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Graceful moves to the end

Ballerinas Alessandra Ferri and Kyra Nichols, models of long-lasting excellence, are retiring from the stage -- without regret and with full lives. What's next? There's no rush.

June 17, 2007|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

New York — IN 1974, a 15-year-old from Berkeley danced her first steps onstage with the New York City Ballet as one of the girls in gleaming white tutus who form a living frame in the triumphant fourth movement of George Balanchine's "Symphony in C." Six years later, Britain's Royal Ballet took into its ranks a 16-year-old from Milan, Italy, who had been studying on scholarship at its school.

Both teenagers, Kyra Nichols and Alessandra Ferri, went on to become illustrious and acclaimed ballerinas, leading lights of New York's major ballet companies. Nichols, 48, has been a dancer of extraordinary technical aplomb and musical sensitivity, a shining exemplar at City Ballet, where she has performed a vast range of roles by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and other choreographers. Ferri, 44, has been American Ballet Theatre's complete dramatic ballerina, creating vibrant, heart-stopping interpretations of Giselle and Juliet, among numerous heroines, while also exploring an array of nondramatic roles and has performed often in Southern California.

Now, in a confluence that is sure to involve dozens of curtain calls, endless bouquets and an ample supply of Kleenex, Nichols and Ferri are scheduled to give their farewell performances on successive evenings next weekend, across the Lincoln Center Plaza from each other. On Friday, Nichols is to perform in three seminal Balanchine works as NYCB salutes her 33-year career. On Saturday, Ferri is to dance for the last time in Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," signing off with the role in which she made her ABT debut 22 years ago.

Although their careers and repertories have been markedly different, these ballerinas have shared not only longevity and the dance world's abiding affection. In recent years, both also have balanced motherhood and performing. Each has two children -- Nichols' are sons; Ferri's, daughters -- and never considered being a mother incompatible with continuing to dance. Indeed, as mothers, they flourished and grew as ballerinas. This has also been true of the Royal's beloved star Darcey Bussell, 38, who gave her final performance June 8.

In recent interviews, taking a break between some of their final rehearsals, both reflected on the arc of their careers, their expectations when they were starting out and the evolution of their companies and their art form.

"When I joined the company, I had no idea how long it was going to last. But I always had the sense that I would dance a long time because my mom danced into her 50s. So I figured I had the same kind of genes," said Nichols, sitting in a conference room at the New York State Theater. Her mother, Sally Streets, danced with NYCB in the 1950s and resumed her performing career after moving west and having three children -- dancing leading roles with San Francisco's Pacific Ballet and the Oakland Ballet and also teaching. As a very young dancer, Nichols performed alongside her. "She was my role model. It just seemed very natural."

Ferri sat in the Metropolitan Opera House's press room and recalled coming to ABT at 21 after already moving rapidly through the ranks of the Royal, where MacMillan singled her out early on.

"I came here because I had the need and the curiosity of growing as an artist and having different experiences -- having no idea how long I would stay here, how long I would dance," she said. "I'm not a great planner of my life. I think life has to be lived fully, and in order to do that, you can't pre-plan what you're going to do. I grew up in Italy, where Carla Fracci danced very much into her later years. So I wasn't afraid of being a mature dancer, and I witnessed how a mature dancer could actually give so much, in a different way."

It was Mikhail Baryshnikov who invited Ferri to join ABT, in 1985. She has also danced with La Scala Ballet for 15 years and gave an emotional farewell performance there earlier this spring.

Nichols made her move to the front ranks quite early as well, but she remembers that her first few years with NYCB were uneventful. Initially, "I wasn't a favorite of Balanchine. I did some demi-solo roles -- I was leading the fourth movement of 'Symphony in C' for years! -- and then Jerry [Robbins] picked me out, which was a complete surprise because I had hardly danced in any of his ballets."

For a 1978 compilation titled "A Sketchbook," Robbins choreographed a duet for Nichols and Peter Martins to Verdi music in which her subtle musicality and creamy phrasing were given a glowing showcase. A year later, when Nichols was 20, the duet became the "Spring" section of "The Four Seasons" and marked the first of many Robbins ballets in which Nichols originated a role.

An enriched approach

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