The ballerina Alessandra Ferri has had many dance lives. Now she will have another, offstage. On Tuesday, the Vienna State Ballet announced that Ferri, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, would be its next artistic director, succeeding Martin Schläpfer when his contract ends in August.
The news comes as something of a surprise. Although the Italian-born Ferri directed the dance program of the Spoleto Festival in Italy from 2008 to 2014, she had not previously expressed ambitions to run a ballet company. And at 60, she still has a thriving performing career. Ferri tried to retire from the stage in 2007, but it didn’t take. Two years later she was back, performing in pieces by Martha Clarke and Lars Lubovitch, among others. In 2015, she created a major role in Wayne McGregor’s “Woolf Works” and, the next year, at 53, she returned to Ballet Theater to dance Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Life is full of surprises,” Ferri said, with a laugh, during a conversation in London the day after she returned from Vienna and the formal announcement of the job. “It does feel to me like a natural progression.”
Ferri will have a big job in Vienna. The 102-dancer company gives around 80 performances a year of its own repertory at both the Vienna State Opera and the Volksoper theaters, as well as appearing in opera productions. And Ferri’s job will also include running the affiliated Ballet Academy, which was hit by allegations of abuse in 2019.
Lotte de Beer, the Intendant of the Volksoper, said in an interview that choosing Ferri “wasn’t a hard decision,” and that while Ferri had no previous experience of running a company, she “asked the right questions, made the right remarks and felt like the natural candidate.”
De Beer also praised Ferri’s “very high standards and impeccable taste.”
In a conversation, Ferri talked about bringing her broad experience to the job and her vision for the Vienna State Ballet. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Is directing a company something you have been thinking about for a while?
I had been thinking it was something I would like to progress into, but I wasn’t focused on making it happen. I hadn’t applied for any directing jobs, and there were a lot of wonderful productions I was committed to as a performer. And at this stage of my life, to be able to dance really needs a lot of commitment!
But at the end of this summer, the Vienna Opera asked to talk to me. I am very instinctive, it has always been clear to me when I have had to change and move on. This felt like the moment.
How well do you know the company?
I have been affiliated to the Royal Ballet, to La Scala, to Ballet Theater and the Hamburg Ballet. With Vienna, nothing. At first I thought, Is this the right place? I don’t have a history with them. Then I realized that is actually a plus. I can be committed and involved, but detached, which is a nice place to start.
And I grew up in the opera house system, at La Scala, so it is a structure I understand very well. So I thought, I don’t know Vienna, but I know ballet and I understand the system.
I think my experience of dancing all over the world has freed me to see different managerial approaches, and not be stuck in one way of doing things.
The classics have always been important at the Vienna State Ballet. What kind of balance would you like between classical and more contemporary repertory?
It is one of the great classical repertory companies, but I would like to have a company that lives in the present and looks to the future. What is clear is that it has to be a glamorous company, that reflects its history and the city. A sophistication has to be there.
Maybe we will have a 60-40 balance of classical and contemporary work, but to be honest I don’t know exactly at this point. You could also ask, what is classical? It’s not just 19th-century narrative ballets, but the modern classics from the 20th or 21st centuries. I definitely want creation, new works, but always keeping in mind it is a ballet company.
Will you program different kinds of works at the two theaters?
I think the programming has to be differentiated between the State Opera and the Volksoper, which does operettas and lighter work. But I don’t know the audiences yet, and I am really just brainstorming now.
What is clear to me is that the word “excellence” must be high up.