Reviews

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung – L’Heure exquise (Maurice Béjart) – London

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in <I>L'Heure exquise</I>.<br />© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)
Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L’Heure exquise.
© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung
in Maurice Béjart’s L’Heure exquise
★★★★✰
London, Linbury Theatre
12 October 2021
www.roh.org.uk
A co-production with AF Dance, Ravenna Festival and The Royal Ballet

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of her association with the Royal Ballet, Alessandra Ferri chose Maurice Béjart’s ballerina vehicle, L’Heure exquise. Kevin O’Hare, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, came on stage at the end to welcome Ferri back (again) to the company where she started her career in 1981. A principal dancer at 19, she left to join American Ballet Theatre. A guest with many companies over the years (including dancing Juliet with the Royal Ballet in 2003), she retired in 2007. She returned to performing with the Royal Ballet in 2013, most recently in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, as well as appearing in visiting productions in the Linbury Theatre.

Ferri’s own company’s production of Béjart’s L’Heure exquise for her 40th anniversary was delayed by lockdown. Rehearsals eventually took place in Italy, with the premiere given in the Ravenna Festival in June this year. Maina Gielgud had mounted it, having taken the principal role herself in 2002, long after retiring from dancing in 1981. Béjart had developed L’Heure exquise in 1998 for Carla Fracci (then 62) with dancer-choreographer Micha van Hoeke as her partner. Both died this year, the sixtieth anniversary of the play by Samuel Beckett, Oh! Happy Days, on which Béjart’s ballet is based. A great many memories are involved in this revival, adapted for Ferri and Carsten Jung, a former principal dancer with Hamburg Ballet.

Yet more memories are contained in the thousands of pointe shoes donated by dancers from four ballet companies for the 6ft high mountain in which Ferri’s nameless character is encased. Beckett’s Winnie is up to her waist, and then her neck, in a mound of discarded debris. She’s a housewife, an incorrigible chatterer with an unresponsive husband, Willie. Ferri is a very definitely a ballerina, albeit a former one, with an ex-dancer, Jung, as her co-operative partner. He plays a more significant role than Willie in this re-imagining of Beckett’s enigmatic play.
 

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L'Heure exquise.© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)
Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L’Heure exquise.
© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)

I’ve interpreted Béjart’s version, in this latest production, as an account of a woman’s decline with dementia. Her memory is fragmented, brought back to her by familiar objects and rituals. She starts her day with rapidly recited prayer, followed by sewing on the ribbons of her pointe shoes. The piled-up mound of pink satin ballet shoes opens to enable her to step down and recall some ballet steps, at first barefoot. Her partner, who has been strumming his guitar and reading the newspaper, comes to help her attempts to dance. He behaves like a dog, barking and growling on all fours, fetching her toe shoes in his mouth.

When she freezes, her mind blank, he animates her by reminding her of her role as Giselle: he mimes picking the flowers with which she tested Albrecht (maybe himself). Ferri puts her fabulously arched feet into the pointe shoes, becoming a ballerina once again as Jung kisses her feet and hands. She’s Giselle, teetering between memory and madness. She is recalled to a real event in her past when Jung reads aloud a notice on the stage curtain that a strike has been called by the union – an all too frequent disruption at La Scala, where Ferri often starred as a principal dancer.

She retreats to the shoe mountain and opens her battered handbag, as Winnie does in the play. Among her possessions are a ballet shoe, a rose, a mirror and a pistol. She recoils from the gun as Juliet does from Friar Lawrence’s potion; oblivion is an option she doesn’t want to take, yet. Jung, unaware, is meanwhile doing keep-fit exercises. Is he as delusional as she is? No, because he needs to keep strong to support her, to keep her happy as her partner in her dreams. He takes the gun away and placates her with a red umbrella. She descends to prance prettily with the parasol as a prop while he rests on the mountain. It closes in on her again, an indication of how her mind keeps shutting down.

Ferri is spellbinding as her awareness of her condition comes and goes. She can veer from being ditzy and diva-like to going dead behind her eyes. At 58, she still has the beautiful line of her ballerina prime, her supple limbs elegantly shaped even when she’s lying on her back, feet in the air. When she recalls steps and gestures from past roles as a wili, a swan, she is not trying to prove that she could still perform them: like Giselle in her mad scene, she’s a broken being. Ferri lets us know that she knows what’s happening to her, though she puts on a happy face. And what a face, those expressive dark eyes foretelling he character’s inevitable extinction.
 

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L'Heure exquise.© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)
Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L’Heure exquise.
© Silvia Lelli. (Click image for larger version)

The production is divided into two acts, like the play. In the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck. Ferri wears a long skirt, a Romantic tutu, around her neck as though she is dressed up for an outing. Jung is in evening dress, minus a shirt and bow tie. He helps her down from the mountain and they go into a vaudeville routine, perhaps remembering roles in The Merry Widow, whose music will return to haunt her. He has kept her going in the previous act by offering her a ballet barre and a rosin box to remind her of her profession. Now he tries to make her look in a mirror to remind her of her identity. Agonisingly, she refuses to acknowledge the reality of her age and mental frailty, except for a split second before her eyes glaze over.

Engulfed once again in the mountain of abandoned shoes, she manages to recite the opening lines of L’Heure exquise (The exquisite hour), the lyric of The Merry Widow duet and waltz. Away with the fairies, Ferri sings sweetly before a recording of Léhar’s music takes over. People with advanced dementia are still able to sing, play musical instruments (and in this case, dance) when everything else has been taken away with them by the disease. In this compassionate conclusion, Ferri’s character seems happy enough. We’re made aware, though, that her partner, her devoted carer, sits bereft at the foot of the mound. The ballet recounts his tragedy as well as hers. Both are exceptional dance-actors, though Ferri must take the limelight as the lost, legendary ballerina of Béjart’s imagination.
 
 

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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