There are enough clips on YouTube from the 1984 Covent Garden performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s great ballet Romeo and Juliet for the viewer to reassemble in sequence a large part of what Alessandra Ferri achieved as the girl with her name in the title. She made every parent in the audience simultaneously thrilled to bits and worried sick. But I have also included, for contrast and amplification, some clips from her La Scala performance sixteen years later. The duplication is especially valuable in the bedroom scene, because, at La Scala, the positioning of the cameras gave a better idea of the drama she created with her beautifully arched feet when she ran towards Romeo, her elegant sprint plainly propelled by a throbbing intention to give him her virginity all over again. At La Scala her partner was Ángel Corella, at Covent Garden Wayne Eagling, and opinions will differ on who was the more suitable lovesick swain; but opinions are united about Ferri, whose teenage rebel quality, more erratic than erotic, gave her dancing of the role a psychological dimension that other ballerinas have since found it hard to match.
She is especially fascinating when, early in the ballet, she dances with Paris, the suitor who is being engineered onto her by her dynastically minded parents. As MacMillan later on proved many times — most conspicuously in the pas de deux for the married couple in Winter Dreams — he could also choreograph the body language for the woman who doesn’t want the man. But he started proving it when he discovered, in the process of rehearsal, the inexhaustible treasure-house of what Ferri could do. We should be careful, though, about thinking of Ferri as MacMillan’s ideal Juliet as well as ours. In 1965, Ferri was only two years old when Macmillan created the ballet of Romeo and Juliet for Margot Fonteyn, and although Fonteyn was generally perceived as being too old for physical verisimilitude in the role, we can presume that her choreographer didn’t think her too old to dance it. Before he discovered Ferri and went mad for her poetic possibilities, he had been just as mad about Lynn Seymour, and if he had lived to see Tamara Rojo at class in the morning he would have been mad about her too. Rojo, indeed, has, since MacMillan’s death, danced the role to great effect. For a while I saw Macmillan often — we were working together on a ballet about Nijinsky that never happened — and I learned a lot from how he could be bowled over by a ballerina’s abilities but still keep his head.
What’s really going on here, in Romeo and Juliet, is a meeting of two artists, MacMillan and Ferri, in an ecstasy of creativity, not carnal passion. MacMillan knew all about the importance of that second thing, but he also knew that only the first thing can project it forward into time. Through the blessed mixed medium of Ferri’s enchanting looks and stunning technique, we can see MacMillan’s gift for the monumental full-length ballet — this was his first, but there were more to come — finding its form before our eyes. The revelation is aided, of course, by Prokoviev’s score, which surely has some claim — Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky notwithstanding — to being the greatest ballet music ever composed. The patchwork scores of MacMillan’s later ballets can be thought of as repeated attempts to secure the same magisterial effect that Prokoviev’s ghost had handed him in one piece.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Paris in the 1984 Covent Garden production of Romeo and Juliet.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Wayne Eagling’s Romeo in the balcony scene, Covent Garden 1984.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Ángel Corella’s Romeo in the balcony scene, La Scala 2000.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Wayne Eagling’s Romeo in the bedroom scene, Covent Garden 1984.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Ángel Corella’s Romeo in the bedroom scene, La Scala 2000.
See Ferri’s Juliet with Wayne Eagling’s Romeo in the final scene, Covent Garden 1984.
See Ferri dancing Juliet’s death in the last part of the final scene, La Scala 2000.