After taking her final bows as Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House with American Ballet Theater in June of 2007, Alessandra Ferri may have left the storied company she had danced with since 1985, but, as she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Manhattan, she certainly did not retire.
“Having had the years off, I truly realized that as an artist, you don’t retire. This is who I am,” explained Ferri, whose transcendent portrayals of Giselle, Manon and the star-crossed lover, among many other roles, had left a sublime imprint on generations.
“It’s not a job for me,” added Italian-born Ferri. “When you are an artist, it’s who you are. Therefore, I felt that my real self was locked in a room and was not being able to express itself. I feel alive during the creative process. It’s not a matter of performance, but being in touch with who you are inside.”
How Ferri, on the cusp of 53, remains in touch with her inner artist will be evident when she and Ballet Theater’s Herman Cornejo perform at the Joyce Theater in a unique collaboration with pianist Bruce Levingston. Called “Trio Concert Dance,” the program features commissioned choreography by Russell Maliphant, Fang-Yi Sheu, Demis Volpi and Houston Ballet’s artistic director, Stanton Welch. There will also be works by Angelin Preljocaj and Cornejo as well as a curated selection of piano solos performed by Levingston.
The concert promises to be a melding—not only of bodies and talents—but of souls.
“This is the enthusiasm of three artists that feel an affinity in their sensibility of performing and the wish of working together—Bruce, Herman and myself,” said Ferri. “Because we speak the same language [and] vibrate on the same note, we started thinking, what could we do.”
As for Ferri’s ‘return’ to the stage, she will have none of that.
“I’m not going back, I’m going forward,” the dancer stated firmly. “I took a pause. As we all do, we evolve—in our life, as people—and I decided to go forward. In going forward, the opportunity with a couple of projects came about.”
“Trio,” which evolved from one of those projects, has a marvelous history that brought the ballerina back to a worshipful public—and had her partnered with Cornejo, now 34 (and a Ballet Theater dancer since 1999), for the first time in 2013. The work was Martha Clarke’s dance/theater hybrid, “Chéri.” Based on two linked novels by Colette, the opus featured Ferri as a Parisian woman tangled in a passionate affair with a man about half her age.
Argentina-born Cornejo said Clark approached him with the story, but after hearing the name ‘Alessandra Ferri,’ he explained, “I didn’t hear anything else, because it’s anybody’s dream to dance with her. For me to go into this road, doing a play, acting on stage, it was more than dancing. It’s because Alessandra was there.
“It’s hard to think of my career, as a ballet dancer,” recounted Cornejo, speaking by phone from New York City, “that I would choose to do something like “Chéri.” It opened a door into a different world.”
Thus was the Ferri/Cornejo partnership—not unlike that of Nureyev and Fonteyn—born, their chemistry, in a word, explosive.
“There was a strong connection we developed right away,” recalled Ferri. “Of course, we knew each other and had been onstage together at Ballet Theater—when I did “Manon,” he was my brother—but we never played opposite each other in a leading role.”
Reviews were near rhapsodic, with the New York Times describing “Chéri” as “. . . an irresistible chance to encounter beloved performers in a new context and to view their artistry with a new intimacy.” The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell wrote, “Ferri’s dance technique is preternaturally youthful still, but she can morph from skittish ardour to haggard-looking defeat in a convincing second. She’s also superbly partnered by Herman Cornejo as a narcissistic, passionate and treacherous Chéri.”
Enter, then, Bruce Levingston. One of today’s leading figures in contemporary music, the pianist has appeared in concerts and music festivals throughout the world, including premiering works written for him by composers such as Philip Glass and Timo Andres. The New Yorker hailed Levingston as, “a poetic pianist who has a gift for inventive—and glamorous—programming.”
Indeed, Cornejo said Levingston has been key to “Trio,” which had its premiere in Italy last spring. They met nearly 10 years ago at ABT, when the troupe performed Glass’s “Musical Portrait of Chuck Close,” choreographed by Jorma Elo.
“From that moment meeting Bruce,” Cornejo explained, “I had in my mind to do something special with him. I told [this to] Alessandra, once we became closer in our work, so I took her to see him at Carnegie Hall.”
That meeting proved propitious.
“Dance is part of the great music literature,” said Levingston, 54, who divides his time between Manhattan and his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, “and since I was a child I loved ballet. When Herman brought Alessandra to hear me in a concert, she came backstage with him and looked at me and said, ‘This is it. We’re doing something together.’
“There’s no artifice,” continued Levingston. “I could look in her eyes and see who she was. When we sat at the piano—they both love the same music I do—we were drawn to the same sensibility about music. In a way, it’s really about the purity of the music, and egos get left behind.”
As for the choice of choreographers, that, too, was a collective decision, with Levingston suggesting Ravel’s “Pavane For A Dead Princess” as a setting for Welch’s work of the same name. “Even though choreography was their domain,” pointed out the pianist, “I knew the work of all these people, and we would agree very quickly.”
Ferri, who was also a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and La Scala Theatre Ballet, said she likes the notion that the program is fluid, and, in a way, a work-in-progress.
“Nothing is set. The main character of the whole night is the music, and then things can change,” noted Ferri, whose performances last year also included dancing the role of Virginia Woolf in Wayne McGregor’s “Woolf Works,” for which she won the Grishko Award for Best Female Dancer, the first terpsichorean over the age of 50 to do so.
