NEW YORK (AP) — There are those who, upon retiring from an eventful career, sigh with relief and sink contentedly into the new rhythms of a life unfettered by deadlines and pressure.
And then there are people like ballerina Alessandra Ferri, who retired from American Ballet Theatre in 2007 and soon found herself waking up in the morning and asking: "Who am I?"
Ferri, one of the most admired ballerinas of her generation, did not have much patience for retirement. And so, at 53, she's returning to ABT Thursday to dance the role for which she's most famous: Juliet. She'll be dancing it for the first time since her ABT farewell on the same Metropolitan Opera House stage nine years ago, when glittering gold confetti rained down and an adoring crowd cheered for 20 minutes of curtain calls.
And it won't be the only momentous event of Ferri's week. The next day, the Italian-born dancer will be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. "I've been here long enough — New York has been my home for about 30 years," she says with a smile. "I want to be able to take part in American life, to vote. Hopefully, we need one more vote."
On a recent afternoon, Ferri repaired to her dressing room in the bowels of the opera house after a rehearsal. As the strains of "Swan Lake" filtered from the huge stage through a speaker in her tiny room, the ballerina stretched out her famously arched feet and explained how Juliet — the signature role she's been performing since she was 19 — had come back into her life.
It began with a call from Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, a year ago. He'd been watching her gradually emerge from retirement for a few years following a six-year break, performing a self-choreographed piece at the Spoleto Festival, then a dance-theater piece called "Cheri" at New York's Signature Theater, then as Virginia Woolf in Wayne McGregor's "Woolf Works" in London, and finally as Italian actress Eleonora Duse in a John Neumeier ballet in Germany.
McKenzie suggested she return and dance Juliet. "It's YOUR role, you've been doing it your whole life," he told her.
"I said, 'I don't know, there's a lot attached to Juliet for me,'" she recalled. "I didn't know if I wanted to revisit that whole thing. I said I'd think about it."
A few months later, she decided to take the plunge. "I thought, why not? It's a beautiful celebration of my life," she said. "And you only live once. Just enjoy yourself! Because the pressure is really just from me, from my own memories. ... It would be quite nice to have a free approach and see what happens."
That sense of experimentation is what has guided Ferri's creative choices since her "retirement" — a period she calls unhappy.
"The first year goes really fast, like a long holiday," she said. "But after a while I started feeling like there was something in me that was switched off. A major part of who I am was closed off — I didn't feel alive. You can't retire from who you ARE."
To the obvious question of whether Juliet, a teenager, can be played by a woman in her 50s, Ferri's fans would note that she's always been able to imbue the role with a sense of youthful ardor and abandon.
So the acting part is ingrained. As for the dancing part, she said, "you need to make sure that your physicality can express that teenager, so that's where the hard work is, getting my body athletically to the point of having that lightness. But I'm not afraid of work." She's been training for three months.
Ferri's partner Thursday will be Herman Cornejo, a soulful Argentine dancer almost 20 years her junior, with whom she has developed a strong artistic bond. They never danced together at ABT, but they formed a powerfully effective couple in "Cheri" in New York.
"It's very special," she says. "We totally understand each other. ... it's so lovely that when we dance together, (the age gap) disappears. Which goes to say that once you reach the language of the inner self and the soul, there IS no age."