Guest Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 1 May 2015
THE INTERVIEW BEGAN with Alessandra’s early days at the Royal Ballet School, and in the Royal Ballet Company. Alessandra started her training in at La Scala in Milan. Her teacher felt she would have to leave and go to a bigger school, perhaps London or New York, to complete her training. Her parents said “absolutely, no” to New York, and besides, London was closer. She auditioned for, and joined the Royal Ballet School in the January. She spoke no English, but “somehow managed”. Alessandra was taken into the Company very quickly by Kenneth MacMillan, who had come to watch class. In the end of year graduation performance, he picked her to dance the second movement from his ballet Concerto. Within a few months, she received “a very lovely Christmas present” of a contract. This was in 1980. Alessandra was told she was the first member to join, who wasn’t from the Commonwealth. It was “somehow a big honour.” Alessandra also won the Prix de Lausanne in 1980. She intended to use the scholarship to fund her time at the Royal Ballet School, but then ended up joining the Royal Ballet. It was an important experience for her, although she didn’t really enjoy it as such. She doesn’t see herself as a competitive dancer, and doesn’t like to get into that side of ballet. She has to be in her own world on stage, yet “I guess they liked me anyway, as I won.”
Alessandra didn’t do much corps work. She felt she was “always out of line”, and never learned the steps. She started doing solos almost straight away. “I lucked out.” Dame Ninette de Valois picked her to do Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Beauty. Her first major role was the Gypsy Girl in The Two Pigeons. Kenneth MacMillan then cast her as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling, which caused “a big sensation”, although she was not aware of it as such when she was 18 years old. MacMillan then told her, “Darling, I’d like you to do Manon.” She couldn’t see herself as Manon. “But I don’t understand Manon.” “Well, that’s why.” Manon doesn’t understand the impact she has. It’s her instinct, impulse and youth. “That’s why. I was exactly that girl.” Alessandra initially answered back, and refused to wear the blond wig, but did in the end for her first performance. When she put it on, she felt different. You do think, and act differently. She never wore it again after that first performance, although she kept the essence and feeling of the character. It changes completely. When Alessandra performed in Roland Petit’s Carmen, she had very short hair, and you feel different, and change again. One of the first questions MacMillan asked her when rehearsing Manon was “how does Manon walk?” This is the first thing Alessandra tries to find when she does a role now. It means you become that person from beginning to end. You find a key to a role through the walk.
Alessandra won an Olivier Award for her role in Valley of Shadows. She still has the video of Dame Ninette presenting her with the award. The ballet was based on an Italian novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She was very young when she did the role, and it was a difficult piece to do, and to dig into. Alessandra was a principal within a couple of years of joining the company. It made quite a sensation at the time, as people didn’t generally get promoted so early at that time. They were “truly wonderful years”, although she realised the pressure and responsibility to have at that age. She didn’t have those regular teenage years, as she was living in the theatre, something she is aware of now with her own children, as she sees them having that freedom.
Alessandra danced Manon and Romeo and Juliet in the same year. As she was a similar age to Juliet, it felt like an “easier transition” to make with the role. Juliet has accompanied Alessandra throughout her career. It was the first and last role she danced in New York, and has danced hundreds of performances in the role all over the world. That way, “you get to understand and learn every detail and more, and you gain even more insights as you go along”, even as she taught the role to Natalia Osipova in New York. It was an amazing opportunity. Performing Juliet at 18 years old felt very different to her last one, as she could bring her life experience to the role. You learn, and borrow from your life. You don’t act a role. You lend yourself to it. We have so much inside, so you get in touch with some of who you are, and lend yourself to the role. Where did the scream come from? Everything you thought has gone, and you have nothing else but to die. Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. It’s about violence and hatred, and you see it winning over love. “That’s the scream.”
Alessandra was with the Royal Ballet for only four years. She has “many wonderful memories” from that time. She was with American Ballet Theatre for 25 years. She joined the Royal Ballet with people who were her friends. There was something very special about that. You were nurtured and helped. “I learned everything here.” Ashton and MacMillan were still around, and Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell, Merle Park, Wayne Eagling and David Wall were still dancing. You learn theatre, and “it stayed in me forever.” There were such great actors and character roles in the Company from the Nurse to Monsieur GM. “All wonderful actors”. She took that all over the world, and helped define her as an artist. Why leave the company? “Because Mikhail Baryshnikov asked me. I took my bags, and left.” She was 21. Life presented itself, and you have the courage or not. She felt Baryshnikov was the greatest dancer in the world at that point. Kenneth MacMillan was also with ABT at that stage, so she felt somewhat protected. She wanted to see what happened, and didn’t think she would stay there for 25 years, and would have regretted it if she hadn’t given it a try.
