Alessandra Ferri: ‘Dancing with Nureyev​,​ I swear he had an energetic aura around him’

The principal ballerina on portraying Virginia Woolf, why she’s so enthusiastic about ageing, and what she learned from the greats

Born in Milan in 1963, Alessandra Ferri was a principal with the Royal Ballet at 19, and two years later was invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov to join American Ballet Theatre. After a glittering career, she retired in 2007 before returning in 2013. She is now in the rare position of being a leading dancer performing internationally at the age of nearly 60. From next week she is at the Royal Opera House in a revival of Woolf Works, a ballet about the life and writing of Virginia Woolf, created for her in 2015 by Wayne McGregor.

Did you ever expect to still be dancing 10 years after you came back to the stage?
This whole 10 years of afterlife has surprised me. I didn’t plan it and I still don’t know what I’m going to do even six months from now.

Is it hard?
I do class every day, but I don’t know for how long. I have to for the next couple of months, I have no choice, because I am performing. And then I’ll see. For the first time since I returned to dancing, I took five weeks off this summer. I was like: if I can’t get back, I won’t, but I need to have this break. It took me three months to get back into shape.

How does it feel returning to Woolf Works?
What is clear to me now is that the ballet is all in my head. We are not telling any facts, we are telling [Woolf’s] emotions through her work, and sometimes they are the emotions of her characters and sometimes they are her own. The power of Virginia Woolf’s writing and her power as a woman are more present this time.

It’s wonderful, too, to be dancing with a new young cast. When I was very young I was really lucky, because I danced with Wayne Eagling, David Wall, Anthony Dowell and then later with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. A young dancer learns so much from dancing with an older one, but for a male dancer it’s rare [because so few female dancers carry on beyond their 40s].

What did you learn from Baryshnikov?
What was amazing to see was his incredible work ethic and concentration. For me, at 22, with this talent that was all over the place, he made me realise that you have to be in charge of your talent, you can’t let it overtake you; you are the one that has to tame it, and serve it, and use it. He taught me that you have to be completely present when you are performing. He didn’t accept any excuse for mistakes. It was terrifying, to be honest.

I didn’t dance as much with Rudolf as with Misha [Baryshnikov], but it was memorable. I swear he had an energetic aura around him. It was a force of nature; it was something that was bigger than him. He was 50 when I danced Giselle with him, and he was sick. To dance next to him in that condition, where you see this god and at the same time this vulnerable human being, was overwhelming.

What is it like working with Wayne McGregor, who created Woolf Works and AfteRite around you?
It has freed me. He allowed me to be who I am and respected what I can bring, without trying to be 20 years old. I think AfteRite [set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Ferri performed with American Ballet Theatre in New York and with La Scala Ballet in Milan] is a very important work about climate change. Now everybody’s aware what’s happening, but when Wayne made it [in 2018], it was extremely bold to put it on stage and in a ballet.

Ferri with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1987 film Dancers.
Ferri with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1987 film Dancers. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

What was the worst injury you suffered in your career?
I was dancing the final pas de deux in Onegin when I was pregnant with my first child, and I felt my ankle go. I sprained it badly and damaged the ligaments; it was more than 20 years ago but I still feel the weakness today.

You once said you were pro-ageing…
Even more now. It’s really nice. I think there are phases in ageing, for a woman anyway. When you start getting to 45 or 50, usually that’s the age where you think: I want to look younger. And then you get to a point where you’re like: I don’t care. This is who I am. I want to age well, because you want to look your best at any age and to feel good about yourself. But I’m turning 60, so leave me alone. I will look my best for me. You are who you are at 60, and you really embrace it.

You live mainly in London, and your daughters – who both used to live with you – are now in Italy. How much do you see them?
I like to be with them when I am not performing. They’re 25 and 21 now, one’s in Milan and one is at university. I stopped dancing the first time they were in elementary school, and they needed me to be with them.

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Part 3: Tuesday from Woolf Works.
Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Part 3: Tuesday from Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

What do you do when you’re not dancing?
It depends what month it is, because I hate the cold! In the winter I tend to hibernate, though I go for long walks with Agatha, my Irish wolfhound. I wish I could develop another passion in my life.

But your passion has always been dance…
When you’re madly in love with somebody, you’re madly in love with somebody, you can’t go: I’m going to fall in love, just in case. So that’s been my love, dance. But now I feel I would love to develop another real interest. Something that you wake up happy to every day.

  • Woolf Works is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, 1-23 March


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988; Nureyev: Legend and Legacy review – making sound visible
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker creates a revelatory response to Bach, while a gala celebrating the dance legend is full of bravura dancing

Sarah Crompton

11, Sep, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Woolf Works review – Alessandra Ferri goes deeper in Wayne McGregor’s modern masterpiece
The Italian star graces a flawless revival of McGregor’s dreamlike 2015 ballet inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf

Sarah Crompton

05, Mar, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
William Forsythe: ‘I want people to look forward to ballet, not endure it’
The American choreographer on setting classical dance steps to James Blake, his friendship with Nureyev, and why he hugs trees

Sarah Crompton

13, Mar, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
Tamara Rojo: ‘I want ballet to be for and about everybody’
The artistic director of the English National Ballet on dance in the #MeToo age, embracing people’s flaws and the thing she misses most on tour

Michael Hogan

18, Nov, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Carlos Acosta: ‘At 50, I have to dance in a way that I can still walk off, and not call an ambulance’
The Cuban star on returning to the Royal Opera House stage, commissioning a heavy metal ballet and diversity in the arts

Sarah Crompton

16, Jul, 2023 @8:30 AM

Article image
Xander Parish: ‘I feel adopted by the Russians – if I met the right girl I might settle there’
The Yorkshire-born principal dancer at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet on cricket, homesickness and his new life abroad

Interview by Luke Jennings

10, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Marianela Núñez: ‘Ballet isn’t elitist – it’s our responsibility to make people get it’
The Royal Ballet principal on her changing roles, how she dances through difficult emotions, and being ‘a complete bunhead’

Sarah Crompton

19, Jan, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Woolf Works review – the wondrous Alessandra Ferri flies again
Returning to the role created for her by Wayne McGregor, the dancer portrays the great modernist with emotional power

Lyndsey Winship

02, Mar, 2023 @12:06 PM

Article image
Michaela DePrince: ‘There are practically no black dancers in ballet, so I need to speak out’
Ballerina Michaela DePrince on being a war orphan, challenging racial bias and inspiring the next generation of ballet dancers

Corinne Jones

08, Feb, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
Erdem Moralıoğlu: ‘Backstage, eight minutes can feel like hours’
The fashion designer on having his young mind blown by The Nutcracker, perfectionism and the woman he’s proudest of dressing

Interview by Tamsin Blanchard

11, Feb, 2018 @9:00 AM