“It’s very free,” added Ferri. “It’s obviously not improvised, but that’s the feeling.”
Maliphant’s “Entwine,” a tableau of longing, beauty and grace, teems with striking lifts and turns. The British choreographer makes use of Glass’s “Metamorphosis Two,” its emotional heft also felt in the haunting minimalist score.
“Since Bruce is one of the most acclaimed Glass players,” Ferri said, “and Russell loves Glass, that was an easy match.”
With Glass having been the go-to guy for choreographers for years (the composer recently turned 79), his music can sometimes feel overexposed. Levingston, however, has his own thoughts on the matter.
“Like everything, it’s how you use it,” he said. “It’s also how you perform it. I tend not to play Glass like everyone else. For me,” he added, “there was a period where people played his music like it was a machine. He doesn’t play it that way and I certainly don’t. I play it like Chopin.
Those in the “Trio” audience can judge for themselves, as Levingston, in addition to accompanying the dancers, will perform Glass’ Étude No. 2, as well as Chopin’s Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and works by Scarlatti, Satie and Bach.
During Levingston’s renderings, the dancers will change costumes and, well, catch their collective breath. Cornejo insists that the evening is not like a standard gala performance. “It’s a different concept, and we try to make the night very unified. We don’t take bows after each piece.”
Levingston likens the purity and elegance of the couple’s dancing to what he attempts to do when he plays a piece of music. “There’s no junk in their work,” acknowledged the keyboardist. “And if I play Bach, it’s about Bach. You have to feel that with a certain sincerity. I’m not sure you can teach that.”
The musical selections are not altogether standard fare, either, as is apparent in “Flair.” Created by Demis Volpi, a young Argentine who is currently resident choreographer at Stuttgart Ballet, the dance is set to György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata No. 2. Recognizable, perhaps, from Kubrick’s 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut, the piece is from a series of 11 solo piano works Ligeti wrote during the years 1951-53, with Levingston performing the first in that series to open the program.
“I knew Demis’ name,” admitted Cornejo, “from when he worked for ABT the year before he created this pas de deux for us. We both have the same background—Teatro Colón—but he went to Germany. He’s a very talented man—or I should say boy,” Cornejo chuckled.
In addition to the duets, Ferri and Cornejo will each dance a solo, with the latter performing a new work he created (to Glass), and Ferri dancing a piece made for her by Taiwanese-born Fang-Yi Sheu, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Set to Bach, “Senza Tempo,” Ferri confessed, “is a whole different thing. Fang-Yi was well aware that I’m not a Graham dancer. The reason she wanted to work with me was because she was fascinated by the way I move. She liked the way I danced, but she’s not going to make me dance like somebody else. Why would she?” Ferri asked rhetorically.
“We all are unique,” noted Ferri. “This is what it’s about. Why do you take a violin and try to make it sound like a trumpet?”
The program concludes with the only work not made for Ferri and Cornejo—the final duet from Preljocaj’s popular, “Le Parc.” Originally created in 1994, it was the choreographer’s first piece for the Paris Opera Ballet and is a sensual ode to love, set to a Mozart adagio, performed by Levingston and a string quartet.
Said Ferri: “It’s dreamy and very romantic, and everything else is quite abstract. It’s a nice closing touch to the evening.”
“Each pas de deux has a different mood,” Cornejo added. “It goes up and down with emotions, but the chemistry is the same from beginning to end. That bond, that connection between us, I feel like we are in a bubble since the beginning, and we finish inside that bubble together.”
Cornejo, like Ferri, agrees that the beauty of “Trio,” lies in the notion that it is never the same. “It goes beyond beauty and, say, “Giselle.” This is not a set-up story, but whoever comes to see it will get the story that they want to get, which is also beautiful.
“It’s a show open to whatever your imagination wants,” Cornejo continued. “That’s the beauty—everybody will see something different and receive something different.”
Because of the success of their recent collaborations, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, asked the pair to perform the leads in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Metropolitan Opera House for one performance, on June 23, nine years since Ferri will have left that fabled stage.
“I didn’t want to go back there,” recalled Ferri. “I told Kevin, ‘I don’t know. Let me think.’ Then I went to the performance and saw Herman’s Romeo. For me,” Ferri added, “it’s the role of my life. It’s something that made me, so I thought, ‘Well, maybe it would really be wonderful to do it once now.’ I’ve also grown as an artist.”
For Ferri, the 18-year age gap between her and Cornejo is merely a number.
“We love dancing together and of course there is the age difference, but souls have no age difference. And when you dance, when our souls are together, there is no age difference. I can’t dance everything that Herman can dance, and there are many roles that I would not do anymore. That’s why it’s wonderful we can have things created for us for who we are now.”
“It’s a new phase,” Ferri exclaimed, “and at this point in my life, in my career, what is so nice [is that] I did everything possible for a ballerina to do. I’ve had such a privileged career all over the world with wonderful people, dancers, choreographers, and now I’m very free to choose to do what I want to do and share this experience.
“That’s why it’s invigorating,” she added. “Nobody can go back, never, in life. You can only go forward, only be excited about what’s next, not how I was. It’s a lovely moment.”
“Trio Concert Dance” will be performed by Alessandra Ferri, Herman Cornejo, Bruce Levingston at the Joyce Theater New York, March 2-6, 2016