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Happy Days

Alessandra Ferri celebrates her 40-year long career with a revival of “L’Heure Exquise,” which premiered at the Ravenna Festival, at Alighieri Theatre in June. Maurice Béjart first staged his own version of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days for Carla Fracci and Micha van Hoecke in 1998, and the performance is studded with references and full of memories, both personal and artistic, which the Italian étoile is enthusiastic to recall. This revival is also the occasion for Alessandra Ferri to bring back to life a lively character, Winnie, the last one in her gallery of beloved heroines: Juliet, Manon, Carmen, Blanche, Léa, Marguerite Gautier, Virginia Woolf, Eleonora Duse.

Alessandra Ferri. Photograph by Amber Hunt

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How did you find this piece, apparently forgotten?

Alessandra Ferri at Studio 17 at Excelsior, London on February 07 2021. Photo: Amber Hunt

Last year, during the first lockdown, I was tiding up my archive to mark the 40th anniversary of my career. Yes, it’s been a long time since I signed my first contract with the Royal Ballet! Boxes and boxes . . . until, beside an article about me, I came across a small article about “L'Heure Exquise” which intrigued me: I read it and thought it was an extraordinary show, with a wonderful character, Winnie. I wanted to talk to Maina Gielgud, who was the second performer after Carla Fracci: I know her very well, she lives in London like me. During our meeting, she informed me that after her, no other dancer performed it. Because a particular performer is needed, she told me that I would be perfect in the role of Winnie. So, I started researching, I got passionate about it and decided: it has to be done! And here I am.

Your debut came a few days after the death of the first performer, Carla Fracci: a touching coincidence.

Yes. I spoke to Carla on the phone a couple of months ago and told her about my project. Thinking back to our conversation today, unaware as I was of her illness, I did not understand the true meaning of some of her sentences. For example, when she told me that it would not have been possible for her to come to Ravenna to see my debut, and who knows if she would have been able to join me at the following dates of the tour...

Did you see Carla Fracci in the role of Winnie? What about the differences between your Winnies?

No, I never saw her in this piece. Béjart imagined Winnie as a ballerina âgée, who lives in the past and recalls it to find again happy moments: her “heure exquise.” It is a very personal role, because we bring ourselves onto the stage: Carla talked about herself, Maina talked about herself, I talk about myself. Each of us found her feelings on stage, her memories, with different nuances. In the choreography there are free quotes: perhaps a few will notice, but for us they are steps from our beloved ballets: for me they may be some, for Carla others, for Maina still others. The male performers of Winnie’s former partner also are different: for Carla he was Micha van Hoecke, for Maina he was Martyn Fleming, for me he is Carsten Jung. So obviously the relationships changes, because a unique intimacy is created between different people.

Who is Winnie and what does she have in common or different from you?

Winnie is a woman who shuns darkness and always seeks the light, until the end, a thought that will bring her happiness, and if this thought is a memory of the past because the present does not bring her joy, she lives in the past. I do not look like her in this: I live in the present, I know how to fully enjoy the moment. As a ballerina, at a certain point you have to find the courage to look at the past, understand that time passes, and let it go. Of course, you need strength: luckily, I can manage.

What is Winnie like physically in Béjart's production?

She is a dancer in her typical rehearsing costume, pink. Well, I've never worn pink, but in the collective imagination the ballerina wears that color and that’s how Béjart wanted it. The scenography is also a character in itself and is a stroke of genius. In Beckett’s play Winnie is buried by a pile of sand, in Béjart’s reading by a mountain of pointe shoes, which are her life but also her past and are about to suffocate her. We must not forget that they are real, used shoes: they contain dreams, hopes, sufferings, disappointments, they vibrate with life because they have been lived. There are 3,000 shoes, which contain 3,000 dancers’ lives: a moving past.

Alessandra Ferri with 3,000 pointe shoes. Photograph by Amber Hunt

How did you collect them?

Ah. It was difficult in this year of pandemic and almost zero shows! “How many do you have?” I asked the dancers, “dance more because they are still not enough!” Four companies collected the 3,000 shoes: the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet, the Hamburg Balett, La Scala Ballet. All the girls, colleagues and friends, sent me boxes of shoes: it is very moving for me, because I am not alone on stage, it is as if they were all with me.

How did you prepare the show?

