Ferri's Juliet Proves You Can't Go Home Again; Fun Home

Ferri and Cornejo, photo @ Andrea Mohin
On Thursday June 23 the Met was packed to the rafters with balletomanes for an Event of the Season: beloved ABT ballerina Alessandra Ferri's return to the stage in her signature role of Juliet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Ferri retired in 2007 but sort of unretired and this was the sort of splashy I'm Back moment that draws out every hardcore balletomane in the city.

Ferri's entrance as Juliet was electric -- when she emerged from behind the curtain and jumped in the Nurse's lap the audience cheers were so loud the music was completely drowned out. At the end of the evening Ferri and Herman Cornejo (the Romeo) were called out again and again for thunderous ovations. The audience totally lapped up everything about the evening.

Me personally? I hated it. I hate myself for hating it and thought throughout the evening -- why am I being grouchy? What's wrong with me that I can't appreciate such a touching return to the stage? And Alessandra was still Alessandra right? Her feet were still had those beautiful arches, her arms the same limpid softness, right? RIGHT? Why am I not crying and weeping for joy?

But I guess I go to the ballet to see, um, dancing, and all night I wanted Ferri to DANCE, and realized that she at this point in her career (she's 53) can't dance. She can pose, she can swoon, she can die prettily, but everything about her performance was about concealing what she couldn't do dance-wise. For instance: those beautiful feet now can't really roll on and off pointe. If she got on pointe it was through an effortful push, and she would stay on pointe stiffly as if she were afraid that she wouldn't be able to get on pointe the next time. Her bourrées were a joke. No other way to put it -- she didn't skim the floor so much as limp along. She did some artful dodging of the choreography by flat-footing (no more demi-pointe) those famous Juliet runs. She eliminated all the jumps. In the balcony scene the moon arc lifts and arabesques were stiffly posed -- there was no sense of moving according to the choreography. This isn't like an Odile who can't make it through the 32 fouettes. I don't care about things like that. But this kind of cheapening of ballet, like, "I'm Alessandra, y'all can stare at my feet all night even as I duck almost every part of the choreography, because, you know, I'M ALESSANDRA FERRI" -- I actually find that offensive. It's why ABT will never be taken seriously as an artistic institution -- because they cater to an audience that's not there to see dance, but to see "their" dancers.

Ferri and Cornejo, photo @ Kent G Becker
Ferri's Juliet was all the more disappointing because I remember what she used to be like in this role. She was never a 32 fouette or Rose Adagio balance sort of ballerina, but her technique wasn't shoddy. She always had a beautiful sense of line, movement, speed, and her pointe work was always so light and effortless. It was therefore sad to see her struggling to simply stand on pointe, or to see her arabesque as a stiff pose rather than a free, arc-like movement of the leg. As for her interpretation, I honestly found it creepy how she was so studiously affecting the expressions of a fresh, innocent, shy teenager. There was no sense of her adjusting her Juliet to acknowledge her more mature face/body/persona. Great artists have the ability to loop themselves into the role -- for instance in the old film with Margot Fonteyn the then middle-aged Fonteyn used her huge saucer eyes and sweet smile to give the illusion of youth, but she also quivered with ecstasy in the balcony scene as a mature woman might. It was a great way to reconcile the fact that she wasn't anywhere close to 13 while still being "13 year old Juliet." Ferri had none of that adjustment last night. Her portrayal was fossilized, mummified. I wanted to be moved when she slumped over on her tomb but ultimately mummies don't move me.

As for her Romeo Herman Cornejo he was magnificent in the solo parts -- a ménage of sauts de basque had the audience gasping. His partnering was less magnificent but I'm not sure it's really his "fault" per se -- those big fancy lifts that MacMillan loved so much require the ballerina to have a very strong core. You can't do that with a Juliet that is so weak. But still, the success of MacMillan's ballet depends on the Romeo and Juliet having an illusion of abandonment and ecstasy. Big flying leaps from Juliet into Romeo's arms, followed by swoony lunges. It was hard to appreciate that when you saw the mechanics behind every lift so carefully telegraphed by the two dancers. This was apparent in the tomb scene -- when Cornejo lifted the "lifeless" Juliet you could see the minute adjustments both dancers made to get in the just right position. This sort of thing kills the evening. The chemistry between Ferri and Cornejo was weak on other levels too -- very little eye contact, and no sense of joy. Blech. This evening left a bad taste in my mouth. If you wanted an evening where a lot of sentimental ladies gushed about how great it was to see "Alessandra" again, this was your thing. If you wanted an evening where dancers actually danced, then the whole Event was a cynical, cheap ploy to drum up box office without any consideration for artistic merit.

"I Wanna Play Airplane!" -- photo @ Joan Marcus

In other news, the lovely musical Fun Home is closing soon. I caught a performance this week. Much of the original cast is still intact, from Michael Cerveris as the tormented gay dad to Judy Kuhn as the bitter wife and Beth Malone as Adult Alison and Emily Skeggs as Medium Alison. Of the major leads only Gabriela Pizzolo as Small Alison is a replacement -- the original was Sydney Lucas. Everyone in the cast was pitch perfect -- there wasn't a single false note the entire evening. Even the supporting roles like Roberta Colindrez as Joan and Joel Perez as the many lovers of Bruce were full of 3-dimensional humanity. I particularly loved the use of kids in this musical -- besides Small Alison, also Alison's brothers (Zell Steele Morrow and Cole Gray). They were never "cute" or just there as props to give the warm fuzzies. They were treated as an integral part of this sad family drama.

This may not be the splashiest musical, but the chemistry between the cast, the realness of the book, and the beauty of the music made Fun Home a rich, rewarding evening at the theater. This is an ensemble piece in the best sense of the word -- there's no 11 o'clock production numbers, just an amazing intimacy among the cast so that every interaction seems completely organic. The songs are surprisingly catchy -- "I'm Changing My Major to Joan" is an earworm, as is "Ring of Keys." The subject matter is rather dark but the presentation of the subject matter and themes is so tender and honest that one walks away uplifted rather than depressed. Beautiful musical. See it while you can.


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