By KENNETH JONES
Like any good romance, timing was key to the flowering of Chéri, the new dance-theatre piece conceived, directed, and choreographed by Martha Clarke and currently playing at Signature Theatre.
But even though a pair of chance encounters recently made the project a reality, Clarke had been thinking about it for years. Now in her late 60s, she was in her 20s when she first read "Chéri" (1920) and "The Last of Chéri" (1926), a pair of novellas by the French author Colette. Back then, Clarke was intrigued by the tale of Chéri, a 25-year-old Frenchman, and Lea, his almost-50-year-old lover. As they try to stay together, they face obstacles like her advancing age, his arranged marriage to a young woman, and the ravages of World War I.
"Probably when I was younger and living in more stormy relationships myself, I responded to the writing," says Clarke, a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and now a "vagabond" (her word) interdisciplinary director, marrying text and movement. "The freedom to love and to lose and to move on, I found very moving."
Today, she responds to Lea's resiliency. "As one goes through some personal travail in living, the truth is, you do get tougher. One survives. Now that I'm where I am in life, the aging Lea thing---she loved her past, she loved her present---makes sense to me."
But if Clarke's late-career return to Colette was a matter of personal growth, the casting of her leads was a stroke of good luck.
She says she has wanted to work with Alessandra Ferri, a retired star of American Ballet Theatre, for at least 20 years. When they were seated near each other at a 2011 performance of Clarke's dance-theatre piece Angel Reapers, Ferri turned around and told Clarke, "I'm ready."
Shortly after that, while Clarke was working on a separate piece at the ABT studios, she witnessed "this incredible flying creature with raven black hair, rehearsing." It was Herman Cornejo, the Argentine-born ABT company member.
Clarke quickly had the idea of pairing Ferri and Cornejo as Chéri and Lea, so they held a short workshop in the summer of 2012. "The biggest hurdle was the continuity of working," she says. "Herman is very much the man of the moment at ABT, and Alessandra had another project. I grabbed them when I could grab them. We would work for five days and then lose each other for three months."
She adds that when they were able to come together, the creation of the mostly wordless, 65-minute piece---a series of solo and duet dances to the music of Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and others, separated by short speeches, all in a blue-hued Paris flat, with rumpled bedding always in view---was "an intuitive process, and an instinctual process."
In the run-up to the production's current world premiere at Signature, a host of new artists joined the team, including playwright Tina Howe, who is credited with "text," and Oscar-nominated actress Amy Irving, who delivers several monologues as Chéri mother.
Asked about Irving's role, Clarke explains, "When we started working on it, I thought there would be eight or nine people in it, and once I spent a few days with Herman and Alessandra, I realized, 'Why would you want anyone else on the stage?' Yet I knew we needed a part to make the story outside [the bedroom] clear. It took quite a lot of work to pare it down to its essence."
Finding a balance between text and movement was a challenge. A final monologue, for example, was added for voiceover, but it seemed too sentimental.
Clarke says of the process, "In a way, nothing's planned. Every day, it's like going to a new country without a road map. You make your choices by the day and decide what's essential and what can be cast away."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photo by Joan Marcus