When I got to the lobby/restaurant at Pershing Square Signature Center (this is one of the best kept restaurant secrets in the city where you can get serious bang for your buck. As in dinner for two was $58 including wine. Okie dokie then.) I said to my chum Roger that I was very excited to finally see a Martha Clarke piece. And he said that he thought of it as a Herman Cornejo piece. He then went on to tell me much about Cornejo, and after seeing Cheri I agree in every way. The sad part is that Cornejo had precious little time to show his wares.
Cheri is the story of a love affair going sour. The time is WWI-ish. Chéri (Cornejo) has been carrying on a love affair with an older woman, Lea, (Allesandra Ferri) who is/was best friends with his mother, Charlotte (Amy Irving). We enter just about the time that Charlotte has had enough of this situation and is going to find her son a proper young thing to wed and bed and make great with child. Charlotte proceeds, and this drives a dagger through Lea’s heart. Once the deed is done the two lovers reunite, because the desire is still alive, but the damage is done. Lea seeks relief with another lover. Cheri goes to war. Neither recovers, and ultimately the war takes a lethal toll.
I don’t know from dance. That is to say I see 3-4 performances a year if I am lucky. I do love it and keep meaning to see more. So for me, one of the very enticing elements of this production is seeing the dancers up close and personal. So close that I could hear the slide of dance slippers across the floor, and the occasional creak of floor, or leather or what sounded like toe joints. The gorgeous piano accompaniment by Sarah Rothenberg is the fourth character here, blending in, leading, accentuating the dance, and adding another layer of intimacy that was pure bliss. The inclusion of Amy Irving was surprising, but it added a final element that broke the fourth wall: somebody knew we were watching. And that somebody had a few items to get off her chest.
As to the choreography, I have to say that the first pas de deux was entrancing. After that I was less engaged. There were some exquisite moments of struggle that accentuated these dancers’ desire to take wing. At times Ms. Ferri felt like she was one giant heart who would rather leap off a cliff than let herself be broken by love. And although most of the flashier bits belonged to Ms. Ferri when the couple danced together, Mr. Cornejo is anything but a simple leverage point. He did not merely support – he cherished. His Chéri is truly a man in love and is every gesture proved it. When it FINALLY became time for his solo I was mesmerized and only wanted more.
As well, to this novice’s eye it was the set that limited the entire evening: a a classic ballet set where the elements are vertically elongated much the way the dancers’ movements are. This works fine in a large house, but the Diamond stage at the Signature is deceptively small. It lacks depth, and excels in width. David Zinn’s set took up half the stage. Literally. How do you dance around that? I know these characters are meant to be trapped, but do we have to trap the dancers as well? This was a perplexing choice.
So all in all it was not the jet propelled evening for which I had hoped. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing premise to combine dance and text in this formal way. I hope Ms. Clarke and Tina Howe have another go at it.
And Herman Cornejo is now etched onto my “Must See” list.
Conceived, choreographed, and directed by Martha Clarke; based on the novel by Colette; text by Tina Howe
WITH: Herman Cornejo (Chéri), Alessandra Ferri (Lea) and Amy Irving (Charlotte).
Scenic and costume design by David Zinn; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Arthur Solari and Samuel Crawford; music supervisor, Sarah Rothenberg; production stage manager, Terri K. Kohler; general manager, Adam Bernstein; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through Dec. 29. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes