So far L’Heure Exquise closely follows Samuel Beckett’s acclaimed play Happy Days, which inspired the French choreographer Maurice Béjart to create this work for the great Carla Fracci 23 years ago.
But whereas Beckett’s heroine, Winnie, is never freed from her mound of rubbish, Béjart’s mound of pointe shoes slowly glides open to allow the ballerina to step out, in the process freeing the full Ferri magic to wash over the audience. Like Fracci, whom she resembles in many ways, Ferri has a bewitching stage presence. When she embodies a character, be it Juliet for which she was famous, or Béjart’s protagonist, we totally believe. We care.
Here she is an ageing ballerina slowly recalling earlier, happier days. She enacts jagged, incomplete memories: she points a foot, her arms execute a port-de-bras, her face glows with joy, or suddenly frowns in confusion as the memory fizzles out.
Alessandra Ferri captivates with every step, every smile. A pointed bare foot is a thing of beauty; a grand battement, leg lifted up to her shoulder, is exuberant, while soft raised arms are infused with longing. And throughout her dark brown deeply expressive eyes draw us ever closer.
The man, danced by former principal with Hamburg Ballet, Carsten Jung, could be her husband as in Beckett’s play, but whereas Winnie’s husband, mostly off stage, is very put upon, the Jung character happily indulges the ballerina’s every whim. It is he who urges her to put on her pointe shoes, he who partners her in brief duets, who brings on a barre for her class exercises.
In the second part of L’Heure Exquise they appear to enact their wedding: he's now wearing top hat and tails, she’s in diaphanous white, and they whirl around the stage in an extravagant display of happiness. Gradually, though, she’s drawn back to the mound of pointe shoes, while the work’s musical leitmotiv, the wistful aria L’Heure Exquise (The Exquisite Hour) from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow plays in a crescendo. Briefly freed by memory, she is inexorably imprisoned by reality.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Alessandra Ferri’s association with The Royal Ballet. She went on to have a stellar international career, including spells at American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Milan, but since coming back from premature retirement in 2013 she has regularly graced both stages at the Royal Opera House. Long may she keep returning.
NOTE: Alessandra Ferri talks about her 40-year association with the Royal Ballet in a special episode of Insights on Monday 18 October at 7:45pm in the Linbury Studio. Details and tickets here.
|Alessandra Ferri, L'Heure Exquise review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
15 Oct 21 – 23 Oct 21, 19:45. Sun 17 at 15:00. No performance Mon. Dur.: 1 hour 5 mins no interval
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