Is it possible for an almost 56-year-old dancer to still perform magnificently (upcoming birthday, May 6th)? Alessandra Ferri proves that it is indeed possible as she triumphs in La Scala’s currently-running performance of Woolf Works, a ballet by the English choreographer Wayne McGregor. New York’s ballet lovers were able to confirm this in 2015 when she debuted in Martha Clark’s Cheri, and again last year when the ex-star of the American Ballet Theatre returned to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in Afterite, also by MacGregor. But it was in dancing the role of Virginia Woolf at the Royal Ballet, that Ferri outdid herself—this despite having been absent from the stage from 2007 to 2012– by winning her second “Oliver Award” for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance” in 2015.
Delicate, seemingly fragile, she is nevertheless extremely strong, almost always on pointe, in MacGregor’s frequently audacious choreographic style. Ferri is the protagonist in two of the three parts that comprise the Woolf Works ballet. The first part, I Now, I Then, opens with the only existing recording in Virginia Woolf’s own voice, stored in the BBC’s archives since 1937. Related to her essay On Craftmanship, her words are well-articulated: “How can we combine the old words in a new order so they survive, so they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.”
These are reflections that seem to anticipate the mostly neo-academic linguistic novelties of choreography. In I Now, I Then, Ferri is Clarissa, the protagonist of Mrs Dalloway. Her movements, in an elegant little brown 1930’s dress are austere (costumes by Moritz Junge), almost wary, in a scene constructed of huge, slowly-moving crossing frames, but also of projections of London streets and gardens, with glimpses of the inside of hypothetical houses with cutaway walls, all caught by the film designer Ravi Deepres.
In the novel Mrs Dalloway, which takes place during the course of a single day, the well-to-do and by now mature Mrs. Dalloway is making preparations for a party. In the ballet, instead, she relives the destinies of those that she has loved and lost in her past, interpreting the literary stream-of-consciousness that is associated with the author, through the balletic movements that recreate a narrative. Here we have Septimus (danced by the excellent Timofej Andrijashenko), a war veteran so traumatized by the violence he has suffered that he could only choose suicide; then, Clarissa as a young woman (Caterina Bianchi, a revelation for the La Scala Ballet) along with her friends Sally (Agnese Di Clemente) and Peter (played by the unfailing Federico Bonelli, Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet as Guest Artist), and also an ever-swirling Evans (Claudio Coviello) with the charming Rezia (Martina Arduino). Clarissa/Ferri is frequently seen leaning against one of the frames, immobile and half hidden, yet intensely vibrating as she observes the scene, as if rummaging into the past, as if in a flashback in which she painfully can no longer take part.
The choreographer has also added fragments of Woolf’s biography to the characters from Mrs Dalloway’s memory. Clarissa/Ferri not only despairs in recalling the death of Septimus in one of the most dramatic moments of I Now, I Then, but surprises herself when kissing the beautiful Sally, in memory of her briefly nurtured love for the painter Vita Sackville-West. Ferri doesn’t appear in Becomings, the second part of the ballet inspired by Orlando, a novel dedicated to Sackville-West as marking the end of their relationship. Here, the star ballerina gives way to the dancers of the La Scala Ballet, almost all dressed in sumptuous seventeenth-century gowns, enthusiastically spell-bound and absorbed in the language and gesticulation of McGregor: a dance of gyrations, encounters, leaps, appearances and disappearances.
Despite the beauty of the magical lighting by Lucy Carter in Becomings, forming a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors and intermittent inter-lacing of laser beams in the high theatrical sky, this is perhaps the least successful part of the ballet. A projection into the future is perceived in agitated and continuous movement, yet none of the dancers living through three centuries without ever aging, and while constantly changing sex, ever becomes Orlando. Naturally, the choice is deliberate, but it does justice only to the beautiful golden costumes with ruffs, bodices or bronze-colored trousers of the unisex tight-fitting outfits; and to the dance, to the slender, bent, contracted, open parts of the body that dart about to Max Richter’s generic and somewhat dull music; and of his instrumental and electronic variations that in some ways elaborate the Baroque theme of Follia . A slight figure (the excellent Nicoletta Manni) bestows her feminine grace on Orlando when he becomes a woman through her graceful and supple dance, her modest and mischievous sway. However, the essence of the novel, so well-delineated in the eponymous film by Sally Potter (1992), is absent here.
