, and I tended to be a little more on the wild side—especially with something like Giselle. He never allowed me, even for one day, not to be in the perfect style. That was great training. It wasn’t pleasant training, but it was great. He taught me that before you can be free, you have to know the basics so well. You can’t start from the top. You can’t start from the freedom. You start from knowing exactly what the choreography is, what the style is, and from there, you’re free to do whatever you want. I obviously did have a lot of talent, and I wanted to do everything right away, the way I wanted. He said, “No. You first do it the way it’s supposed to really be, then even if you go off, it will still be right.” And he was right, and I actually do that now with everything I do.

What about Roberto Bolle, who will dance with you in Manon and Romeo and Juliet?

Roberto is a little bit of the reverse. I have had the luck to meet wonderful people—I danced with Anthony Dowell, with Rudolf Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Julio Bocca. Of course, Julio and I were the same age, and we grew up together, so it’s kind of a different thing. Before him, I had wonderful men who were older who taught me a lot. One of the reasons I was able to grow into the person I am is because I had these teachers onstage with me. Roberto was always an incredible physical talent—he was beautiful, with an incredible body and amazing technique. He’s Mr. Perfect. But very nave. La Scala Ballet went to the Bolshoi to do Romeo and Juliet and I was supposed to dance with Julio and Julio—yes, again—was hurt. [Laughs] This was three days before! Who was I going to dance with? And they said, “Will you dance with Roberto?” And I said, “He’s wonderful, but he’s so young”—young in the fact that he’s so green. And they said, “Just try it.” So we had a rehearsal. He’s a fantastic partner. We had no problems because he is very good, but he was so shy. I said, “Roberto, you’ve got to do it. You are Romeo!” I thought, My God, I can’t dance with him.

What changed your mind?

I looked in his eyes, and I saw that he had all this feeling inside, but he was petrified to show it. So I said, “Okay. We’ll do it.” He deserved it. He had so much in him. And so I started working and dancing more and more with him. I think I’m the last of the generation that had the opportunity of working with incredible choreographers. MacMillan and Ashton and Robbins. I never personally worked with Balanchine, but he was there. Roland Petit, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille. People who were really theater people, not just about movement. But dancers after me haven’t had that chance and those people are hardly around anymore. Roberto is obviously one of those. You need somebody to show you how far you can actually go onstage, and that it doesn’t stop on the surface. So I thought, Why shouldn’t I give all this experience back to somebody who has a great talent? Yes, it’s more work on my part, but now I’m very happy to see that he has come a long way. So when Kevin McKenzie said, “Who would you want to dance with next year?” I said, “Listen, Julio is not here.” I love dancing with Marcelo Gomes, but I wanted it to be very, special for me. This is my last time, but it’s a new beginning for him. It’s nothing against any of the dancers here.

I think it’s great that you got to choose your own partner.

But they’re all wonderful at ABT. I just thought it has to be, for me, special.

Of course—and it’s so personal, too.

Yes. Especially in roles like this. You need to have whatever it is that stimulates you. It has nothing to do with how good or bad the dancers are—it is really not that. And I also thought that it’s a good chance for him, and it will be my gift: his debut.

What was your experience dancing Juliet from the start?

It was a role that I always wanted to do. When I joined the Royal Ballet, I felt Juliet in every pore of my skin. Everything fascinated me about the story, about her, about that time in Italy—I knew what the clothes were like, the bells of the churches. There are things that, as Italians, we have in our blood. Juliet was in my DNA. So in a way, my first performance was just a blur. It all came out like a big bomb exploded. I thought about it so much. It’s probably been 25 years that I’ve been doing the role now, and it’s changed a lot—there is different shading, certain things are calmer. It has colored itself differently, but it has been fascinating to have it with me my whole life. I actually did Manon before Juliet. I adore it. In the beginning I didn’t know what to do with the role. I was so young, but I think that’s what Kenneth wanted. The fact that Manon has no idea about what’s happening to her. She is so nave in a way, even if she thinks she’s not. She’s not in control of anything. But Juliet definitely was for me, my life. I could think about Juliet day and night.

What do you think the future of the dramatic ballerina is? You’ve touched upon the fact that there are so few choreographers to really cultivate dancers.

It’s going to be very difficult. I think there are ballerinas out there who have it in them, and the roles are there—thank God, choreographers have left these wonderful ballets for them to do. I think now it’s also a matter of who coaches them in the beginning. Once a ballerina is on with her career, she hardly needs anybody. Now I just see the steps part. It’s very on the surface. So I think that one needs to put a lot of attention in that area, even in the school. The schools now, for me, have become a “know how.” As long as you know how to do a pirouette, as long as you know how to lift your leg—and you have to know, for God’s sake. Your technique has to be perfect, but it’s not enough.

Will you coach?

I don’t know. Sometimes I think I maybe could and that it would be nice, but again, not right away. Whatever. We’ll see. I don’t know. [Laughs] I will see when I wake up in September.