20 December 2013


I’ve only seen one of Martha Clarke’s movement plays up to now, a revival of Vienna: Lusthaus at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village in July 2002.  Though I could recognize Clarke’s special talents and appreciate the skill and cleverness on display in the performance, I never became a fan of that kind of work.  Nevertheless, Diana, my usual theater partner, and I had taken a subscription to this season’s mixed assembly of plays and performances at the Signature Theatre Company and Clarke’s Chéri, part of the company’s Residency Five program, was one of the performances we selected.  So on the evening of Wednesday, 11 December, I made my way up to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to catch Chéri on the Irene Diamond Stage.  (Diana was unable to make this performance at the last minute and will have to arrange a later one on her own.)

(STC’s Residency Five is a program that guarantees each playwright, usually an emerging artist, three stagings of new works over a five-year residency.  In addition to Clarke, this season’s Residency Five writers are Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Regina Taylor; Chéri is Clarke’s first Residency Five production.  The Legacy Program revisits the work of a past writer-in-residence, including this year August Wilson and Horton Foote.  Signature’s main playwright’s program, the expansion of the former single-writer seasons, is Residency One, a one-year residency during which the dramatist sees the production of a series of her or his works, usually including the première of a new work.  This year’s Residency One is an extension of David Henry Hwang’s stint from last season and the company will stage his new play, Kung Fu, in February and March, postponed from last spring.  My other ROT reports from Hwang’s previous STC presentations are Golden Child,” 9 December 2012, and The Dance and the Railroad,” 17 March 2013.  I’ve already reported on Foote’s The Old Friends, 10 October on ROT; Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, a monodrama he was supposed to perform when STC first planned a season of his work in 2006-07, began previews on 5 November and I will see it on 18 December.)

Inspired by controversial French author Colette’s 1920 novella, Chéri, which some think is Colette’s masterwork, and its 1926 sequel, Fin de Chéri (The Last of Chéri), the performance is Martha Clarke’s latest multidisciplinary work.  A fusion of theater, music, and dance, with text by playwright Tina Howe, STC’s Chéri features American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Herman Cornejo, Italian prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri, Obie-winning and Oscar- and Golden Globe Award-nominated actress Amy Irving, and pianist Sarah Rothenberg.  (Ferri’s designation is the highest rank among female ballet dancers.  The latest in that line, she shares the title with only 11 other dancers, past and present.)  This heartbreaking tale of forbidden love between a young man (known as Chéri, which means “Dear” or “Darling,” played by Cornejo) and an older woman (Lea, played by Ferri) over a seven-year span in Belle Époque Paris is an examination of sensuality, love, and aging.  It’s told almost exclusively through dance and movement.  Irving plays Charlotte, Chéri’s mother and Lea’s best friend—and the only character who speaks.  Colette’s story has been adapted for the stage (in 1921 by the author herself and, among other times, for a short-lived 1959 Broadway run), twice for film (1950 in French and 2009 in English), and twice for TV (1962 for French TV and 1973 by the BBC); it was made into a ballet in 1980.  The 65-minute world première production of Clarke’s adaptation began previews on 19 November in the Diamond, opening on 8 December; it was originally scheduled to close on 22 December but has been extended now to 29 December.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, universally known simply as Colette, was born in 1873 in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Provence and died in Paris at 81 in 1954.  Accorded the status of a national treasure, she received the rare honor as a civilian of having a state funeral.  She published 80 volumes of fiction, memoirs, essays, plays, criticism, and reportage, and appeared on stage as an actress, dancer, and mime.  (A few months after her stage adaptation of Chéri opened at the Théâtre Michel, she appeared as Lea for the 100th performance.)  Her best known work is Gigi (1945), but her first publication was Claudine à l'école (1900; translated as Claudine at School), serialized, as most of her early works were, in Parisian journals.  In 1949, she was the first woman to become president of the Académie Goncourt and the second to be made a member (Chevalier) of the Légion d’honneur in 1920 (and the first to become a Grand Officier in 1953).  Colette was married three times (at 20, 39, and 62), but she had numerous affairs, including several with women, and not infrequently caused scandals in Belle Époque Paris.  Clarke says she was attracted to Colette when the choreographer-director was in her early 20’s because, “besides loving her writing, she  loved animals, like me.  Dogs and flowers and the countryside.”  More importantly, I suspect, Clarke confesses, “And as a woman she had a very tempestuous love life.  I was very drawn to that as a young woman.  . . . I was drawn to her joie de vivre, her freedom, and her extraordinary perceptions of nature.”  I imagine that Clarke saw the same traits in Charlotte and, especially, Lea as well, making her choice of Chéri a compelling one for her.

