Friday, August 10, 2007

Alessandra Ferri at ABT part 2

Editor's Note: This essay was originally suppose to come out no later then the July 4th weekend. But the writer is such a lazy bastard, it finally comes out now. Trust me, if I could afford to hire a new one, I would. Luckily for me, the writer of this piece also took all the photos.

Like I said before, I'm breaking off from the blog's main idea for something I've been involved in for a little bit. It's in the entertainment business anyway. For several weeks, I did background at the Met for the American Ballet Theater (ABT), in productions of Manon and Romeo and Juliet. Actually, I've done this off and on since 1997. Now the feeling I had back then was, you'd have to pay me to sit through ballet. Not modern dance per se, since I liked not only some stuff I saw in college, but also the times I went to see the Alvin Ailey troupe. Well sure enough, I was paid to watch it. I'm not retiring off it, but it keeps me off the streets. While occasionally, I might be cast in another ballet here and there, Romeo is what I usually get to be in and see.

Lots of times, I get to see they're human. Not every dance step among the Corps De Ballet is perfect, but damn it, keep moving or else. Maybe a Mercutio jumps too hard onto a harlot he's supposed to kiss, and they both land on the steps. Maybe the main sword fight between a Romeo and a Tybalt contains just as many misses as hits. And my kingdom for a new horn section for this week's orchestra (and the strings would occasionally have their noticeably off moments). I remember back in 2003, when the new young dancers had to be given the note NOT to undress each other onstage. Gee, some people in the audience could actually look down from up high, and see dancers remove the laces in the back of each other's costumes, and start feeling around back there.

Of course the flip side of being human on this particular stage, is to pull off incredible physical feats. After a while, you get your favorites. And you look forward to seeing them once you know they're doing a particular performance. Gennadi Saveliev is my favorite Tybalt still around, Craig Salstein and Herman Cornejo are my favorite Mercutios, and Marcelo Gomes is my favorite Romeo. Ethan Brown was my favorite Tybalt, but he retired in 2004, and the farewell was so emotional that even the stage managers start to bawl. I'll be honest, I'm not good with names. I had to look up the first 2 names, but I know their faces, so the instant feelings of good will come pretty quick. And a few of the soloists I learned by name, but most I couldn't recognize out of makeup. And most of them have since left or retired.

But the ballerinas were the ones I tended to know by name and sight, except for the Russians. Didn't matter much for me to know who was dancing, it wasn't my job. Just try to fit the costume, don't step on anyone and if possible, be 5'10". It also didn't matter since I knew the quality. And also there are ones you like in general, like the retired Susan Jaffe, Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent, Gillian Murphy and of course, Alessandra Ferri. If anything, because of the high quality, I never felt the need to pick a favorite. Jaffe seemed the most elegant. Herrera the little spark plug flinging her body around. Ferri the better actress with the best death scene as Juliet. Kent pulling in the best aspects of Ferri, Jaffe and Herrera. And Murphy for being a redhead. Yes, there is more, but this will be about as long as a novel so I need to move on. And yes, I'm a jerk for just singling out Murphy just because she's a redhead, moving on.

But it was hard not to know that Ferri's last performance was coming on June 23. The note inside the Met that the June 23rd evening performance is sold out and no more comps are available, had been posted for quite a while. When Ferri performed in Manon the week before, it was hard not for every fifth person to bring it up at least once. A Craig's List ad of someone willing to well compensate the person he buys a ticket from was forwarded to me. I even heard from someone I hadn't heard from in years, asking if I was still around ABT, and could I get him two tickets? Where was your dumb ass in April?

Then on the evening of the 23rd, I made the mistake of coming into the Met from the plaza. With the combination of people trying to get into the swing dance area, people who don't want to pay to get in the swing dance area but will dance around it, people going into the Met to see the ballet, and the people trying to get a ticket, it was the sea of humanity. And the desperate ticket buyers-to be, were easy to break down. The loud ones tended to show they mean business by flashing a 5 or 10. The quieter ones tended to flash Andrew Jackson, some of Andy's look-alike brothers or even a 50.

You could feel the excitement backstage just before showtime. Maybe the slight nerve here and there, that they don't want to be the ones to screw up, but everyone's experienced enough that they know their jobs. And know they are part of something special. Or in the case of someone like Roberto Bolle who played Romeo (his butt check is in the 13th picture from the top), was brought in to play Ferri's last performance because Ferri herself wanted him to perform that night. Pretty much the main roles were who Ferri wanted onstage for her farewell, but Bolle was the one who had to be brought back, and given a 3 performance contract in order to do this particular performance (or at least that's what one of the veteran supers told me). So when one makes the joke backstage of "I wish more people were up for this performance. I wish more people were excited to be here tonight.", you know the person was having some fun and knew otherwise. No, really, I was making a joke. Why don't you believe me?!?!?

Now did I get to see a lot of Ferri's performance this night? A little more than usual. Not in Act 1 though. I figured the crowd would be there at the start, and throw in the dancers trying to change costume, and the dancers and supers getting ready to go on, I didn't need to fight the crowd yet. And I didn't need an obnoxious middle aged male dresser with brown hair and glasses on a power trip on my back. Again.

