wed 08/12/2021

L'Heure Exquise, Linbury Theatre review - an exquisite tragedy in miniature | reviews, news & interviews

L'Heure Exquise, Linbury Theatre review - an exquisite tragedy in miniature

L'Heure Exquise, Linbury Theatre review - an exquisite tragedy in miniature

Alessandra Ferri marks her 40 years in ballet with a remarkable solo turn

Happy feet: Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in Maurice Béjart's take on Samuel Beckett's play 'Happy Days'photo: Silvia Lelli

Ballet dancers, even the greatest, don’t expect longevity. There are no Maggie Smiths or Helen Mirrens in the ballet world – there just aren’t the roles. So the news that Alessandra Ferri was to mark the 40th anniversary of her association with the Royal Ballet (she joined aged 17) with a run of performances of a one-woman show was of more than passing interest.

L’Heure exquise was created by the choreographer Maurice Béjart in the late 1990s as a vehicle for another great Italian ballerina, Carla Fracci, when Fracci was 62, and it has been performed very little since.

The 70-minute piece is an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, in which a woman called Winnie recounts the routines of her humdrum life while buried up to the waist, later up to the neck, in sand. Her husband Willie is often out of sight and mainly silent. In Béjart’s version, the mound comprises a couple of thousand used satin pointe shoes. This doesn’t even begin to represent the number of pairs a ballerina gets through in the course of a career.

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten JungBéjart is faithful to his source in many respects, but as this is dance, his Winnie is soon released from her pale pink shoe-prison to express her recollections in movement. First, though, we are reminded of an inescapable chore that becomes second nature to dancers: the prepping of new shoes and the attaching of ribbons. Ferri chats to us easily as she sews. She would have liked to be an actress, she confides, “but I am a ballerina. And I can move most of the time without being in pain.”

Easing her feet into the shiny new pointes and tying them on, she strips down to a rehearsal tunic and launches into a personal warm-up, lying on her back and stretching her immaculately pointed feet and long, still beautiful shapely legs. It’s at this point that Ferri is joined by bowler-hatted Carsten Jung (pictured above with Ferri), whose character, unlike the original Winnie’s largely absent husband, appears to dote on her, resting his chin goofily on the soles of her flexed feet the better to gaze into her face, or following her on all fours like a dog. But increasingly, as Ferri chatters on, you suspect this tireless admirer to be a mirage, the product of an ex-ballerina’s fantasy, along with the class and rehearsal she is hurrying to be ready for, and the audience whose imagined cheers she receives with a mixture of blushes and pride.

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten JungIn the second half, instead of being buried up to her neck like Winnie, Ferri wears a romantic gauze tutu around her neck, veiling her almost to her feet like one of the Wilis in Giselle. She duly sketches for us a few signature Romantic steps and gestures and revisits her rippling Swan Queen arms. In an eclectic mix of dance styles, to recorded music by Webern, Mahler, Mozart, there is even a nod to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. These are fragments, unconnected glimpses of a life, but Ferri brings such convincing emotional substance to the subtly damaged creature she presents to us that we ourselves are able to join the dots.

It’s hard to imagine any other great dance-actress of recent years pulling this off. Sylvie Guillem? Tamara Rojo? Neither is sufficiently thin-skinned. With Ferri, even at her most girlish and laughing, there is a  fear she might crumple at any moment. It's a very special gift. Ferri's jolie-laide beauty also makes her uniquely compelling. That face, forever mobile, an unusual mixture of strong bones and snub features, carries a fluctuating threat of tipping into despair. Anyone unfamiliar with Ferri's work as a ballerina of international stature should check out her Giselle, easy to find on YouTube, to see that fragile strength in action. Or catch this. It's a miniature, for sure, but it punches above its weight.

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