After a brief interval, which occurs after every one of the three parts of the ballet, Alessandra Ferri returns to the hypothetical beach of Tuesday, inspired by Woolf’s last and most complex novel, The Waves. In the beginning of the ballet, a small group of children (the talented students of the Scuola di Ballo dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala) intertwine themselves in a playful ring-around-the-rosy. The resonance of the intense words of the love letter sent to her husband (Federico Bonelli) before her suicide continues to vibrate in the bass continuo’s almost melodic lines, as conducted by Koen Kessels, who had previously led the successful Woolf Works at Covent Garden. The letter, read by a female voice off-stage, contains moving words: “Dearest, the only person who has always been by my side and who could save me would be you, but I am sure I am going crazy again … I can no longer fight.” In a transparent black costume, Alessandra/Virginia clings to her bare-chested husband/Bonelli in a desperate pas de deux of farewell.
Once again, Ferri demonstrates her impeccable technical superiority, enhanced by Bonelli’s virile presence, while other powerful figures of La Scala’s ballet (such as Virna Toppi) open their bodies, revealing and intensifying her grief. All the dancers are dressed in black, remaining almost motionless, seemingly the personifications of an imminent after-life. In fact, the mental illness that Woolf suffered from her childhood gets the better of her even here in Tuesday. Ferri/Virginia slowly detaches herself from everything that surrounds her, attracted only by the projected waves breaking upon the backdrop with an insistently regular rhythm: one, two, one, two. Her walk towards death, as in her first appearance in the ballet, expresses all her newly-discovered inner strength and her increased expressive powers. Here we sense the greatness of an exemplary tragédienne, sure to be seen again on the dance scene.
After having lived 35 years in an electrifying New York, Alessandra, known as Alex, returned to London last year, to breathe the “air of Europe”. She will be once again close to the Royal Ballet, the company in which she grew up; first in its demanding school, then in the company, wherein she became the darling of Kenneth McMillan and other international choreographers. Her destiny will surely reunite her with the 49-year-old Wayne McGregor, who became a resident choreographer of the Covent Garden company in 2006. The award-winning Woolf Works, which could not have been born without a theatrically imposing figure such as Ferri, was also created to pay homage to McGregor’s ten years at the Royal Ballet. Alessandra has nothing but praise: “Woolf Works changed my life and catapulted me into what is now the world of contemporary dance. Wayne McGregor speaks to young people, and in just a few years’ time, he changed and expanded the audience of the Royal Ballet, rejuvenating it. My life can be defined as being before and after McGregor. This choreographer has shown me how all of us, dancers and non-dancers, can evolve by letting go of the past, while also keeping it inside us.”
For the La Scala Ballet, still basking in the success of a Schubert-inspired Winterreise by the Franco-Albanian Angelin Preljocaj, Woolf Works was a greatly welcomed immersion in a style of dance that totally represents today; a successful collaboration that was repeated in June, 2006, with the same McGregor at La Scala, then director and choreographer of Purcell’s Dido and Aenea. Above all, they have come to understand the dynamic values of swirling, irrepressible movement. From Ferri, on the other hand, they have certainly learned that speed, muscular tension, and leg lifts that reach the crown of the head are not enough to create a memorable dancer. The passion for dynamism, so typical of our current neo-classical ballet, must be combined with dramatic depth, and this is achieved not only through feverish, tireless physical work, but also through one’s personal emotions, cultural background and the always to be nurtured strengths of one’s interiority.