Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Posted: October 6th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Martha Clarke and Signature Theatre, Chéri, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 30

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

The combination of Martha Clarke and Alessandra Ferri seems irresistible. I remember vividly a piece by Clarke called Nocturne, a poignant portrait of an ageing ballerina. With its unerring sense of the absurd Nocturne was painted with strokes of beauty and compassion and a wicked sense of humour. What might she create with Ferri in the adaptation of Chéri, a novel by Colette describing the love between a young man (Chéri) and an older woman (Léa)? In Nocturne Clarke seemed to have taken to heart Colette’s advice to writers: ‘No narration, for heaven’s sake! Just brush strokes and splashes of colour…’ and in the opening section of Chéri she does just that: Ferri relishing the taste of strawberries at the breakfast table while her tousled partner, Herman Cornejo, gets out of the rumpled bed; the playful exchanges over a pearl necklace; the passionate airborne embraces, the petty jealousies, the smiles and the tenderness. But as Chéri develops Clarke appears to repudiate Colette’s advice in favour of narrative elements that serve to attach the dance to the story in overly literal ways.

Firstly, the set by David Zinn — a comfortably sparse, fin-de-siècle Parisian apartment — dominates the stage in its theatrical detail and reduces the dancing area to the spaces between furniture. There is a grand piano in one corner at which Sarah Rothenberg plays (mostly) French repertoire by Colette’s contemporaries with studious attention. She is on stage but she is not in the apartment; Léa and Chéri do not hear her playing — the music serves, like Zinn’s set, as an anchor to a specific time and place — but it provides a structure to which they dance. It is not Colette’s structure, however. For that, Clarke asked Tina Howe to adapt Colette’s novels and to shape a text to be spoken by Léa’s friend and Chéri’s mother, Charlotte (the actress Francesca Annis). Charlotte is thus both a nominal character in the work and a one-woman chorus. Like Rothenberg, she doesn’t seem to be in the apartment but slips invisibly into the room like a spiteful ghost to poison the surroundings with her prattle and hasten the story to its end. Her interventions are directed to and for the benefit of the audience; Chéri and Léa overhear her but remain mute. For the purposes of unity, I wonder if Charlotte’s role could have been divided into a program note and a third dancer and if the grand piano could have been replaced — with no disrespect to Rothenberg’s playing — by a gramophone.

Taken on its own level, the dancing is beautiful. Ferri may be older than Cornejo but when they dance we see two young lovers. The initial vocabulary of intimate partnering sings of romance, sex and their complexities — the two can’t keep out of each other’s arms and legs — even if in subsequent scenes the partnering does not evolve sufficiently to give a sense of development in the relationship. It is in two solos that Clarke allows her characters to express their inner feelings more completely. She translates Léa’s despair following Chéri’s arranged marriage into movements close to the floor, leaving behind as much as possible the trappings of classical ballet to reveal Ferri’s embodied experience. Nevertheless, when Ferri dances there is something of the consummate artist in her that expresses her fragile state in a body that is too confident of its ability. Cornejo’s solo is more substantial; it comes in the final scene of the work, an adaptation of Colette’s La Fin de Chéri, which portrays the unstable, frenetic mind of the young man burdened by his experiences of the First World War and aware that his relationship with Léa is over. Cornejo is very much the romantic antihero here and like Ferri his effortless technique makes him appear much stronger than his state of mind might otherwise indicate.

I read Colette at school and remember the excitement of imagining forbidden, sensual relationships at a time when they seemed so out of reach. Without advocating complete realism on the dance stage, it is rather disappointing to see Colette’s vision turned into a scrupulously censored version where Cornejo and Ferri make love in their underwear and sleep and wake in their costumes. Clarke is fully aware of this; for one brief moment she has Cornejo pull down his underwear to present his bare backside as he falls on top of Ferri in bed. It is another gesture meant only for the audience, a naughty peak in a peep show that at best titillates and at worst passes for sensuality. Colette might well be giggling in her grave.

One more ambush awaits Clarke. In Colette’s story, one of the causes of Chéri’s existential crisis is that Léa, his once beautiful courtesan, has grown plump. It is left to Charlotte to announce it to us (with unconcealed pleasure) but there is an immediate suspension of belief. We do not see Léa again on stage; we cannot. She appears to Chéri instead in a mirror as a romantic vision. Chéri’s downward spiral is thus based on an implausible abstraction and his end is reduced to little more than a dramatic artifice.

Chéri has too many contradictions to make it work as dance theatre, but in one important regard it is invaluable: it has allowed Ferri the confidence to emerge from retirement. She is at a remarkable stage in her career when the instrument of her body is working beautifully in its maturity as she searches for ways to express it. Chéri has given this great dramatic dancer a chance to find her feet once again.