Rumors of a dearth of ballet superstars may be premature. At 27, Alessandra Ferri, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, has every superstar requirement: Superb technique, dramatic intensity, a face to launch a movie, and a committed, personal approach to her art.
"Very rarely you just shut off your brain and use your body," Ferri said from ABT headquarters in New York. "I can't do it. I can't pretend I'm not there and just use my legs. Alessandra is always there--with her life, feelings, personality. All that comes through in whatever I'm doing."
That's the attitude that has made Ferri, 27, one of the luminaries at ABT. She will be dancing with the New York-based company during its engagement March 12 through 24 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"When you're doing a role, of course, the story is written and it has its theme, and you have your own interpretation of it," Ferri said. "You can cast your own shadows and shade over the story. But the story is there. When the work is abstract, there is always an inspiration behind it. Very rarely you have just movement.
"I don't really believe that any dance is really abstract anyway," she added. "Even when there is no story, somewhere in your mind you experience something you've been living. Maybe the music awakens some kind of feeling inside of you. You get hold of that feeling and portray in your movement."
Ferri came to ABT after a meteoric rise at the Royal Ballet of Great Britain. She had studied at the famous Teatro alla Scala in her native Milan until the age of 15, then went to the Royal Ballet School. At 17, she won a top prize at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition and was invited to join the Royal, quickly becoming one of that company's most popular ballerinas.
Kenneth MacMillan, resident choreographer at the Royal, became her champion and created roles for her. When Mikhail Baryshnikov, then artistic director of ABT, made MacMillan artistic associate of ABT in 1984, the British choreographer brought his enthusiasm for Ferri to these shores.
Within months of joining ABT in 1985, she found herself opposite the legendary Baryshnikov in "Giselle." It was a role she had never danced before and one of the supreme tests of a ballerina. She admitted at the time that dancing with Baryshnikov "terrified" her.
"It's so demanding, such a great responsibility, to be dancing next to Misha," she told Alan Kriesgman of the Washington Post in 1986. "His level is so high, and I want never to let him down."
Ferri complains that many dancers unlike Baryshnikov seem concerned only with doing steps.
"Technique in dance has really progressed," she said. "Unfortunately, it's got to the point where people are extremely concerned about the way they're doing things. Which is great--the better your technique, the more you're free to express. But to be free to express something, it has nothing to do with dance, but with you as a person and your courage of doing it.
"It takes guts to look at yourself in those terms. Most of the time, we would like to see only the nice things about ourselves, but if you watch yourself closely, you find lots of stuff in there.
"But a lot of dancers are so concerned with the aesthetics of dance, they end up watching themselves, too, getting outside themselves. That's not dance."
She sees this approach particularly plaguing many American dancers.
"I think what has happened over here is that dancers need to be extremely young," she said. "The younger they are, the more it's liked, which is very nice on the one hand, but on the other, it stops you growing in your own life.
"Dance is such a hard discipline. You find yourself at 16 locked in a studio and on stage all day long. That distorts your life. Since any form of art is an expression of life, if your life is dry, your art becomes so dry.
"But I'm not sure it's just America," she added. "I find the same abroad--unless you're working with a live choreographer and that changes things a lot."
Ferri has no intention of letting her life become dry. Love of homeland and a recent marriage have pulled her back to her roots. "I've now been away from my own country for more than 10 years--almost 12--and I miss it," she said. "I want to be there.
"Also, I just got married, in November. Not to dancer, no, no. And I don't just want to be married on a piece of paper; I want to have a life with him."
Ferri's husband is Maurilio Orbecchi, a Jungian analyst. "I didn't meet him through analysis," she laughed. "I've never been in analysis. For artists, their own art becomes their own analysis, really."
Since meeting her husband, however, she has become taken with Jung's belief that universal symbols reside in the unconscious. "It's fantastic, an interesting way of approaching life," she said. "To find what you have inside--that is actually pretty close to the way I've always thought art was."
Perhaps it was ABT's emphasis on youth, fostered by Baryshnikov, that led many observers to feel that the company was underutilizing Ferri in recent seasons.
"Yes, I felt a little bit neglected," she said. "ABT has wonderful things in the repertory--dramatic ballets--which I wasn't getting to do. I'm not sure why. . . . Yes, I do feel they never used me properly.
"I was never tempted to leave, but I ended up working a lot outside the company, working pretty closely with Roland Petit (at the Ballet National de Marseille) and the National Ballet of Canada. But I really feel that ABT is my home company. I'm so attached to it. And I think that (new company director) Jane Hermann is much more aware of what I am about."
Hermann took over after Baryshnikov's abrupt resignation in 1989. Since then, some ABT dancers have indulged in public Misha-bashing. But Ferri is more generous.
"What he did for the company was wonderful," she said. "He uplifted the general standards of the company and made it one of the greatest in the world. The corps de ballet looks great.
"For individual dancers, it was a little hard, however," she admitted. "He didn't allow you--when you're a principal artist, you take risks every time you go on stage. That's what makes the art alive--to risk, to do what you really believe. It may be off, but it keeps (the art) alive. He was very scared of people taking risks. It made people feel that their hands were tied. I felt that way.
"As a partner, Misha is not an easy person," she added. "He is a wonderful dancer. But to work with him was hard, because of his moods."
Ferri will be dancing a variety of roles in Orange County, including Kylian's "Sinfonietta," MacMillan's "Concerto," "Swan Lake" Act II and Lizzie Borden in de Milles' "Fall River Legend."
The latter role was to be danced by Sylvie Guillem, but she withdrew because of obligations to dance in Washington, D.C., during the dates announced for Orange County. "At first, I thought, 'Oh my God, it's a very heavy role to approach,' " she said. "But it's a wonderful ballet. I've never done anything like it."
"I think one of the strengths of ABT is to be able to do so many different styles," she added. "We are somehow trained that way to keep changing, absolutely. It's really exciting to try to do that. Dance doesn't have to be one way." But can a 27-year-old Milanese relate to the story about a New England spinster accused of ax-murdering her father and step-mother?
"I do relate to it," Ferri said. "I do believe that there are bits of her in me. I believe we have everything inside of us. I'm totally convinced we can relate to any story in this world. I don't experience myself tortured to that extent. But I think we all have felt some frustration, some hate for not being understood by people. You just have to let yourself go so deeply into the little feeling that it just becomes concentrated. Then you can abandon yourself to the work."
What: American Ballet Theatre.
When: Tuesday, March 12, through Sunday, March 24.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.
Wherewithal: $12 to $42 for mixed repertory programs; $14 to $49 for full-length ballets.
Where to call: (714) 556-2787.