December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

Four hours before her September debut as the American Ballet Theatre’s new prima ballerina, Alessandra Ferri rushed into heavy Manhattan traffic and hailed a cab by jumping right in its path. Her face, unadorned by makeup, was a mask of tension. The nails of her clenched fingers dug into her skin.

Tossing her Fiorucci bag into the cab, she asked to be taken to the Metropolitan Opera House. The driver, not a cultural type, asked for the address. Ferri’s pent-up emotions exploded; tears ran down her face. “If I knew where it was,” she screamed at full-decibel level, “I’d be the cabbie!”

And that was just the start of a long, draining night. After only a few weeks of rehearsal with her partner, Kevin McKenzie, who was subbing for the injured Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ferri was scheduled to dance one of the most emotionally demanding ballets in the classical repertoire—Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Fueled by anxiety and a cup of Lavazza coffee with three sugars, Ferri felt so completely focused when the curtain went up “that I was unaware of being onstage. I think there was a standing ovation at the end. I am not sure.” She missed applause that, as the New York Times noted the next day, “rolled in full force even after the first act”—making her, in many viewers’ eyes, the prima ballerina of the Western world.

The pressure she felt that day, and still feels, is understandable. At 22, the 97-pound Ferri may play a heavyweight role in determining the fate of the American Ballet Theatre. While artistic director Baryshnikov, 37, has won plaudits for his current film performance in White Nights, he still draws fire at the financially troubled ABT. The no-star policy he instituted in 1980 has contributed to lagging sales at the box office. To recharge the audience, Baryshnikov and Ferri must re-create the electricity he generated with his former professional and romantic partner, Gelsey Kirkland. The current drama in ballet therefore has a Cinderella twist: Can Ferri fill Kirkland’s glass slippers and help put Baryshnikov’s company back on its toes?

If drive is any indication, she’s up to the task. “I’m a very determined lady,” says Ferri. “I don’t let other people rule me. I listen to my coaches, but the end result is my own interpretation. I’ve always been my own boss.” Born in Milan to a father who is a retired manager at the Pirelli tire company and a mother who used to be a grammar teacher, Ferri was such a “strong-minded child that I walked even before I was 9 months old.” At 10, after studying ballet for five years in Catholic elementary school, she decided to attend the La Scala ballet school in Milan. “My parents couldn’t see ballet as a career,” she says. “And for the nuns, to be a ballet dancer was almost the equivalent of being a whore. But I persisted.”

Ferri’s professional reputation began to grow in 1980, when she joined London’s Royal Ballet. “She is an outstanding dramatic dancer,” says the Royal Ballet’s principal dancer, Wayne Eagling, 34, who once shared a close partnership with Ferri. “Her dancing is not a technical exercise. It is an emotional experience.”

“She has the instincts of a classicist and the imagination of an Isadora Duncan,” says Baryshnikov, who asked Ferri to defect from London to join the ABT last winter. She accepted a reputed $50,000-a-year offer a few months later, prompted more by the challenge than any rumored romantic link with Misha. “I’m not involved with anyone here,” she says. “I’ve had no time.” Or energy. Her daily work schedule, including rehearsals for a December performance of The Nutcracker in Los Angeles, often stretches from 9:45 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“I usually feel sick with tiredness,” Ferri says. “I sort of go to sleep even though I am walking around.” The strain she’s under shows even on her day off. Sitting in the East Side apartment she shares with Regina Nemni, a childhood friend attending NYU, Ferri bites her nails nervously and admits that she recently went to a movie in her pajamas because she was too tired to change.

Ferri knows that her leap of faith with Baryshnikov puts her career on the line. “I really took a risk,” she says, referring to the secure job she left behind in London. “But,” she continues, “I’m too young to give up such a chance. In life you get offers from destiny. It’s up to you to know the right time to take them.”

Reflecting on her acclaimed interpretation of Juliet, Ferri says, “Juliet is very courageous. She’s got guts.” So why did Juliet kill herself? Answers Ferri: “Because she went too far. She couldn’t go back.” That may have been the danger for Juliet. But for Alessandra Ferri, it’s a good bet that the dance version of her life will have a happy ending.

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