Alessandra Ferri celebrated her 40-year association with The Royal Ballet with this quirky revival of Maurice Béjart’s L’Heure exquise, which was made on the late Carla Fracci (partnered by Micha Van Hoecke) in 1998 and inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Oh! Les Beaux Jours; so one could say that Béjart plundered an Exquisite Hour from those Happy Days! The work has been painstakingly restaged by Maina Gielgud, former principal artist at Béjart’s Ballet du XXème Siècle, as a fascinating vehicle with which to recognise and celebrate this very special anniversary. Very few ballerinas complete 40 years on stage and they are invariably the greats. The overall performance – lasting just over the exquisite hour – was both charming and captivating with Ferri’s unnamed character reliving special moments from her now faded career as a ballerina, helped and partnered by Carsten Jung as her loyal companion.

Alessandra Ferri in L'Heure exquise
© Silvia Lelli

In Beckett’s existential play, the main character is Winnie and she is buried up to her waist in a ‘low mound’ of earth while her husband, Willie, largely ignores her while living in a nearby cave. Beckett’s dialogue is heavily focused upon Winnie and various reminiscences of her previous life (why she is partly buried in earth is never revealed). Béjart adopted the same premise but his ballerina is buried in a mound of pointe shoes (in truth it is not so much a small hillock as a hinged  A-line “dress”, which opens in much the same way as the Red Queen’s exaggerated frock in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) so that Ferri’s character can reminisce about her lapsed career as a ballerina while performing extracts of her past repertoire. The sexual innuendo that dominates Beckett’s play becomes a fleeting reference in the ballet (Willie spends his time salivating over saucy postcards and shouts the word ‘fornication’ for no obvious reason, much to the amusement of both characters; this latter exclamation is retained for Jung to utter loudly and to the same hilarity).

Unlike Winnie, the ballerina is permitted to leave the mound of pointe shoes (supplied by Freed) and the very best of this surreal ballet can be found in the dreamy fragments of ecstatic, yet surprisingly gentle dance partnering between Jung (formerly a principal at Hamburg Ballet) and Ferri, whose heady cocktail of flexibility and sensitivity is as remarkable as ever. She also speaks and sings, even operatically, with an ebullient confidence although there were occasions where acoustically it was difficult to recognise her words. Nonetheless, this is a glorious portrayal of a proud ballerina metaphorically entombed in a career’s worth of pointe shoes (allegedly there are 2,000), still preparing and sewing them while dreaming of past glories. The psychology of Béjart’s scenario has so many facets to explore. Beckett’s design devices of a parasol and a bag of treasures which surprisingly contains a revolver – shades of Onegin, perhaps? – is retained in the ballet.

Carsten Jung and Alessandra Ferri in L'Heure exquise
© Silvia Lelli

Jung is a solid partner, almost a servant rather than a husband, who begins the ballet facing away from the audience reading a newspaper (just as Willie does in Beckett’s play) but who seems to exist solely for the purpose of partnering his spouse, whenever she requires his support. In Béjart’s eye, there appears to be more than a passing nod between his ballerina and the character of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond. One can almost hear Ferri asking Mr Béjart for her close-up as she proudly confronts the audience at the close of the work.

The pointe shoe mound (originally designed for Béjart by Roger Bernard) is one of the unforgettable design images of modern ballet, so simple and yet devastatingly effective both visually and as the metaphor for the ballerina trapped in the joyful memory of her past career, which she partially revisits in those tender dance moments. The music is a suitably eclectic mix of Webern, Mozart and Mahler and Ferri sings alongside an uncredited recording of Franz Lehar’s aria, “Heure exquise qui nous grise” from the operetta, La Veuve joyeuse. Both Ferri and Jung close the work by singing an interpretation of “Tea for Two” from No, No, Nanette, which Shostakovich had orchestrated as the Tahiti Trot for his ballet, The Golden Age.

Alessandra Ferri and Carsten Jung in L'Heure exquise
© Silvia Lelli

In a strange way, by turning Winnie into a waning romantic ballerina, Béjart’s treatment of Beckett’s surreal story makes more immediate sense than the play and Ferri’s mesmerising performance draws the audience into her strange world of mixed-up memories with scintillating panache. We see far too little of Béjart’s work in the UK and so this brief peephole into the mind of one of the 20th century’s great European choreographers was most welcome.