Alessandra Ferri is drowning in a mountain of pointe shoes. A huge pile of pink satin almost fills the stage, and in the centre the 58-year-old ballerina, visible only from the waist up, is buried in the tools of her trade. Every shoe is a link to the past, “I remember!” she says, holding up a pair and humming a melody from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. She taps the toes to see how hard they are. “They’ll still do for the second act.”
This is not Ferri’s story, though. The role is credited only as “She”, but essentially she is Winnie from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which inspired choreographer Maurice Béjart to make this work. (In the play, Winnie is buried in sand, not shoes.) Béjart changed the central character to an ageing ballerina, originally created for the Italian dancer Carla Fracci, in 1998. Ferri is only the third woman to perform the role – the other was Maina Gielgud, who helped Ferri reconstruct it for this production.
Ferri’s Winnie is a woman of determined positivity (her mantra: “I can’t complain, I mustn’t complain”), who is content among her memories. She does emerge from the mound of shoes, to dance with her husband (former Hamburg Ballet dancer Carsten Jung) in sweet concord, whether a simple pas de deux or a piggyback. But so much of the action is on her face, Ferri’s big eyes widening or cast to the floor, her delicate features rearranging into a gaze of sorrow or elation or wistfulness, as if she’s recalling the smells and tastes and sounds of her past.
L’Heure Exquise is part-play, part-dance and it’s sparse in feel; quiet, strange, somewhat dreamlike, with shades of darkness sewn among the cheer. Winnie’s fragmented thoughts are punctuated by doubt. Ferri unfurls her arms into an elegant fourth position (she has a beautiful presence on stage) then falters, her fingers jump to her mouth in uncertainty over what comes next.
It’s no life, you might say, being resigned to nostalgia, but for Winnie it’s safer there. For Ferri, however, her dancing years are still very much alive.
At the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre, London, until 23 October.