The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Washington, DC; October 1, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Alessandra Ferri as Lea in 'Cheri'.  Photo © Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Alessandra Ferri as Lea in ‘Cheri’.
Photo © Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center

“Cheri,” a dance/theater work by Martha Clarke (presently a resident artist at the Signature Theatre Company in New York) based on the novels “Cheri” and “La Fin de Cheri” by France’s celebrated Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette could have been hot, sexy, and shocking. It was not. The amount of heat it generated was toasty, at best. No wildfires here.

The tale is one of a May-December romance involving an older woman, Lea (the gorgeous former ABT principal dancer Alessandra Ferri,), and a spoiled young man, Cheri (handsome ABT principal Herman Cornejo). We learned at the outset that Lea, age 49, had been having a 6-year affair with the 24-year-old son of her dear friend Charlotte (Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated Amy Irving). Somewhat problematically, Ferri, at least from the distance I was sitting, looked approximately as young/old as Cornejo. The couple danced throughout the work, but were otherwise silent. The only spoken words came from Irving, while concert pianist Sarah Rothenberg provided live musical accompaniment (beautiful and heartfelt selections from the likes of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Federico Mompou). At times there were other sounds, like a cheesy strong breeze, which I could have done without (sound design by Arthur Solari and Samuel Crawford).

The set and costume design by David Zinn evoked dreaminess, but one noticed immediately that something was seriously askance. The pale blue walls of a room with mussed bed linens and a round breakfast table tilted, the doors were crooked, and the line of the ceiling dropped precipitously. Morning sun streamed through windows, and then the day darkened as it grew longer (lighting by Christopher Akerland). There seemed to be an atmosphere of both fantasy and reality colliding in the off-kilter room. In the end, reality took over. The once intense affair faltered and fizzled after Cheri married a much younger woman whom his mother selected for him.

At first, the pair of lovers seemed genuinely content. They frolicked and relaxed together, each pausing now and then to admire his or her own image in a mirror. Who could blame them for looking happy and stealing glances at their pulchritudinous selves? Humans do not come much more attractive than Ferri and Cornejo, and the way these professional ballet dancers move is as lovely as their bodies. It would be easy to watch them do almost anything on stage.  Unfortunately, the choreography they were given by Clarke was repetitive and not terribly unique or inspiring. Although Ferri and Cornejo were pretty to watch, the movement just didn’t captivate me.

Amy Irving as Charlotte in 'Cheri'.  Photo © Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Amy Irving as Charlotte in ‘Cheri’.
Photo © Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Cornejo lifted Ferri straight up and down so often, it appeared like he was churning butter. He also spun her endlessly, her slippered feet dragging lightly across the floor or floating out from him as he dizzyingly twirled her around and around like a music box motor. The dancing, for the most part, was simply not explosive or even very interesting (why did both Ferri and Cornejo have to stiffly and awkwardly roll around on the floor to show distress?). Nonetheless, the dance did manage the task of conveying the basic emotional content of the story. I’d have preferred to see the dancers really let loose at some point, though, and show some abandon. Their movement was too tame and measured for my taste, and too lackluster for a work about lust. The only moment that elicited gasps from the audience, besides the penultimate moment, was when Cornejo pushed Ferri against a wall, crouched down at her feet, and then grasped her upper thighs and moved her up the wall until she towered above him. When he pulled down his briefs and showed his bare rear end as he fell atop Ferri on the bed, it was too overt to read sexy.

The one image etched strongest in my memory is of Ferri gently sliding a hand down her neck as she gazed in a mirror. I’ve had that moment myself lately – a keen awareness of unwanted wrinkles crossing my skin and betraying my age. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Lea reaches peace with growing older and growing apart from her youthful lover. Clarke and Colette make sure we know, however, that Cheri suffers so enormously from the aftermath of his affair and the First World War that earthly satisfaction eludes him.

Overall, although I found the choreography pleasant but rather dull, what was successful was the well-crafted combination of dance and words. Curiously, it seemed not at all strange to simultaneously take in, with piano music in the background, Ferri and Cornejo communicating with their bodies and Irving spouting text. Ferri’s outstretched leg could
send a message as clearly as Irving could deliver a punchy line.