At the Pershing Square Signature Center, just off Times Square, Martha Clarke’s “Cheri” slowly unfolds in the hands of American Ballet Theater’s prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri (Lea) and principal dancer Herman Cornejo (Cheri). We enter their affair at the height of its passion and watch it crumble in the face of tragedy.
“Cheri” is a turn-of-the-century romance explored through a series of fully embodied movement sequences with Tina Howe’s text — loosely based on French author Colette’s classic 1920 novel by the same name — as its framework. Set to the live piano performance of Sarah Rothenberg, with musical selections by Arthur Solari and Samuel Crawford, a story of longing and heartbreak ensues. In just over an hour, we traverse the throes of romance — and the subsequent despair of isolation — between a young man and his mother’s best friend. We are introduced to the lovers through nuanced, playful gestures of seduction that revolve around a long strand of pearls. They indulge in moments of spirited connection during lustful encounters in bed, at the breakfast table and on the veranda; David Zinn expertly crafted an off-kilter, palatial set to capture the protagonist’s emotional duress. Amy Irving (Charlotte) enters in the form of a mother reflecting on her dear Cheri and his need to find a respectable place in society – a place that does not include a woman twice the age of his mistress.
The Signature Theater is filled with the sounds of Debussy and Wagner (among others) as two of the highest-ranking ballet stars in the world find moments of tenderness amid technical prowess. Clarke tactfully highlights their skill and strength in repeated bouts of swirling and waltzing. In the thick of the action, the space clears and we tune into a hesitant touch of his fingertips onto her wrist. As in Colette’s story, indulgence gives way to anguish. Young Cheri explodes in a fit of grievance — flying through the air, rolling and collapsing onto the ground, only to end as a heap of a man racked with sobs.
If you go
Through Dec. 29
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St.
Through Dec. 29