American Ballet Theatre was exciting at first, “but not easy.” She joined as a Principal when she was 21 years old. It was a “lovely company”, and she stayed for 21 years, although she felt more alone, and it is more “up to you”. She imagined some people were asking “why is she here?” You have to “pull up your sleeves and do it. If it worked out, great. If not, never mind.” Baryshnikov was one of her “greatest masters”, but he was not easy, but then some of the greatest masters are not easy. She was a wild, raw talent, but Baryshnikov told her, “it’s not enough”. Talent has many facets, including discipline, willpower, hard work, intelligence and humility. She performed her first Giselle next to him, with the whole world watching. He would sit there and watch her intently during her solo, which she was very conscious of! He was such a hard worker, and never accepted one show below the best. “I’m still in complete awe of him.”
Alessandra’s ABT highlights include “those beginning years”, working with wonderful choreographers, such as Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor. She also formed a partnership with Julio Bocca, “my great artistic love”. They danced together for 20 years, and grew up together. They never wanted to dance with anyone else. That sort of partnership is very rare these days. It was such a gift. “That becomes magic, more than a performance.” It was perhaps the main reason she stayed at ABT. New York is a fantastic city. There is so much going on, and really opened her mind as to what dance is. It has so many aspects to it, and it is amazing what it offers, although she does miss Europe.
Fall River Legend by Agnes de Mille is “a wonderful ballet”. It ended up being an amazing experience. Alessandra had initial reservations about taking on the role and such a difficult character, but after working on it, she found the character’s humanity, and what drove her to do what she did, and make it true to her. She had to find that kind of desperation and trauma. A very interesting role. “Well darling, you do it.” Jerome Robbins was a genius of musicality. He had a particular way, quality, and musicality of how he wanted a step performed. It has to look improvised. He taught her everything about technique, and the way you use the floor and music for instance. He was a very tough taskmaster, but when you get it, it takes things to another level of dancing and using your instrument. Once Kenneth MacMillan left ABT, that umbilical cord with the Royal Ballet got cut. She couldn’t go back. “Once you go, you go.” Alessandra also started to guest more at this stage.
She also started to work with Roland Petit. MacMillan, Baryshnikov. Petit and Julio Bocca have played a huge importance in her artistic life. When she officially retired, Roland Petit asked her “Why are you stopping? A talent like that should not stop.” “He was right”, and is perhaps why they didn’t speak for so long. Peter Schaufuss had invited her to come and perform Carmen with London Festival Ballet. They met in Marseille to rehearse. Roland Petit was a very exuberant man. “He was bigger than life.” It was a very different approach to MacMillan, who was more introverted. At their first rehearsal, he walked into the studio, took her in his arms, and asked “where is Carmen? Show me.” Instead of shying away, she replied “here is Carmen!” She was not going to crumble on the stage. Roland Petit was a very elegant, cultured man. Le Jeunne homme et la mort is “such a masterpiece.” It was very instructive working with him. He had an eye for beauty, and he saw everything. The way something looks on stage can make such a difference to your character. Everything matters. Roland Petit made a ballet on her, based on a novel about selling your soul to the devil. Alessandra played the devil, who was made up as a page, who in reality was a woman. The first question Alessandra asked was “how does she walk?” She would walk down the streets of Marseille as a young boy.
Alessandra divided a lot of her time between dancing with ABT, and guesting with La Scala, Milan, so she had the best of both worlds. Dancers at ABT have come from all over the world, and you form the company by meeting there. That’s what New York is. There are lots of different styles, and they are all wonderful. You learn that there are many different ways. The company has a different structure to the Royal Ballet, as they have no home. You tour, and the company performs eight shows, and two productions a week. The company doesn’t have much rehearsal time, and you don’t get stage calls. You get thrown on. It’s a great schooling in some ways, but it’s not ideal. The company comes together because you have to. You can’t afford to “freak out” on stage. Money is more of an issue in America, and the company relies more on private donations. The Baryshnikov years were not always easy, but were very exciting. Other directors Alessandra worked under at ABT are Jane Hermann and Kevin Mackenzie, who has been there for many years now. La Scala, Milan is almost her home town. “It’s a temple, not a theatre.” She walked in as a 10 year old, and gasped. She still does now. There are many unions and rules, and it can be a fight to make things happen, “but then they do happen.” She was able to share with her friends and colleagues ballets such as Manon and Romeo and Juliet by bringing them to La Scala. It was the same with some of the Roland Petit ballets. She could try and bring back some of what she has learned.