Now Act 2, there isn't much for Juliet to do. She gets married in the middle of the act. Everything else takes place in the marketplace. The dancing in celebration, 2 sword fights, multiple deaths, etc. The kind of stuff designed to keep the non-fan awake. Act 3 is where get the juiciest dancing/character work occurs for Juliet. You know the story, so I don't have to go into it. But it's this act, when Juliet is being forced to marry another man by her family, as well as her indecision about taking the potion and the agony after she drinks, that is the big scene.

I got into my monk costume for this, and there were more people backstage then usual. Usually, there's crewmen, a stray dancer and other supers dressed like monks, who are waiting for their cue to line up and go onstage. And also there's this one super not on the clock. A blond teenage girl, who watches as much dancing as she can, is always there to see Act 3. I got to know her slightly in the production of Manon the week before. Onstage, her beggar character was a little more aggressive then usually. She goes right to my blind side, and my closed fist slams straight into the top of her skull. WHACK! Boy, did I get scared for her, but luckily she was more stunned than hurt, and very briefly at that. I couldn't apologize more profusely the next time I saw her.

Sorry, I digress. I came down and saw quite a number of my fellow supers, all done for the night or season, watching from the downstage section of backstage. Most of whom wouldn't have been there if some of us didn't get the word from one of the stage managers that we could be down there, as long as we stayed in the wings and didn't get in the way. Very little in terms of other dancers or VIPs; we were backstage left, and most of them were on the right.

We did our monk bit, which required us going up a high flight of stairs while carrying a long candlestick. One wrong step on the stairs in our long robes, and down we'd fall like dominoes. That it never happened in all my time, considering we would have the occasional last second replacement monk go up for the first time in front of an audience, or people who couldn't see because they couldn't wear their glasses onstage, amazes me every time I think of it. Everytime I did that walk, I know I was stepping on my robe at least twice a run. Oh, the potential injuries I could have had . . .

And out they came for the curtain calls, after Ferri had some suitable time getting her final bows. Flowers from different sides. Stage managers yelling at everyone "IF YOU'RE NOT PRESENTING FLOWERS, GET OUT OF THE WAY!". Not only supers, but a few crew people and a few dancers, neither of whom appeared used to being spoken to in that manner, unless it was in rehearsal in the case of the dancers. You had seemingly everyone who ever danced or worked with her come out and give flowers. I recognized Ferrera, who held her emotions in as long as she could, and Jaffe, who returned for this. She got her multiple curtain calls. They eventually opened the curtains all the way, and they were nice enough to remove part of the crypt set. You know, to avoid any unintentional symbolism: "Hey, your career's over, you're now another step closer to DEATH!". At one point, it seemed like some balloons exploded and confetti spread out. The happy shock is what I managed to photograph as well as I could; the first picture on the blog. And the last of the flowers were delivered by Julio Bocca (a close friend and colleague of hers, returning for this special occasion) and Ferri's adorable little girls (They are in the second and third pictures from the top.). The youngest, whenever she got the chance, would take the time to get Ferri's attention to say "You know what? I love you mommy." It happened on at least two occasions. Then the curtain closed, and the company got the time to express their own private love.

And why am I writing about any of this? Because with all of this, I noted one expression and one feeling only throughout that whole experience for Ferri: happiness. This singular feeling stayed with her from the second the curtain was down and never left. Other thoughts or emotions might have briefly crossed across her face, but nothing to change this singular thought. I am happy, I am happy, I am happy . . .

Now, this may sound strange, but I've rarely seen someone so happy. Wait, stay with me. How many times have you been happy, and only felt happy? I mean so happy that other thoughts don't creep into your mind. Self doubt, uncertainty of how long this will last, self loathing, what have you.

Those ideas tend to get in our way because we're only human. But how many of us have felt this kind of unencumbered happiness? Not very often I'm guessing. A birthday, a first kiss, after a successful birth, a moment of success on the athletic field or on stage, the end of a wedding ceremony when you're declared husband and wife. Like I said, not too often.

Now think about how many times you've seen a person this happy? Very rarely I'm willing to bet. And how often do you get to the chance to see one of your fellow humans experience this moment? Almost never I'm willing to bet. I was very luckily to see that up close in Alessandra Ferri on that night. It's enough to make one forget their troubles for a while, which it certainly did for me as we all started leaving the stage and the theater on our own little clouds.

Now according to one of my super/ dance veteran sources, this might not be her farewell. She might choose to do a last performance or two for La Scalla, where she started out. Is it true? Who knows? As far as I'm concerned, Whatever, I'm so used to false retirements from say, Michael Jordan, Sugar Ray Leonard, David Bowie, Gywneth Paltrow and Celine Dion, I could care less. In closing, I'll just paraphrase a line from Steven Hill on Law and Order, changing it for these purposes: "She just retired as number one at 44. Good. Now she can get on with the rest of her life.". Take care, lady. Take care.

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