Clarke, 69, is a Baltimorean by birth and she began studying dance there at the Peabody Conservatory.  After continuing her studies at Juilliard, she began performing with the Dance Theatre Workshop and later helped start Pilobolus Dance Theatre before beginning her solo career as an innovative choreographer and director.  She has choreographed for a number of important dance companies around the world, but she is most famous for her highly individual movement-theater pieces that fuse dance and theater.  Beginning with The Garden of Earthly Delights (1984), inspired by the early Renaissance triptych of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch, and continuing with Vienna: Lusthaus (1986), The Hunger Artist (1987), Miracolo d’Amore (1988), Endangered Species (1990), An Uncertain Hour (1995), and Vers la Flamme (1999), Clarke carved out an essentially new form of performance which emphasizes the visual and aural aspects to create emotionally evocative pieces.  Though she may be inspired by many sources, such as the novel in Chéri, most of her ideas come from painting and visual art.  Even Chéri, though based on a book, has visual elements in the production drawn from painting: Clarke has acknowledged that she looked at the work of Post-Impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard for inspiration.  The movement artist even uses images of painters when speaking of acting (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) and music (Mark Rothko).  (She says she’s drawn to the turn of the 20th century—“I think one of my previous lives must have been in 1900,” she declares—and loves the romanticism of the music and the literature of “the dawn of the 20th century.”)  In addition to visual artists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, and, obviously, Bosch, the director-choreographer says she’s been influenced by other artists whose work is largely imagistic, such as filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Luchino Visconti, European directors whose “use of light and space” she admires.

Angel Reapers, with a text by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, Clarke’s last new work, had its New York premiere in 2011, but she’s said she wants to rework an older piece, Alice’s Adventures Underground, a collaboration with playwright  Christopher Hampton she did at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1994.  Angel Reapers is an impressionistic 70-minute dance-theater piece on the struggles of the Shakers drawing on their simple hymns.  Alice, based on the writings of Lewis Carroll and employing Carroll as a character in the play, uses passages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as well as Carroll’s poems and letters to explore the relationship between the Oxford don’s relationships with little girls.

Clarke is neither the composer of the music in her pieces nor the writer of the text if there is one—but she is nevertheless the creator of the work as the conceiver and the originator of the overall idea as well as the director of the performance.  With backgrounds in music, dance, and theater (plus lifelong interests in art and literature), she herself declares “rather gleefully” that “in the dance world, she is thought to be a director, in the theatre world, a choreographer, and in opera, a misfit.”   She puts together the team—and essentially wrangles them.  Clarke says she found Cornejo when she happened by a studio where he was working and was “caught like a deer in the headlights of his brilliance.”  She had “pursued” Ferri (whom Clarke calls “the Anna Magnani of ballet”) “for years” because “she’s an amazing actress” and finally the Italian dancer was ready to work with Clarke.  Rothenberg came through Clarke’s association with Lincoln Center and the choreographer-director approached Howe because, both artists having used the same hair dresser, they’d known each other for a long time.  (Clarke also finds significant that Rothenberg speaks French and lived in Paris and that Howe’s “a Francophile.”  “Selecting the right collaborators and cast creates the DNA for a stimulating process and hopefully a finished product,” believes Clarke.)  She shapes all the elements of the performance—the music, sound, text, lighting, sets, and costumes—and unifies them along with the movement, dance, and acting to convey her vision.  She says she works “completely instinctively,” even though she does “a lot of research.”  She “fall[s] in love with a subject, and with collaborators,” but she doesn’t “try to recreate the ‘reality’ of the source.”  Among her many awards (a Drama Desk, two Obies, and an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, to name a few) and honors, she received a 1990 MacArthur “genius” grant. 

