Martha Clarke’s new work Chéri , now playing at Signature Theater, is based on the two Colette novellas Chéri and The Last of Chéri. It is the first of three new productions Clarke is scheduled to create as part of her residency at the theater. This Chéri, moving easily between theater and dance, is more distillation than adaptation. It takes an oblique and touching look at the novellas in a hybrid danced play that limns the passionate obsession of the young, well-heeled Chéri with an ageing Parisian courtesan to the wealthy. The concept, direction and choreography are all by Clarke.

Chéri is condensed into an uninterrupted hour and a quarter. It also is supported by brief sections of narration in soliloquy (Amy Irving as Cheri’s mother, Charlotte) and particularly beautiful rarified on stage music by pianist, Sarah Rothenberg. But the best of the evening was watching the intimate play between Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in the roles of Chéri and Léa. With neo-romantic movement and partnering reminiscent of Anthony Tudor, Clarke gives us a voyeuristic glimpse into a world of personal, interior dramas and a believable look at salon society of Belle Époque Paris. Both of these dancers have enjoyed prominent (and overlapping) careers at American Ballet Theater. What was attractive here was the emotional content driven by the interplay of acting and dance on the Signature Theater’s small stage, where scaled back gestures, glances, and full-fledged dance charted the story’s progress from euphoric infatuation to an eventual, catastrophic unraveling.

The novellas are supported by brilliant and intricate dialogue. That brilliance never fully emerged in the additional writing by Tina Howe. Mostly adding context for the story and pauses between scenes, the spoken sections felt less well integrated with the narrative than the danced roles. The score wandered poignantly among eighteen works of Ravel (sections from Valses Nobles et Sentimentales), Poulenc, Debussy and the Catalan émigrée, Frederico Mompou. They are all composers uniquely identified with the era of the novellas.

Cheri has been in development for most of this year, working from readings of the novella and presumably Colette’s version of the story in play form. The drama linking Cornejo and Ferri retains a feeling for improvisation and a subtle blend of movement that purposefully shifts from dancing to wordless drama and back again. Ms Irving’s portrayal of Charlotte was an apt characterization of Charlotte of the novellas, but without the scintillating language of the original.

I spoke with Mr. Cornejo during the preview week. He was at first skeptical about where the dancing was going to take place on a set laid out with a bed, a large floor mirror, a table and chairs, as well as a piano. In the end, both he and Ferri navigated those obstacles, even using them to place themselves in realistic contexts that avoided the clichés of big productions on big stages. David Zinn’s slightly skewed set with interior and exterior spaces linked by a pair of large doorways focuses the action but also allowed bigger moments to spill over when needed. The glowing, atmospheric lighting by Christopher Akerlind supplied romance infused illumination but also delivered golden sunrises that poured through exterior windows.

Chéri  unfolds on a slow burn using a series of duos and solos for her exceptional dancers to develop the story. The unfolding episodes measure the progress from a rapturous beginning to an eventual collapse, but we don’t always find enough in this telling to make sense of the shifting emotional complexities.  Like the music with its wash of sentiment and mood, Clarke has staked her claim on the story more through a sense of visual appeal and suggestion than concise narrative.

(Performances run through December at Signature Theater on Pershing Square. Clarke has choreographed  for many major companies. Her work ranges widely over theater, dance, opera, and mixed performance disciplines. The photos for this article are by Joan Marcus)


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