In order to play, I studied in London with a coach who was an assistant to Beckett: a very interesting job, which helped me to understand his non-text. If Beckett has the fascinating characteristic of expressing himself through the unspoken, Béjart tells through dance: it is the work of two geniuses, who here speak to each other. It was also very nice to restage the show with Maina Gielgud. We were supposed to rehearse in London, but due to quarantine problems, we opted for Italy thanks to the artistic residency offered for a month in Rovereto by Oriente Occidente festival: what a gift! Carsten Jung and I, along with Maina Gielgud and Micha van Hoecke who restaged the show for us, were like in a bubble, far from everyone, in a deep harmony: we talked, discussed, tried to understand every detail, every moment of the piece. Not normal rehearsals, but a very intense work, of great collaboration, confrontation, truth. There were also funny episodes, for instance Carsten playing the guitar as his character expects, after a year of lessons still terrified by the comparison with Micha, a very talented musician.

Do you still find yourself in your heroines, like now in Winnie?

I have always found my own experiences or feelings in my characters. Today, I could not and I am not interested in re-proposing characters already played, such as a teenager at her first love. I find the moment I am living in, as a 58-year-old, very beautiful, and I want to bring onto the stage women of my age, with experiences similar to my own. They are few in dance and it is important that choreographers create them, so that we can understand the beauty of life and of the human being, in all our ages.

Winne is the last of your much-loved characters. How do you see them in the perspective of your 40 years on the stage?

While archiving by year and by ballet, all my materials were spread out on the floor in a huge hall: then I realized how much I did and I said to myself: “wow, brava!” It also took me so much tenderness in reviewing all my life and career, from the ballet student I was to the artist I am. But I don't look at my career from the point of view of my successes, but from a human perspective, thinking back to the fatigue, the obstacles, the fears, the fragility, the insecurities. It may seem strange, but that's all I see when I look back. Not the evenings of successes, but the anguish of preparation and the terror of the debut, so today I can say: “I made it!”

Anyway, what a passionate life it’s yours!

It's my life: changes have never frightened me, allowing me to move around and make experiences without fear of tomorrow. I have always caught the moment, what made me vibrate, my instinct, my passion, I followed it, taking advantage of what fate offered me. For me, life is an adventure and should be lived in that spirit.

You also had the courage to start again after seven years of stop. Was it difficult?

It was not easy, I had to start from scratch because I had stopped completely and I wasn't young anymore. But I didn’t get scared and I worked hard. I'm lucky to have a body born to dance. It has been an important journey, which has strengthened me as an artist and as a woman. I learned not to judge myself but to love myself, even in my weaknesses.

It could not have been easy also the last year of forced lockdown.

Actually, I didn't experience it too badly. Obviously, there were up and down moments, better days and more difficult days. I was very sad to see my shows cancelled, especially “Woolf Works” at the Royal Opera House. A ballet and a role I love very much. Who knows if I will be able to dance it again! Luckily in London, dancers were allowed to go to the theatre every day to study. At the Royal Ballet, I also gave lessons and coaching, and I discovered that I like to pass on my experience to young dancers. I hope to have other opportunities.

Until you discovered “L’Heure Exquise.

Yes, I was able to devote myself entirely to it, even producing it. After the debut in Ravenna, an important tour will start: at TorinoDanza festival on 13 and 14 September, at Teatro Carignano where the original piece debuted, then in Baden-Baden, London, Monte-Carlo, back to Italy next year, in Milan, Venice, as well as other dates. The show is going to be on stage the next few years: I am very happy about.

Other programs?

I am no longer at that stage in my career where I plan seasons, but projects. I am grateful and aware that dancing wonderful creations at my age for a ballerina cannot be taken for granted. I live in the present, dance fills me now and I can continue, then we will see. I open my arms and see what will be gifted to me.

Valentina Bonelli

Valentina Bonelli is a dance journalist and critic based in Milan, and a longtime contributor to Vogue Italia and Amadeus. She is a correspondent from Italy for international dance magazines such as Dance Europe and Dance Magazine Japan. As a scholar her main interest lies in the XIX century Russian ballet, in its connections with the Italian ballet school. She has translated and edited Marius Petipa’s Memoires (2010) and Diaries (2018) into Italian, and she is currently writing essays and biographies about La Scala ballerinas dancing at Russian Imperial theatres.



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