I feel as if it’s become something of a litany, saying that I’ve never been a fan of some artist whose work I’m seeing—Terrence McNally in November, Richard Nelson earlier this month (see my reports on And Away We Go, 5 December, and That Hope Changey Thing, 15 December)—but that’s the case again with Clarke, as I noted at the outset of this report.  To be honest, I’m not a great dance enthusiast to start with, so perhaps I’m just not equipped to evaluate Clarke’s work.  On the other hand, though, she sees her movement pieces as a kind of theater; even the New York Times calls Clarke’s work “dance-theater” and a “hybrid of dance and theater” and sends a theater writer to review it, not a dance reviewer.  The main reason I don’t follow dance isn’t that I don’t find it beautiful as an art form or that I don’t recognize the immense skill and talent that’s displayed when it’s performed, but as a medium for telling stories I find it lacking.  Dance (and it’s ally “movement”) is essentially an emotional medium—it portrays feelings and engenders emotions—but it needs a lot of help to deal with narrative as far as I’m concerned.  On the blog The Dance Enthusiast, dance writer, choreographer, and teacher Erin Bomboy states, “Dance, which uses the language of metaphor to explore internal states, is not always well suited to complicated narratives.”   It’s great with the grand emotions like love, lust, passion, delight, sadness, anger, and hate, but when it comes to the subtler states, the nuances, it needs acting, speech, or singing, and a lot of back up.  The music, of course, helps a lot, but most story ballets provide a synopsis (unless it’s such a familiar tale, like the Nutcracker or Cinderella, that everyone’s expected to know it beforehand).  (Okay, now, all you balletomanes and dancers out there, let’s not get exercised.  I’m talking about my perception.  I know lots of folks hold other views.)  To be fair, however, Colette herself, as Clarke pointedly quotes her in a program note, advised young writers, “No narration, for heaven’s sake!  Just brush strokes and splashes of color, and there is no need for a conclusion . . . .  Liberate yourself!” 

So, even at an hour-and-five-minutes, I found my mind wandering at Chéri.  I’m not competent to evaluate the dancing of Ferri or Cornejo or the choreography of Clarke from a dance perspective, but I can tell you how I think it all worked as theater, which is to say narrative.  Except for about four monologues by Charlotte (salted—or perhaps I should say salé—with French phrases like “ça suffit” and “quelle horreur”), which don’t so much advance the plot as fill in gaps as Clarke’s Chéri skips over time, the piece is entirely presented in dance.  (Clarke and Howe adapted the story by presenting the year-long romance of Chéri and Lea in 1912 before Charlotte arranges her son’s marriage to a “suitable” and wealthy 18-year-old.  It then picks up again in 1919, with The Last of Chéri, after the young man has returned damaged from World War I.)  The first pas de deux (see, I do know the words!), depicting the grand passion of the young Chéri, 24, and the older Lea, 49, just after they’ve arisen in the morning, is evocative of the love, both physical—she’s in a négligée and, sometimes, a dressing gown (when Chéri hasn’t removed it) and he’s in pajamas, often shirtless—and emotional, shown in lifts and embraces and a lot of gazing into each other’s eyes, is effective.  If I hadn’t heard the story beforehand, I wouldn’t have known what the context was, but I could tell that these were two ardent lovers still in the throes of discovering their passion for each other.  There’s a lot of repetition of gestures and movements, some with variations, but the idea gets across clearly. 

But that’s where the problem develops: the dance scenes never get beyond this, and later ones are very generic and almost clichéd.  Expressing the lovers’ passion for each other, and later the disappointment that it seems to be waning, never gets more specific, never really varies or changes.  There are some interesting moments, as when Ferri has her back against the wall and Cornejo, facing her, lifts her by the waist as she essentially climbs the wall as her raised arms sort of claw the plaster.  Some of Chéri’s despair in the final scene, when he’s alone after returning from the war, where Charlotte explains he lay for a long time under the body of his best friend, evokes both agitation and despair.  (I won’t spell out the ending, though anyone who’s read the novel will know what happens, but I will hint that Le Fin de Chéri can also be translated as “the end of Chéri.”)

