‘Chéri’ at The Kennedy Center

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Revisiting Chéri – and a Baltimore visionary

The venerable Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts turned avant-garde last night with the return of modern dance maven, Martha Clark, and her latest (and sexiest) work, Chéri.

Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke’s 'Chéri.' Photo by Joan Marcus.
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke’s ‘Chéri.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Adapted from Colette’s infamous 1920 novella, Clarke’s petite histoire of forbidden love between a young man and an older woman, features American Ballet Theater Principal Herman Cornejo (the petulant boy toy) and prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri as his older, but equally passionate partner. Set in an apartment in Paris before and after World War I, actor Amy Irving narrates the text by Tina Howe, and pianist Sarah Rothenberg sets the mood with familiar musical selections from Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, and the lesser-known Federico Mompon whose haunting melodies linger long after the curtain falls.

Chéri begins and ends on the bed, placed upstage right, with rumbled sheets and inviting allure. The sensual lighting by Christopher Akerlind bathes the stage, the bedroom, sitting room, and outdoor terrace with sunlight for the early morning encounters, followed by the glow of evening sunset, foreshadowing darker days to come. Costume and Set Designer David Zinn’s blue-wallpapered drawing room, a la Belle Epoque, with a mysterious mirror that reflects figures on both sides, is tilted intentionally, according to Clark at the Post-Performance Discussion on opening night. Perhaps to suggest the relationship of the 49-year-old courtesan (Lea) and her lover (young Fred, whom his mother calls Chéri ), half her age, is not only unusual but not to be.

As you walk down the steps to take your seat in the Kennedy Center’s cozy Terrace Theater – a more intimate setting than Signature Theatre in Manhattan where this writer attended the world premiere – you sense that you will revisit a place and time that is so much more open and inviting. Through music and dance and Collette’s words, Chéri presents the world from which art, political ideals, sexual freedom, and bloodshed of the 20th century were born. These images from any Clark stage creations are likely to lodge in one’s mind and remain long after the concert ends.

And, yes, that bed keeps us riveted throughout the hour-long dance drama.

The passion is expressed entirely through dance, first in a series of duets that finds her jumping into her lover’s arms, circling around him, dangling her pearls, as playful as a teenager. On to that bed, our lover boy (naked from the back) wears her pearls around his neck while the two embrace. Then he slowly places them down her slender body as she bends backwards in joyous rapture. Sigh!

When his mother announces his marriage to a younger woman, an underlying cynicism transforms their comfortable intimacy as Ferri sheds the youthful abandon that her young lover had awakened in her and dances a brutal solo that suggests their affair has run its course. Here’s where the choreography tends to become repetitive with her bouncing against the wall and rolling to and from the bed. In an ensuing scene, Cornejo’s character has a sobering solo with similar moves, yet with even more despair…and amazing technique.

The last time I caught up with Baltimore native Martha Clark was at her family’s Ruxton farm where she had retreated after the opening of her Vienna: Lusthaus at The Kennedy Center back in 2003. We talked about her early roots in Baltimore where she studied dance at the Peabody Institute at the Park School. Later trained at Julliard under Antony Tudor and Anna Sokolow, she was a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and Crowsnest.

Since then, the MacArthur Genius Award winner has maintained a career spanning dance, theater and opera. It was wonderful to see her back on stage in the discussion of her latest work last night at The Kennedy Center. Looking fit and fabulous in red flats and a New York outfit, Clark appeared genuinely pleased to have her work back in her hometown area. No doubt the standing crowd was pleased that she returned with such a wonderful work. 

Chéri boasts Alessandra Ferri, Herman Cornejo, Amy Irving, and Sarah Rothenberg in Martha Clark’s sensuous dance drama, tonight through Saturday, October 4, 2014 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For time and ticket information, call toll free (800) 444-1324, or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

Please note: this performance contains mature themes and content. 

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.