Finding a new balance in Vienna: Alessandra Ferri

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It is shortly after the announcement of her appointment as artistic director of the Vienna State Ballet, that I meet with Alessandra Ferri at the Royal Opera House, London. She tells me she has just been rehearsing Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell in Manon. “This is his last show before he goes off to direct the Royal Academy of Dance,” she says. “He needs to be completely abandoned to the character. When you get to your last show, it must be for yourself, not for anybody else!”

In June, Ferri will hang up her own shoes for good, appearing in a role created for her in 2015, in the New York premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works with American Ballet Theatre. I ask her what it will be like to revisit it with another company. She explains, “After The Royal Ballet, I did it with La Scala, so it won’t be the first time. It’s very interesting when you’re doing a familiar piece. You have different energy, dynamics, style and it does reflect on the way you approach the role. Your relationship to your partner or whoever you interact with, is fresh. It’s great because you don’t fall into the trap of doing it the same as before. It’s stimulating and forces me to get in deeper.

“The experience of knowing the role very well, having had it created for me,” Ferri continues, “is very nice because I feel I can lead them into the ballet. I can be somewhat of an anchor to follow, like the leader of the pack. I think with ABT, it will be a very special feeling because I have such a history with them, the city, the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House. I know it will be the last time I do it.”

Alessandra Ferri rehearsing with Edward Watson of The Royal Ballet

© Andrej Uspenski

I have to press her on this – will it really be the last time? She is unequivocal: “Yes, for sure! I know I’ve said this before, but now my life is taking off in a different direction. I’m very excited about it and I’m 100% committed. At this stage in my life, dancing takes up the whole day, for my body, the training. I have the energy for one thing or the other. I think when you’re 35, you can do both things but at my age it’s too difficult. It makes no sense. I’m ready to be on the other side.”

I’m curious to know a little more about her coaching. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have danced everything in order to coach something,” she says. “Anyone who has had a vast career, has learned so much about dance generally. If you have an eye that can help with the technique, the refinement, in order to let that technique speak – because that’s what it’s about, you can do it with any role.”

Alessandra Ferri in Act 3 of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works

© Tristram Kenton

What about coaching the men? “I don’t find it difficult with technique, but I’m not very good at helping them with the partnering because I’ve never really concerned myself with that!” We burst out laughing, “I always had amazing partners. You know, that was their job, I had mine!” More laughter, “I have been lucky in that when I was coaching Manon, we had Ed Watson in the studio with us and we did it together. I don’t know what it takes to lift, but I was able to tell the girl how to help.”

I’m curious to know if she would ever consider doing any character roles such, as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. Without drawing breath she replies, “No, no, no! I’m not looking to be on stage anymore. I want to be there for the dancers.”

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in Act 1 of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works

© Tristram Kenton

The plan is to stop dancing after her last performance of Woolf Works – but is there a caveat? “Well, you know I was supposed to stop after doing Woolf Works here in London and then I had a very sweet phone call from John Neumeier two weeks after. I’d already put my shoes in the closet. I thought he was going to ask me to coach but he asked me to do his Nijinsky!” She couldn’t refuse. “It’s one thing to do something that was created on you but to do a completely new role at this stage in my career…”  

She explains that although she does not officially begin her tenure in Vienna until September 2025, she is travelling over regularly to get to know the company. “I’m doing the planning. It’s not a question of just picking ballets that we want to do, but we have to find out if it can be done. Does it fit in with the opera? It’s quite complex, a big puzzle. I like it a lot, which for me, is quite surprising! I knew I would be alright working with the dancers, but I’m actually really enjoying the management part. After 40 years of working in lots of different companies, I actually know more than I think.”

Alessandra Ferri rehearsing Natalia Osipova and Reece Clarke in MacMillan’s Different Drummer

© Royal Opera House

Does she feel that ballet comes second to the opera? “In any big European opera house that is the case. We all know that. For many reasons: historical, financial. The opera is a bigger machine and takes more space. I think what’s important – and I have this in Vienna – is to have an honest relationship with the Intendant, who may not know about dance. If it’s his intention to have a really great ballet company, he has to understand that he needs to give you the means to work. I’m not Don Quixote so I don’t have some illusion about having the same amount of performances as the opera.”

Ferri is understandably tight-lipped about what exactly she is planning for her first season, but explains why she will not be commissioning an original creation. “It’s a new company and a new house. So the first company premiere will be just a month after I arrive. I couldn’t possibly commission a creation so soon. Eventually we will. I believe very much that we must continue to create, but quality for me is incredibly important.

“I think any great opera house has a responsibility to respect the tradition and the roots, the identity of the company and the city, with its own history,” she continues. “I could not run the company without taking into consideration that it is Vienna. But you have to keep in mind that you are in 2025 and there has to be a balance: the roots and the new blooms! And the roots have to be healthy to develop into beautiful flowers.”

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand

© Royal Opera House

I wonder if she is concerned that she won’t be spending enough time in the studio. “No”, she says. “I have made sure that I’ll have a good team around me so that I can spend as much time as possible in the studio. Dancers need to be inspired, and as a director, I want to give that to them.”

Ferri maintains a self-deprecating sense of humour. “There is one really bad side to all this and that’s my German – oh my God!” She throws her head back in horror. “In the theatre it’s not an issue, but I like to sit in coffee shops and be able to converse. I also believe that to really understand a culture, you need to speak the language. I want to learn it. After Woolf Works, that’s what I’ll do. I think languages have a certain musicality about them so even if I don’t understand everything, I will understand something!”

I ask her what she will miss when she stops dancing. She thinks for a moment and then grimaces, “Not the pain!” We’re laughing again and she says, “There is something very particular about dance and it’s quite hard to describe. It’s a sort of freedom. It’s a paradox because when I’m dancing, I almost feel like I’m free from my own body. It’s the transcending of oneself, of what we are, the flesh. It’s really beautiful. You’re not trapped inside the body.”

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand

© Royal Opera House

I’m interested to know if Ferri will find anything as rewarding as dancing. She responds, “When I’m coaching and I see that a dancer is improving and making progress, I find that very fulfilling.”

When I ask her what she is most looking forward to in this new chapter, she smiles. “Not doing class! No, I’m kidding! What I’m really looking forward to is learning, evolving. I love that my passion for dance evolves with my age. It’s not a matter of abandoning dance but being with it, in a different form. It’s super exciting to be learning a new skill.”

I ask her if she always thought she would direct and she responds with the usual candour. “Yes, maybe not always, but certainly in the last few years. When I feel something is right, it takes me a minute to say yes! I feel really joyful about Vienna. I hope to inspire the dancers and I’m really inspired by them. It’s my wish to share that beautiful human experience. I don’t ever want to forget what a privilege it is to work in such a blessed environment: the theatre, dance and music.”

Alessandra Ferri is Guest Repetiteur of The Royal Ballet

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