I said I can’t assess the dancing of Ferri and Cornejo, except to say that they both seemed good, with expressive bodies (of which we get to see quite a bit from time to time).  As 49-year-old Lea, Ferri (who’s 50 herself, so it’s appropriate) looks wonderful enough that it’s not hard to believe that a young “playboy” (that’s how Chéri’s described in the novel, I gather) might be attracted to her.  Lea (and also Ferri) is “still turning heads as she approaches the half-century mark,” observes Charlotte, not without a tinge of envy.  (Dancers just don’t seem to age like the rest of us.  Both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire looked like much younger men right up until they died at ages 83 and 88, respectively.  When I saw Gwen Verdon in Chicago in 1975, when she was 50 and a grandmother, she was as beautiful and sexy (!) as she had been when I saw her in Sweet Charity  when she was in her early 40’s or in the film of Damn Yankees when she was the same age as Cornejo is now, 32.) 

Cornejo, though I can’t fault his dancing, handed me another problem—although I may be too literal.  Chéri is 24, and while eight years isn’t much of a difference (especially given what I just said about dancers and aging), the character’s also portrayed as beautiful, a magnet for women of all ages, and the dancer’s no matinee idol.  He’s rather rough-looking, more gaucho (Cornejo’s Argentinian by birth) than Adonis.  Of course, charm and charisma make up for a lot of deficiencies in appearance for both men and women, but I didn’t get a read on that aspect of the characters from the performance.  (Some comes from Charlotte’s narration—but she’s the doting mother of one character and the best friend, who cops to not a little jealousy, of the other, so she’s not necessarily impartial.)  Furthermore, Clarke asserts that Ferri’s “an amazing actress” and that the partnership with Cornejo exuded “real chemistry and enormous generosity,” but I found the relationship as expressed in the choreography largely symbolic and objectified, not passionate and organic.  I can’t say whether this is the fault of the performers or the creator-choreographer, but it strikes at the very center of the story and the performance.  These are people who can’t stay away from each other: when they’re apart, they pine and languish (especially Chéri), and when they’re together, they can’t stop touching.  I didn’t sense that compulsion in the performance.  (I can’t judge either Ferri or Cornejo as dancer-performers because I don’t know either’s work, but I’ll make the general statement, arguable as it is, that they’re dancers not actors, and I’ve written a critique about “Dancing & Acting” for ROT, posted on 9 June 2010.)

As for Amy Irving’s Charlotte, the character is sort of a ghost.  I said her speeches aren’t so much plot-advancing as gap-fillers, but she’s also not “present” for the other characters.  It’s very presentational as Charlotte passes through Lea’s apartment, the set for the dance-play, without engaging either her friend or her son.  She may look, even stare, at them, but they don’t see her; she reaches out to touch Chéri—on one occasion like a kind of half-image of Michelangelo’s God giving life to Adam—but the touch isn’t completed and it isn’t reciprocated or even acknowledged.  Charlotte says Chéri—even his mother calls him that, which seems a little precious today (his actual name’s Fred, though that’s not used in Howe’s script)—always returns to her life (which could be a little creepy, too), but we never see them together as mother and son.  (One incident in Colette’s eventful life, by the way, is her seduction of her 16-year-old stepson, a relationship that went on for four years.  Chéri and Lea’s relationship begins when he’s 17 and she’s 43.  Chéri came out before Colette’s affair started—life imitating art, perhaps?—but she wrote Le Fin de Chéri after it had ended.)  I can’t say anything adverse about Irving’s performance—her scenes are set pieces, essentially soliloquies with little connection to what’s been going on around her—though it may have been technically hard for the actress to do.  Fortunately for Irving, however (though not necessarily the rest of us), the character, at least as staged by Clarke, is remarkably dispassionate anyway, as if this were all a kind of experiment in social and romantic manipulation reminiscent of Choderlos de Laclos (author of the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses). 