Alessandra then went to dance Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi with Julio Bocca, but he got injured a few days before leaving for Moscow. Manuel Legris was also unavailable. A young boy called Roberto Bolle was available, and she agreed to rehearse with him, to see how they got on. She could sense his nerves, but when she looked in his eyes, she could see everything was there. They started to dance together more and more. She asked Kevin Mackenzie to bring him to New York to partner her for her farewell performance as Juliet, as Julio Bocca had stopped dancing the year before. Roberto now guests frequently with ABT. She wanted to dance it with someone who meant something to her when she stopped herself. It was very emotional for Alessandra to dance Romeo and Juliet in London again in 2003, and brought back a lot of memories for her. She was very happy she could do that.
She has two girls aged 17 and 13, who she raised in New York, although they have attended a bilingual Italian school. She wanted them to grow up with, and share that part of her life. They are both bilingual.
In 2007 Alessandra became the artistic director of the Spoleto Festival. It was not a decision she made overnight, especially as she had two children, and it was getting harder to leave them behind whilst off guesting as they got older. She loved the roles she did, and wanted to stop doing them whilst she was still doing them well. When Julio Bocca had stopped the year before, “something broke. A part of me stopped with him”, and she felt a little lost. It’s hard to build that relationship with anyone else. Her predecessor at Spoleto approached her to take over. Alessandra had initially intended to take some time out, but also found it fascinating to be on the other side. It was for two weeks. She would look at choreography as a dancer, and ask “would I dance that?” As a director, you detach yourself, and ask “do I want to share that with the audience?” Should it be seen? It broadened her view on dance, and taught her a lot.
Alessandra came back to dance after seven years. Her first year off felt like “a long holiday”, being with her children, yet there was that love of music, becoming the music, and wanting to dance was too strong. It was almost painful to listen to the music. Cynthia Harvey had said to Alessandra “just make sure you have something to do every day when your kids go to school”. It’s a very true thing. You feel you have something missing otherwise. A dancer is very much in contact with their body. It’s how you express what you have inside. It felt like something inside her was switching off, although she was so busy.
When the idea came to her for a piece to do, it was about a couple who talk a different language, not meeting, and break up. The story came back to her. She spoke to an actor friend, and they wrote the story for it. It was called The Piano Upstairs. She choreographed it, and it’s the piece she came back in. She’s also appearing in a piece called Chéri by Colette in the Linbury in September. The choreographer, Martha Clarke asked to work with her, and she agreed. It’s not her career anymore, it’s her life. She does it because she has a need to, and it takes her in new directions. The story is about an affair between a 49 year old woman, and a 19 year old boy. “I can be myself on stage.” She didn’t have to act, and could bring her life experience to the stage. It’s a very rare gift for a ballerina. She has also performed in the Signature Theatre on Broadway, performing eight shows a week. “It was scary, but it was a fantastic experience.” The stage becomes her home.
Wayne McGregor approached her during the run, and they went for coffee. He wanted to use her to play Virginia Woolf. Her reply: “I’m in shape, but… you know…” She knew his work! His reply: “I need a soul. Need your experience.” He wanted to learn. She agreed. “We’ll take each other’s hand, and see what happens.” She came in February. “We really like each other.” He has a big heart, and is highly intelligent and energetic. He’s very sensitive, and puts his soul into what he does. It’s been a great pleasure. Alessandra has loved every minute working with him. Woolf Works is based on three books. Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Wayne is “a man of a new era”, as was Virginia Woolf. She broke structure.
They are exploring the emotional world of Virginia Woolf through her books. Alessandra is being Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway at the same time. There is craziness in Mrs Dalloway, and you can see Virginia Woolf becoming Mrs Dalloway, lending herself to those characters. Alessandra is not in the Orlando section. The three movements are all very different. One section is fast and frantic, but The Waves is very moving. It starts with the letter she leaves for her husband, and her journey into the water is done in an abstract way. They have been in rehearsal every day, and they get onto the stage in a few days time. Although you don’t see “the facts”, you understand the emotional journey.
After Woolf Works, Alessandra goes to Hamburg to work with John Neumeier on a piece about the woman who invented method acting. Stanislavsky developed his technique by watching her. It will be another fulfilling and challenging role. “Then I’m unemployed!”
Alessandra did Spoleto for five years. Her contribution was to help rebuild the festival, but she wanted to start creating pieces, and doing workshops. The economic situation made this difficult. She would receive the money after the festival, which was very hard. The festival would be in July, but you would only get the money through in the October, so you can’t plan ahead.
In thanking Alessandra for a very interesting evening, our Chairman commented on how many people, himself included, had been inspired by Alessandra’s performances over her long career.
Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Alessandra Ferri and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.