At 55, Italian dancer Alessandra Ferri has enjoyed a ballet career longer than most. The renowned ballerina has performed with the world’s most prestigious companies including the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Theatre Ballet, as well as with the best choreographers and dancers in the industry.
“Ballet is not my job, it’s not my life,” Ferri said. “Being a ballerina is my DNA.”
DNA or not, a long, successful career is not the only thing that sets Ferri apart from other dancers. She is also one of the few to be designated as a prima ballerina assoluta.
While many are familiar with the term prima ballerina, when it comes to a prima ballerina assoluta, the title can be as rare as its recipients. Prima ballerina literally translates to “first principal dancer” from Italian and, in the United States, is better known as someone who is a female principal dancer. These dancers are the best in their companies who perform the lead roles in ballets, along with their male counterparts. Translating to “absolute first principal ballerina,” a prima ballerina assoluta is the best of the best, a title so rare that only 11 women have held this honor since it was first recorded in the 19th century.
“Prima ballerina assoluta is given to those whose art exuberates a level of achievement in their interpretation of characters and fame,” said Marco Pelle, resident choreographer with New York Theatre Ballet and a director and frequent choreographer with Michigan Opera Theatre. “They have to have an incredible personality on stage to have been awarded this title.”
The history of the term goes back to the late 1800s with renowned French dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa. Considered to be one of the most influential ballet masters in ballet history, Petipa is known for choreographing the now iconic dances in ballets like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. Petipa bestowed the first recorded use of the title to Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani in 1894, whom he considered to be the best in her generation. Legnani was renowned for her perfection of technique and execution, reputed to be the first dancer to perform 32 fouetté turns in a row, a difficult feat requiring a dancer to use their leg to whip themselves around in a circle.
But impressive turns are not what defines a prima ballerina assoluta. In fact, there are no definitive regulations on who may hold the title or who has the authority to bestow it. In fact, after Legnani, her contemporary Mathilde Kschessinska received the title from the Imperial Russian Court, a move Petipa attempted to block, considering Legnani to be the superior dancer.
“Most of them have been named after performing at high international level, above the rest of the prima ballerinas as a result of public and critical opinion,” said Sergey Rayevskiy, artistic director of Ballet Detroit.
Since its inception, the title has been awarded by both ballet companies and the government, oftentimes the latter sanctioning the decision of the former. It is not used in the United States but has been awarded by companies including the Marinsky Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Kirov Ballet, Royal Ballet and, in the case of Ferri, La Scala Theatre Ballet in Milan. Awarding governments have included the Soviet Union/Russia, South Africa, the Senate of Berlin and the Queen of England.
With Ferri, Pelle said she goes beyond dancing a role, she becomes the role.
“You don’t see Alessandra, you see the character she’s portraying, you see the feeling, you don’t see steps,” he said. “You might have your own idea of Giselle or Juliet, but when you see her, you just see Juliet, or Giselle or Carmen; you have an insight to who they are inside.”
When it comes to her signature roles, Ferri said she dances them well because she identifies with the characters and the choreography.
“The choreography suits you so well that it permits you to embody that role,” she said. “It’s not just an idea you have to embody through the choreography, it has to suit you. It’s very hard to interpret something, if you have to be concentrated on the technical parts.”
While honored by the title, Ferri said its largest impact has been giving her a sense of maturity as an artist and increasing her confidence on stage.
“I haven’t lost touch with the magic of when I dance, so I’m never bored of it,” she said. “I have total openness and courage and can be totally myself on stage.”
See Ferri perform live Feb. 16 at the Detroit Opera House in Alessandra Ferri: Art of the Pas de Deux.
~By Erica Hobbs