The music to which Ferri and Cornejo dance and which underlies the entire piece is played live from the stage by pianist Rothenberg.  Dressed formally like a concert soloist (which I suppose she is more or less), her grand piano is in a slightly dimmed  quadrant of stage right.  The accompaniment, though that’s a wan description of what Rothenberg provides here, is nearly a fourth character—there are several piano solos along with the music underlying the choreography—and though sometimes I felt that her playing was too muscular (I wondered what the performance would have been like with a viola or cello, or an oboe playing the score instead of the insistent piano), she helped create the environment in which the lovers’ passion unfolds.  Rothenberg doesn’t interact with the characters at all—she’s not a personage in the drama even at the disengaged level of Charlotte—as she plays music from various classical composers, largely French from the era (Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy) or a little after (Francis Poulenc, whose work here is dated 1959) with pieces from German composer Richard Wagner from a generation earlier, and an American, Morton Feldman, from the middle of the last century (whose piece is from 1987).  The majority of the music is from the 1950s and ’60s by Spaniard Federico Mompou, a little-known composer Clarke first choreographed to when she was 17 and whose work she describes as “extremely spare and deceivingly simple, but very emotional.”  Clarke characterizes the score as “a little bit like a Rothko painting.  It’s this kind of color field that begins decoratively [with parts of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, 1911] and gets more and more spare till there’s a last chord [from Mompou’s Musica Callada XXVII, 1959-67].”  As I suggested earlier, music can help a great deal in adding nuance to movement- and dance-dominated performances.  (Mime and acting are more helpful, of course.)  Clarke’s description of the progression of the musical accompaniment, which is more than just background music like a movie soundtrack (justifying Rotherneberg’s billing and her curtain call alongside Ferri, Cornejo, and Irving), is accurate with respect to its impact on the dramatic, if not the narrative, arc of the performance.  As that final chord approaches, you can tell something dramatic and momentous is about to happen.

The physical production is fine visually.  I’m not entirely sure about its dramatic contribution, however.  David Zinn’s costumes, meaning mostly Charlotte’s gowns (and one enormous, wonderfully period hat) and Chéri’s suit when he wears it, evoke the period perfectly.  Lea never wears anything but a peignoir and Chéri’s in pajamas a lot of the time, and I don’t know how much consideration has to go into selecting those.  Zinn, however, also did the set, which is a little more provocative.  Lea’s apartment is essentially a large, sparsely-furnished open room (there’s probably a kitchen off somewhere, I suppose, and perhaps even an indoor privy, but where is anyone’s guess) with a dining table at stage right and the double bed in an alcove up left.  (It reminded me a lot of a dancer’s loft: no rugs on the wooden floors and lots of open floor space to move and dance.)  The walls are covered in a teal-blue paper and there’s a door to a corridor up center and French doors to a balcony or terrace up right.  Now, the walls all look as if they’re perfectly straight and plumb, but the doors are all slanted, giving the whole set an expressionistic feel.  There are two large wall mirrors, one hung at stage left and the other standing on the floor against the wall up center.  (This helps make the room look like a dance loft—there always seem to be lots of mirrors there.)  The leaning mirror is also askew.  (I can only surmise that the walls, too, have to be slanted, otherwise the stage floor would have to be raked off to one side or something, and that just doesn’t seem likely.)  I’m not sure what the expressionistic design element is meant to convey—that the world of Chéri is askew?  That the lovers are somehow unbalanced? Or, as the Times’s Isherwood suggests, to illustrate “the disorienting force of sexual obsession”—especially considering that nothing else is in this vein, neither the costumes (which are perfectly realistic) or the dancing, which, if anything, is a kind of muscular romanticism.  (I guess it can be said that the music in the latter part of the play, particularly near the end, which is more contemporary than the early pieces, might be called expressionistic—though I’m not entirely certain what expressionistic music would sound like.)  Whatever Clarke and Zinn had in mind, however, the set worked well as an environment for the choreography, especially as lit by Christopher Akerlind’s romantic design, which is what it seems was its principal purpose. 

