Originally Published at Show Business
“Chéri” conceived, directed, and choreographed by Martha Clarke
at Signature Theatre Company
Review by Sydney Arndt
Inspired by French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s 1920 novel, Chéri, Clarke’s interdisciplinary new work navigates through aging, love, and war. She has re-created a style akin to the Impressionist era of France in the early 1900s by fusing ballet, theatre, and live music into a full sensual expression of longing.
The play begins in 1912 in Paris at the end of the Belle Epoque, often thought to be the Golden Age of France in contrast to the devastation of the First World War that was yet to come. 49-year old Lea (played by prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri) indulges in a wildly passionate love affair with Chéri (played by Herman Cornejo, an American Ballet Theatre principal dancer), who is a young man just half her age. Lea’s best friend, Charlotte (actress Amy Irving) plays a particularly precarious role as she is also Chéri’s mother. Counter to Lea’s free-spirited and intense way of living life to the fullest (for better or worse), Charlotte is the epitome of the restrained and manicured lady. Strikingly, she is also the only one of the three who speaks. She delivers a modest handful of soliloquies that are functionally helpful in providing the audience with an exposition of action and time, which are difficult to convey solely through dance. More so, her words paint a woman who is both envious of her best friend’s passionate existence while pitying the pitfall that is bound to happen with such an unrealistic age difference between the two lovers.
And tragedy does eventually ensue, although I won’t entirely spoil it for you. Chéri marries a beautiful young debutante just his age before he is enlisted into the war. Lea is consumed by grief and self-reflexivity of her age and stage in life while he is away. Clarke’s choreography is pure expression of romance and unbound heart-break. Ferri and Cornejo’s performances are chilling as they are committed to every physical movement and internal shift. They are not only exquisite dancers, but also terrific actors. Plus, their chemistry is explosive, particularly in the first part where they arouse and dote over each other, madly in love the whole night.
It is necessary to also note that the technical design and pianist accompaniment by Sarah Rothenberg truly brought the passion of the dancing and the story to a higher realm. David Zinn’s scenic and costume design and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design created a haunting elegance that lingers days after leaving the theater. The high ceilings, cool blue walls, and grand French doors that open to the sunrise and sunset illuminate Lea’s struggle and new-found strength with a beautiful aesthetic. This ballet theater is for anyone who has loved or even hopes to love full-heartedly without restraint.
“Chéri” has been extended thru December 29th at Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street; (212)244-7529, signaturetheatre.org.