BWW Dance Review: Alessandra Ferri Melts Our Hearts in ROMEO AND JULIET
Note: I agreed to review this production with the understanding that what I put forth would be from a fan's perspective. Consider this more of an "appreciation" than a work of scholarship.Halfway through the bedroom scene (Act III, Scene I) I thought to myself, "They're playing the music too quickly!" I was wrong. The tempo was fine; it simply felt faster than normal because the dancing was so wonderful. It's to be expected. Alessandra Ferri was guest starring in American Ballet Theatre's production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" nine years after she'd retired from the company in the same role. I didn't get to see that performance; I watched her final "Manon" and "Othello" instead. For me there has only ever been one Juliet. After Ms. Ferri retired I melodramatically declared that I would "never watch R&J again". How wonderful then to see her last night, June 23rd, 2016, as precious and as vibrant as she ever was. It was like visiting with a very good old friend; time whizzes by and you realize how much you've missed each other. Yes, there are things that have changed. At 53, Ms. Ferri's turns - never her strongest point - are merely sketched and her jump is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, all of her jumps - except for the staircase leap during the balcony scene - have been removed. And the wild abandon that once characterized her approach has been replaced by delicate vulnerability. But her line, her arabesque, her soul, her plasticity, her mystique- all of these and more brimmed as if from an overflowing fountain. The Russians love to speak of poetry and soul in dancing. It is not something that one sees very often in the West. We see it in footage of Galina Ulanova or even in Uliana Lopatkina. In Ms. Ferri, the Russian poetry and soul ring forth as if from a choir of bells.
With Ms. Ferri it has always been the in between moments that give one pause; things that one never notices with other dancers. Choices that signify the immensity of a situation are shockingly abundant during an Alessandra Ferri performance. You have to see it to understand. Once you do, you think, "I never made that connection before." For instance: the Nurse touching Juliet's bosom to indicate that she is becoming a woman is replicated during the balcony scene when Juliet pulls Romeo's hand to her chest to say, "I'm not a little girl"; when Juliet descends to kneel after the chest press with Romeo so that she can study him, we see that she is also "taking the vow"; the fact that Juliet never once allows Sterling Baca's Paris to take her hand - no, that she removes her hand at the last moment every single time he reaches for it; in the tomb scene, when the wounded Juliet grasps for Romeo's hand just before she expires, we see the echo of their reaching for one another at the end of the balcony scene; this is ballet theatre that transcends mere technique or stagecraft. This is what transformed certain silent movie actors into stars: the ability to stand still and resolute as a sea of action rages across the stage. What Ms. Ferri has is innate intelligence and talent that have been refined to the point that they are now visceral; reactive; effortless; natural.
In the 1998 performance documentary "ABT Now" Ms. Ferri gives an interview during which she states that when she is assigned a role she reads everything about her character's story, learns the choreography, and then forces herself to forget it. After that, she goes into the studio and finds the story and movement from within herself so that the interpretation is wholly her own. In that same documentary she performed the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" with her great partner, Julio Bocca. I never thought that she would find another partnership to rival what they had together. I had my doubts even after I learned that the dazzling Herman Cornejo would be her Romeo. I saw them perform together - at the Signature Theatre in "Cheri" and the Joyce in their joint collaboration "Trio Concert Dance" - and thought that she would completely overwhelm him in a three act ballet. How wonderful it is to discover that I was completely and totally wrong. During Romeo's balcony scene solo, something unprecedented happened; people burst into fits of applause. Normally I would be annoyed, but even I had to admit that something spectacular had been unleashed within Mr. Cornejo. I have on occasion had goose bumps and shivers overtake me during a performance, but only once before have I been moved to tears. This performance's balcony pas de deux reduced me to sobs. There was Ms. Ferri and her ever-pliant back releasing her arms in cascading ripples with every dip, and there was Mr. Cornejo smiling as if he had found the secret to a happy life. Watching this concert, I think we all did.
As for the rest of the production, a hail of bravos to Stella Abrera's "Gloria Swanson-esque" Lady Capulet, Roman Zhubin's macho and sexy Tybalt, and Craig Salstein's mercurial Mercutio. Mr. Zhurbin's death scene - that final leap at Romeo like a tiger preparing to maul a gazelle before he expired - expressed so much more than rage. It spoke of the lust for life that this man was not ready to relinquish. Mr. Salstein's turns and ceaseless pranks made him not just the life of the party but the force that kept this action packed epic churning. Ms. Abrera's Lady Capulet throbbed with tragedy following Tybalt's death because, she communicated with the opulence of an opera star, he was the one thing to give her joy. This production is a marvel. The poetry of the text flows beautifully from scene to scene. But that poetry only comes to life in the hands of capable artists. As of yet, the corps de ballet is still a work in progress. After interacting with Ms. Ferri for three hours they have received a masterclass in stagecraft and performance. I hope that they absorbed the lesson.
Ms. Ferri is scheduled to reprise her 2016 Olivier Award-winning turn in the Royal Ballet's "Woolf Works" - created for her by the company's resident choreographer Wayne McGregor after he saw her in "Cheri" - this coming January 2017. What might it take to convince her to give ABT another round? Whatever the price, artistic director Kevin McKenzie should pay it immediately.
Photo Credit for the June 23rd, 2016 performance is attributed to Kent G. Becker