The press on Chéri is mixed, the responses depending, I imagine, on how the writer generally feels about dance plays or Martha Clarke’s work.  Charles Isherwood, at one end of the spectrum, describes the production as “dramatically muted but gorgeously danced” and declares the dancing “entrancingly luminous.”  “For dance aficionados,” says the Timesman, “‘Chéri’ offers an irresistible chance to encounter beloved performers in a new context and to view their artistry with a new intimacy,” but adds that there are moments where “Ms. Clarke’s choreography comes across as generic or trite.”  In New York magazine, Jesse Green goes even further, writing that “the dancers are reduced to the level of illustrations—woodcuts, I’d say, to judge from the acting.”  The New York writer sums up with, “It’s a case of diminishing returns . . . so much agony and ecstasy, so little fun.”  On the website Talkin’ Broadway, on the other end of the continuum, reviewer Matthew Murray declares of the choreography that “each movement that does occur lands with maximum force” and that “Clarke has not wasted or misused a single second or inch of stage space.”  In the end, Murray concludes, the dancers’ “evocation of love, loss, and everything in between is so total that you intimately understand their every nuance.”  Calling the production “compact and compelling,” Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News asserts that “Clarke’s staging is lush.”  Though Dziemianowicz does feel that it’s “uneven,” he observes, “Her work has rightly been described as moving pictures.”  Occupying the middle ground, Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania laments that “while ambition and artistry shine through, the whole picture that these converging mediums paint is ultimately less than the sum of its individually striking parts.”  And the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli writes, “Clarke has a fantastic eye, and she comes up with some striking visuals,” but demurs that “‘Chéri’ struggles to create drama.”

In other details, the reviews were all over the field.  In Time Out New York, David Cote says bluntly, “I wish I’d had a fraction of the fun that Chéri (Cornejo) seems to be having” in the play, which Cote calls “a schematic setup.”  The man from TONY complains that the “choreographed steps melt into steamy clinches” and that “Clarke’s moves are too generic (lots of lifting and twirling) and Howe’s speeches too abbreviated and faux arch to involve us,” concluding, “Everyone looks quite stylish and sexy, but this is not an affair to remember.”  The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column avers, “Martha Clarke makes movement that’s meant to work in tandem with text, but her real interest is in the look of her stage pictures” and remarks of the production that “one wishes there were more of Irving and less pantomime,” putting down Clarke’s choreography.  New York’s Jesse Green, who seems to have a serious problem with the French-ness of the material and the set decoration (the acute accent in the title, the croissants on the breakfast table, the “neatly folded copy of Le Monde”), finds that from “Clarke’s earnestness emerges hours’ worth of longueurs—a neat trick for a show that runs only 65 minutes.”  Green explains, “It’s not that the different information-delivery modes of dance and drama can’t profitably be joined or contrasted, but here, words and movement are equally trite.”  (He characterizes Howe’s text as “mortifying.”)   In Show Business, the theater trade weekly, Sydney Arndt declares that Clarke 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.”  Arndt finds the dances created by Clarke “pure expression of romance and unbound heart-break” and the dancers’ work “chilling as they are committed to every physical movement and internal shift.”  The Show Biz review-writer sums up the experience by proclaiming, “This ballet theater is for anyone who has ever loved or even hopes to love full-heartedly without restraint.”

The News’s Dziemianowicz feels that the dancers presented “are a whirl of sensuality, grace and muscle,” and that Clarke’s images “resemble classical paintings.”  The News reviewer acknowledges that “the show isn’t just a pas de deux—there’s drama, too,” though he complains that while Irving “is an elegant presence with a creamy voice,” her monologues “are intrusive.”  In the Post, Vincentelli asserts that “Clarke has a fantastic eye,” but that the production’s “burner seems stuck on simmer—not quite the right setting for a show about passion.”  “The rapture of sexual love and the disorienting pain of parting are viewed as through frosted glass in ‘Chéri,’” observes Isherwood in the Times, but that while the  choreography “sometimes falls into patterns of swooning sameness, ‘Chéri’ also contains passages in which fleeting emotion is captured in precise, illuminating movement.”  “The production,” he writes, “has a hypnotic visual beauty,” including Zinn’s “ingeniously tilted” set.  Trying to amalgamate dance, narration, and musical recital, laments Tom Sellar in the Village Voice, “this time, these elements don’t mix well if at all.”  Sellar complains that the lovers “are left with too little to do, for too long.”  Chéri, the Voice reviewers concludes, “ultimately gets too bogged down in its awkward composition to convey the story, much less the epoch behind it.” 

