It was such a pleasure to see Alessandra Ferri in Chéri at the Signature Theatre in the Manhattan theater district Friday evening. I haven’t seen her since a great ABT Romeo and Juliet performance with José Manuel Carreño in 2006 (see curtain call photo below). I always loved her dramatic timing and lyrical dancing in full-length ballets.
Alessandra plays Lea, a once stunning courtesan (mistress of a man of rank), now middle-aged, living in Paris in the early 20th century. Her lover, Chéri, is a handsome, self-absorbed, pampered young man. Chéri’s mother, Charlotte, sent him to Lea for “grooming” to prepare him for manhood. During the process, the two fell in love. Charlotte ends the relationship by arranging a marriage to a much younger woman. Later, Chéri returns to Lea in an unhappy reunion.
Chéri is a 1920 novel by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) followed by a sequel published in 1926. ABT Principal Dancer Herman Cornejo plays Chéri in this short, 65-minute fusion of theater, dance, and live music by Martha Clarke. Academy and Golden Globe Award nominee and Obie Award winner Amy Irving has the only speaking role as Charlotte, with text by Tina Howe. Sarah Rothenberg is the pianist (not sure of the composer of the work she played. Unfortunately, the program did not provide any detail).
The performance opens in a comfortable Paris apartment with Chéri getting out of bed while Lea reads the morning newspaper. The two are enamored with each other, deeply in love. Their dancing shows the red-hot bond the two have at this stage in their lives, with the scene ending as the two eagerly jump into bed and share a sensual embrace.
Chéri’s mother Charlotte appears and explains the story of hooking him up with Lea, finding out they are in love, and setting him up with a much younger woman that he ultimately marries. The interaction between Charlotte and Chéri/Lea is unique as Charlotte is the only speaking character in the performance. Chéri/Lea acknowledge her presence but do not speak.
For the remainder of the performance, Chéri and Lea are not on the same wavelength. Alessandra and Herman displayed a deep bond and raw passion as they revealed a wide range of emotions: infatuation, love, longing, and bitterness. This relationship is very complicated and I can’t say that I figured it out. His marriage may have had something to do with his torment and inability to commit to Lea. Possibly the age difference changed his feelings for her; in one segment, a moody Chéri pushes her away; in another she slaps him; in another, he returns only to be rejected by her.
In the final segment, Charlotte explains the horrible experience he had in World War I, with the dying and dead all around him as he attempted to survive in battle. He returns to the apartment, tormented by the war and by Lea’s image that appears in a mirror. Herman performs a well done, vigorous solo filled with grief as the performance concludes with a dramatic ending.
I enjoyed the bond and raw emotions from Alessandra and Herman. The dancing was straightforward, in focus with the story. At times the steps became repetitive and a bit tiresome, but then came Herman’s dramatic final solo to the rescue. A very enjoyable evening of dance, music, and theater. The run ends on December 29.
As an added bonus, I had the pleasure of sitting next to former ABT Ballet Master David Richardson and enjoyed listening to him reminisce about dancing at New York City Ballet, working with Baryshnikov, and staging ballets at ABT. What an evening with a great performance by two of my favorite dancers sitting next to someone that has witnessed the highlights in the dance world for the last 50 years, all for just $25.
The Pershing Square Signature Center is a nice place to see a performance. The theater opened in 2012 and was designed by Frank Gehry. The Center is comprised of three unique theater spaces, two studios, and a lobby with a café and bar. It’s a happening place; after the performance, the lobby was active, with a band playing folk music. A nice place to stop for a drink or light dinner.