Monday, December 9, 2013

Chéri—A Romance in Dance

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Chéri, based on the novella by Colette, continues Martha Clarke's unique hybrid genre of theater, utilizing movement to advance the story. Clarke—who conceived, choreographed, and directed this Signature Theater production, which runs through December—had the foresight and fortune to engage ABT principal Herman Cornejo and ex-principal Alessandra Ferri as the leads. He is the eponymous Chéri, son of Charlotte (Amy Irving), and lover of his mother's best friend, Lea (Ferri), nearly twice his age. Chéri is a charming, spoiled man who can't resist a glimpse in the mirror, a habit that eventually comes back to haunt him. His mother has put up with the affair for six years, and finally arranges for Chéri to marry a wealthy young woman his age.

We learn fragments about everyone's disparate states of mind in Irving's four brief monologues (by Tina Howe). Irving imbues them with enough salt and snap so that we feel her own vanity, and the guilt in her complicity in the awkward relationship. The two dancers never speak, but they spend a great deal of time embracing, un/dressing, and twirling and spinning in multitudinous ways, often with Ferri's legs and feet as punctuation. 

They are both supremely gifted ballet dancers, but Clarke only once indulges in a display of technique, when Chéri undergoes a fit of rage expressed in multiple pirouettes and stag leaps. They do, however, use a refined expressive physicality manifested in every subtle gesture and loaded look, a particular refined gift in certain great dancers such as these. And while Clarke resists showing off her cast, the resulting choreography becomes repetitive and uninspiring after a spell. The chemistry between these two expressive performers is palpable, but one wishes that the staging and movement were more transportive.

Amy Irving and Herman Cornejo. Photo: Joan Marcus
Ferri's legendary high-arched feet, here in soft slippers, are a delightful embellishment. (Cornejo switches from bare feet to jazz shoes.) She has always been able to simultaneously convey both emotional sagacity and physical youthfulness, characteristics handily employed here. She retired from dancing several years ago, so it is rewarding to see her perform again in a different kind of genre. Music is a consistent through-line, a mélange of Ravel, Debussy, and other Romantic compositions for solo piano, played onstage with warmth and sensitivity by Sarah Rothenberg. It completes the intimate, time-worn setting.

In the end, war intervenes, and Chéri succumbs to the demons that have shadowed him as a result of his actions, or by chance. The ending is a shock—for those unfamiliar with the story, and because it abruptly closes the 65-minute performance. If we felt more connected to the characters, we might have felt more loss than feeling as if someone had changed the channel. 

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