The on-line reviewers are in the same vein.  On AmericanTheaterWeb, Andy Propst simply announces that Chéri “very well could be the most beautiful looking production audiences will find onstage between now and the end of the year.”  “Everything,” says Propst, “. . . glistens with elegance,” except that the designers and the performers have been “somehow let down by director/choreographer Clarke and by playwright Tina Howe.”  Howe’s text, the reviewer feels, is “perfunctory” and “repetitiveness creeps into” Clarke’s dances so that even the dancers’ “fine work and the designer's lavishness ultimately are not enough to fully pull theatergoers into Colette's tale.”  Dubbing Chéri an “arresting new dance-theatre piece,” Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray reports that “in its limited time,” the production “describes, depicts, and deconstructs every imaginable component of romantic affection—all without ever resorting to either cynicism or unchecked sentimentality.”  Clarke’s direction, says Murray, is “so precise . . . that it pierces even through the only elements that don’t fully satisfy: the speeches.”  The cyber reviewer finds the monologues unnecessary, insisting, “Neither Clarke nor her dancers need the help,” since “[r]eal feelings and real fears are given such searing form” by the performers.  “A gorgeous Amy Irving to provide a modicum of text, a pair of the American ballet theater's premier dancers to execute Martha Clarke's sensual as ever and literature inspired choreography!  What more could one wish for?” asks Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp.  “As it turns out,” she answers her own question, “quite a bit.”  After listing everything that’s right with the STC presentation of Chéri, Sommer explains: “It would seem that this spare new production once again demonstrates the old saw about less being more.  However, in this case, the spareness of text and cast, and the single piano presentation of similar sounding and feeling musical selections (mostly Ravel) are a case of less really being less.”  She finds that the musical selections “have a repetitive ring,” which she suggests may be intentional since the action is cyclical, but concludes, “Unfortunately this repetitive motif falls into the trap of being rather monotonous.”  Clarke’s choreography suffers the same fault, says Sommer, “in that it doesn't seem to have enough variety,”  rendering the whole experience “not as satisfying as I'd hoped.”  On TheaterMania, Levitt explains, “The story of Chéri, unfortunately, gets lost in this heated spectacle.”  The piano score “soon veers into lulling monotony” and the dancing “remains similarly stagnant throughout.”  In addition, though both Irving and dancers Ferri and Cornejo give excellent performances, Levitt feels “we can clearly see the seam that joins these two theatrical mediums” of speech/acting and dance because, even though the performers execute their individual arts well, “they have yet to flow into a communal reservoir where each art form can build on the power that the others have to offer.” 

[In an aside, I have to mention a line in Jesse Green’s New York notice—not because it’s so apt with respect to the STC production, but because it’s reminiscent—and redolent, to boot—of my very own youth.  In reference to a line in one of Charlotte’s monologues, in which she recounts that Lea has “let her hair go grey and has gained a few pounds . . . .  Well, considerably more than a few,” Green quips that “you look at the spectacularly beautiful Ferri, who at 50 has the body and line of a teenager, and wonder what Clarke was smoking.”  His answer: “Gitanes, presumably.”  (The man really is a Francophobe—but anyway . . . .)  Now, frequent readers of ROT will remember that I spent part of my teens in Europe, going to high school in Geneva.  American cigarettes, though in great demand, were expensive if you had to buy them on the local market, so when I ran out of both PX-bought butts and ready cash, I resorted to French cigarettes—either Gauloises or Gitanes.  (Gauloise is, of course, the adjective from Gaul; Gitane means ‘Gypsy woman’—the illustration on the blue box is a female flamenco dancer.  The cigs are strong, unfiltered, kind of stubby . . . and they stink!  They’d make my head spin—which I presume is Green’s point—and they’d drive many of my friends out of the room!  Later, during my freshman year at college when I pledged a frat and we had to carry cigarettes and a light to supply any brother on request, I had the idea to have those French ciggies on me—and my upperclassmen bros soon stopped bumming butts from me!  After my senior year, I went with a student group to London to kill some time before reporting for military service and we spent a night in Paris on the way over.  A couple of friends and I spent the evening playing “American ex-pat,” bar-hopping, drinking Pernod (real absinthe wasn’t available then), and smoking Gitanes and Gauloises cigarettes.  This all has nothing whatsoever to do with Chéri, but Jesse Green’s passing comment conjured it up.  It’s not Colette—but it is Proust!  (I’m very susceptible—as my friend Kirk will attest.  I once wrote him a 5-message e-mail series about my time in Berlin off of a few incidental scenes in an old movie.)]



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