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Cheri - Off-Broadway

Amy Irving stars in Signature's world premiere stage adaptation of Colette's novella.

Martha Clarke on Combining Dance, Music & Theater to Create an ‘Incredible’ New Cheri

Martha Clarke on Combining Dance, Music & Theater to Create an ‘Incredible’ New Cheri
Martha Clarke
When I get an instinct to create something, it’s an extended voyage, a true journey.

About the Author:
See a production conceived by Martha Clarke, and a wild ride is almost guaranteed. Since her seminal work The Garden of Earthly Delights put her on the map as a choreographer in 1984, Clarke’s trademark hybrid of theater, music and dance captures a singular brand of raw sensuality. Cheri, her newest piece featuring prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Herman Cornejo, Oscar nominee Amy Irving and pianist Sarah Rothenberg, is no exception. Below, Clarke professes her love for Colette’s 1920 novel, the "thrilling" chemistry between her stars and her new home at the Signature Center.



I have always looked up to Colette as a mentor. I love her earthiness—she was a dancer, and she loved animals and nature. She had a rich, free life, and I find this inspiring. I first read Cheri in the late seventies and felt a sympathy with both Lea and Cheri, a story of an aging courtesan and her young lover in Paris during La Belle Epoque. I identify with the way Lea embraces her age and ultimately, that’s what compelled me to create this piece.
 


When I get an instinct to create something, it’s an extended voyage, a true journey. I embrace the research time with great enthusiasm! I looked at a lot of paintings, primarily by Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. I studied photographs, films and music. I knew I wanted to use existing music from the period, and I was particularly drawn to Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, and a lesser-known Spanish composer named Mompou, to whom I was introduced to as a student at Juilliard.

I was fortunate to reacquaint myself with ballerina Alessandra Ferri two years ago. She is a dancer I have long admired for her amazing ability to create indelible characters in performance. Alessandra and I had a conversation after a performance of Angel Reapers, my collaboration with Alfred Uhry, at the Joyce Theater. She had not appeared in New York for seven years, and she said to me, “I’m ready for you.” At about the same time I was in rehearsal at American Ballet Theatre. As I was leaving I peeked into a studio and saw Herman Cornejo, a dancer I had never seen before. I was utterly dumbstruck by his presence and introduced myself—it really was love at first sight. His spirit and beauty completely mesmerized me. As I was walking to the theater one evening shortly thereafter, I came up with the idea of Cheri for Alessandra and Herman.

Colette’s story provides an incredible opportunity for two of the greatest dancers, a generation apart, to work together. From the very first workshop their chemistry was immediate and thrilling. I wanted to include elements from both novels, Cheri and La Fin de Cheri—Colette’s original novel and its sequel. I realized there were elements in the storytelling that needed language and approached Tina Howe, a writer whose work I have long admired. Tina came on board and created text for Charlotte, Cheri’s mother, that helps explain narrative and drives the storytelling in ways that are impossible through movement.

The role of Charlotte, Cheri’s mother, is wonderfully played by Amy Irving. She is an essential protagonist that deepens and adds color to the piece.
 
We are thrilled to have Sarah Rothenberg as our extraordinary pianist. She plays subtle and poetic repertoire from the period. We are not using well-known pieces.

I’ve developed such a deep affection for all four members of my quartet. Cheri has become an incredibly personal and emotional experience for me. I feel so privileged to have experienced this special collaboration with all the artists involved, including my brilliant design team: Chris Akerlind, David Zinn, Arthur Solari and Sam Crawford.


Finally, to have had Jim Houghton invite this work to the Signature Theatre and to the beautiful Diamond stage is so wonderful. When we met, I showed him about a minute of Cheri in rehearsal on my iPhone, and he immediately said, “Let’s do it!” Then he asked me, “How long would you like to be here? Five years?” In our first meeting! It is a dream come true to create in this space. I’ve been a vagabond my entire professional life—to be welcomed into a home like Signature Theatre is absolutely sublime.

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