NEVER give up the job you love: Royal Ballet's OLDEST prima ballerina, 53, reveals how her marriage was destroyed after she stopped dancing for the sake of her family
When I arrive at her New York apartment, Alessandra Ferri is standing by a blazing fire and, for a split second, I mistake her tiny, compact size for that of a child, not a 53-year-old mother of two.
Of course, the honed and chiselled body of Alessandra — the world-famous protegee of Mikhail Baryshnikov — is a tribute to a career at the very top of her profession.
Her life is neatly book-ended by two facts: she became the youngest ever prima ballerina at the Royal Ballet aged 19, and now she’s about to return to the Royal Opera House as the oldest leading lady since Dame Margot Fonteyn.
Alessandra Ferri in Giselle in June 1987 (left) and in the world premiere of Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works at The Royal Opera House last year
Earlier this year, Boots featured Alessandra in a TV ad for No 7 cosmetics that saw her dancing with a hologram of her 19-year-old self.
It was an informing experiment — in some ways, the poised, experienced version out-dances the younger, fresher, more innocent version of 1982.
‘Of course,’ agrees Alessandra. ‘Dancing is not just physical. When I dance, I am an actress. Today, I have a whole lifetime to draw on. That other girl was a little seed, I’m the grown tree. There is a lot more depth to my dancing than there was.’
She argues that though she is in her 50s she has as much to offer on stage.
‘We can’t be the 20 or 30-year-old woman that we were. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t an extreme beauty, lightness, enthusiasm and creativity in a 50-year-old person. Or a 60 or 70-year-old, but I’ll let you know when I’m there.’
Alessandra has not always been this sanguine about the ageing process, however.
Alessandra with husband Fabrizio Ferri (left) and daughter Matilde Ferri (right)
In June 2007, aged 44, she bowed out of her 22-year career. Back then, the idea was that she was going to retire to spend more time with her daughters, Matilde and Emma (now 19 and 14 respectively) — that she would be, in her own words, a mum.
‘I wanted to be with my kids a lot. I wanted to be with their dad [Fabrizio Ferri, a photographer, whom she’d been married to for 15 years]. Also, maybe, I was a little bit afraid I was getting old.’
But instead of bringing her family together, she makes a startling admission about her decision to retire: tragically, she blames it for destroying her marriage.
The idea of a middle-aged prima ballerina may draw gasps nowadays, yet throughout the Seventies and Eighties, it was not thought odd for prominent dancers to perform on through their 40s and 50s and even beyond. In 1986, Margot Fonteyn appeared as the Queen in Sleeping Beauty aged 66. Alicia Alonso, the Cuban prima ballerina, now 95, danced into her 70s.
But, by 2000, there was a cultural shift. ‘When Margot was dancing later in her life, it was acceptable for a dancer to be older,’ says Alessandra, who sees Fonteyn as a role model for her.
In June 2007, aged 44, she bowed out of her 22-year career. Pictured in Woolf Works Ballet
‘And then, the world changed — and not just the world of dance. You had to be young. Actresses were stopped mid-career, too. A whole generation of actresses were not allowed to get old. Beauty became associated with youth only.’
So Alessandra stopped dancing. She didn’t even exercise — she’s at a loss to explain why — going from five hours’ training a day to nothing.
At first, she didn’t notice what was happening to her body: she was throwing herself into the role of a mother, getting the girls up in the mornings, making snacks, taking them to school, picking them up.
‘You know all the things mums do. I took them to clubs and music lessons, made pasta. And it was wonderful, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it,’ she says.
But then, she started getting small twinges.
‘My body didn’t feel energetically at its best,’ she says. ‘I started feeling lethargic, which I’m not.
‘From moving and training hard, like an Olympic athlete, to suddenly nothing, it was very difficult for my body. I suppose it’s like if you have a Ferrari and only drive it at 10mph. I’m a trained machine.’
After around six months, the pains increased — her joints first, then her back and her feet.
‘I think because the muscle and joints were so used to being moved, they almost felt as if they were going rusty.’
Alessandra says there was an emotional response, too. ‘Not dancing, I felt I didn’t have a real purpose.’
She started to question why she’d given up in the first place and felt bereft.
Alessandra says there was an emotional response. ‘Not dancing, I felt I didn’t have a real purpose'
‘Even though my life was full — I had two kids and a husband, I had taken the role of artistic director of a festival in Italy, I was watching shows and reading books — I was not the one creating. And that caused an emptiness.’
I ask whether she suffered from a form of depression, like Darcey Bussell after she retired from ballet in 2007 aged 38. ‘Yes, I did,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t call it really bad depression, but I was definitely unhappy. Suddenly, life is very empty.’
As her identity faded, Alessandra began to question why she had given up in the first place. ‘I realised what had been difficult wasn’t so much the physical, but the psychological. I had still been thinking in a more traditional way — that, at a certain age, you’re too old to dance. Maybe I was afraid of being compared with my younger self.’
