Martha Clarke's CHERI is an adaptation of Colette's 1920 novel about the six-year affair of a young man (18 when the affair starts) and Lea, his mother's forty-something best friend. The affair ends when the young man, nicknamed Cheri, enters a "good" marriage arranged by his mother. Six months later, realizing he felt more deeply for Lea than he thought, he sleeps with her once more, but in the morning light realizes how much they are separated by age. In a sequel, Colette depicted Cheri's return from the war. Psychologically scarred, he finally commits suicide. Dance sequences between Cheri and Lea, played by ballet stars Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri, are separated by speeches by Cheri's mother (Amy Irving), which give some narrative context. The dance sequences are set to piano music of the period (mostly Ravel, I believe) played by Sarah Rothenberg.
How is one supposed to evaluate this work, being performed in a theatre that celebrates playwrights' words? This is a dance piece and can only be evaluated on the basis of its choreography. After all, it's Martha Clarke on the Signature Theatre Playbill cover, where a playwright's picture usually appears.
I am a dance fan, but ballet gets into murky territory when it tries to recreate specific psychological states that require words. Once in a while, as in Frederick Ashton's setting of Turgenev's A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, one sees a ballet that gives us some sense of what is going on in the heads, as well as the hearts, of its characters. As a rule that takes words and the kind of facial acting ballet dancers aren't always good at. Now Herman Cornejo is a handsome man with a very expressive face. I kept thinking this guy could have a second career as an actor (he's thirty-two, not a young man in dancer's years). His face shows us Cheri's changing moods while Ferri, alas, has that relatively blank ballerina face and, like most dancers, acts only with her body.
The problems with Cheri cannot be blamed on the dancers. I'm not sure it was a viable idea to begin with. Each episode between Cheri and Lea was supposed to show a different facet of their relationship, but the choreography was too much the same. Cheri would lift, carry and whirl Lea around in the same steps over and over, ending, usually on the bed. There was little differentiation except the most general -- some moments seemed happy, some sad -- but for the work to be interesting we need more differentiation than that. Clarke used the space well, but her work was too repetitive. Nor did it show off Cornejo's virtuosity. Anyone who attends American Ballet Theatre performances knows that Cornejo is a spectacular dancer who can leap and twirl in breathtaking ways. His only rival is the young Russian, Daniil Simkin. Like Simkin, Cornejo is short even for a dancer, but can be an excellent partner. One waits, however, for his solo moments in which he can really show his stuff. For dance fans, Cornejo seems wasted lifting and carrying Ferri around for an hour. Finally, at the very end, he gets a solo that shows some of his abilities. Ferri looks older as she must, and still has the sylphlike grace that made her special. However, the brief narration speaks of her joie de vivre and all we see is melancholy, which is more Clarke's fault than Ferri's. Irving, playing Cheri's grande dame mother, has a total of abut six minutes of stage time, offering just enough language (written by Tina Howe) to give the dances some context, but the dances don't really dramatize Colette's work.
David Zinn's set evokes a Paris apartment of the period and Chrisopher Akerland's lighting gives us the variety of mood lacking in the choreography.
CHERI. The Pershing Square Signature Center. December 1, 2013.