After two or three years, the sense of not being fulfilled was unbearable. She realised she’d made a mistake — the idea of being the dancer who couldn’t dance ‘gave me great sadness’. So Alessandra started doing ballet classes, as well as yoga and Pilates.
‘I realised my body was great. It was still in shape and I could still move. And I thought: “Well, why am I not dancing then? That’s what I’m here for. That’s my great mission in life. That’s bigger than being a mother.”
‘I thought: “You’re not going to dance like you did when you were 20 years old, but you can dance like you will at 50. And what’s wrong with that?” ’ With this revelation came others. Alessandra found she no longer suffered from anxiety before a show. ‘I was anxious my whole career. I had stage fright the whole time. And then, I didn’t.’
There’s something cruel in the irony of what happened next.
In 2012, Alessandra wrote and choreographed a short piece called The Piano Upstairs, a story about a marriage breaking down.
‘It wasn’t based on my experience at all. I wrote it and then it happened. As I was rehearsing, the same thing was happening to me at home.’
Her husband (coincidentally, they shared a surname before marriage) was photographed by an Italian gossip magazine ‘frolicking’ with an unnamed woman near their home on the island of Pantelleria, Sicily.
Alessandra says his departure came out of nowhere.
‘It was a crushing experience, destroying. I didn’t see it coming, and I believed so much in love. I wasn’t the one who wanted to do it. So it was shattering.’
For three months, she and her two daughters slept in the same bed, along with their two Irish wolfhounds — her youngest only stopped a year ago.
Alessandra has resolved to draw lessons from her experience — ‘like never being ashamed. That it’s OK to speak about how you feel.
‘And also for my daughters — they were as heart-broken as I was, maybe more — to teach them by example, not to hold on to anger.
‘Nobody owns anybody. And things change. And we can still love each other in different environments. The strength is not anger and resentment. The strength is to go: “OK, I am in pain, but I still go on. I will rebuild myself.”
‘The truth is that the more I look now at married couples, I don’t know if we’re really meant to be together for ever.
‘Of course, it’s everyone’s dream to have kids and the perfect family. But now, I don’t know anymore. In the past year, I started to feel really happy about who I am for the first time in my life.
For three months, she and her two daughters slept in the same bed, along with their two Irish wolfhounds - her youngest only stopped a year ago. Pictured in 1987 with Mikhail Dbaryshnikov
‘I now think: “Well, would I really want to live with someone else?” I don’t know if I would. I love to be in love, but I think we are OK on our own.’
Does she think her marriage broke down because she’d stopped working? ‘Maybe I do. [Fabrizio] says not, but I think maybe it did.
‘The fact that I gave up my independence — I am not talking about economic independence, I am talking about becoming dependent on him, really, to fill up my life.’
Far from creating bitterness — the pair are now on friendly terms — she has come to view the experience as important.
‘One of the reasons I went back [to dancing] is because I realised I have to find who I really am now, the part that belongs to me: it’s the moment when I dance. Those moments are mine and nobody else’s and I needed that again.
She still believes in love, but not relationships. ‘I don’t care about relationships. I want a great love, like the greatest love ever
‘I gave up my whole life for him and the children, and then that crashed and I had nothing. I didn’t have my passion, my career, I didn’t have him.
‘I had my children, of course, but it wasn’t enough.’
She still believes in love, but not relationships. ‘I don’t care about relationships. I want a great love, like the greatest love ever.
‘I don’t care about the companion just to keep me company on vacation or to spend time with. That I can do without. But love I believe in. If I don’t have that, I’m happy with nothing.’
Would she do away with age as a barrier in love? ‘Absolutely, yes. Age is no barrier. It’s fun to have a younger boyfriend. If he’s there, he wants to be there.’
And at 53, how does she maintain her rigorous four hours of daily rehearsals (with a yoga class slotted in before she starts)?
Are there supplements she takes to keep her joints well-oiled?
‘I take ibuprofen,’ she laughs, adding that she also dyes stray grey hairs. ‘In general, I don’t have many problems.’
Of the approaching menopause, she says: ‘Dancing doesn’t affect it one way or the other. It doesn’t make the problem worse. I don’t get hot flushes. I am lucky.’
And she doesn’t fear osteoporosis because ‘the more you exercise, the less you have a problem.
‘Of course, there are certain roles I don’t dream of even attempting any more — Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, all those ballets require tremendous physical strength and power.
‘And that’s fine. They belong to another moment in my life.
‘[There are] all these wonderful newly created roles for me, and it’s brilliant that there’s interest in creating roles for an older woman instead of only doing roles for younger dancers.
‘I broke the mould, somehow. I didn’t plan it. I thought: “Who cares? Yes, there is space for the young, but that doesn’t mean there is no space for older women.”
‘We turn 50 and then we believe that we have to behave a certain way. A lot of it is conditioning.
‘But I realised I am not that woman, I don’t feel 50, I don’t act 50, so I thought: “Forget about the number and just live the way you feel.” ’
- Alessandra Ferri stars in Woolf Works at the Royal Opera House, January 21 to February 14. Visit roh.org.uk