Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Posted: October 6th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri

Martha Clarke and Signature Theatre, Chéri, Linbury Studio Theatre, September 30

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Martha Clarke’s Chéri © Signature Theatre (photo: Joan Marcus, 2015)

The combination of Martha Clarke and Alessandra Ferri seems irresistible. I remember vividly a piece by Clarke called Nocturne, a poignant portrait of an ageing ballerina. With its unerring sense of the absurd Nocturne was painted with strokes of beauty and compassion and a wicked sense of humour. What might she create with Ferri in the adaptation of Chéri, a novel by Colette describing the love between a young man (Chéri) and an older woman (Léa)? In Nocturne Clarke seemed to have taken to heart Colette’s advice to writers: ‘No narration, for heaven’s sake! Just brush strokes and splashes of colour…’ and in the opening section of Chéri she does just that: Ferri relishing the taste of strawberries at the breakfast table while her tousled partner, Herman Cornejo, gets out of the rumpled bed; the playful exchanges over a pearl necklace; the passionate airborne embraces, the petty jealousies, the smiles and the tenderness. But as Chéri develops Clarke appears to repudiate Colette’s advice in favour of narrative elements that serve to attach the dance to the story in overly literal ways.

Firstly, the set by David Zinn — a comfortably sparse, fin-de-siècle Parisian apartment — dominates the stage in its theatrical detail and reduces the dancing area to the spaces between furniture. There is a grand piano in one corner at which Sarah Rothenberg plays (mostly) French repertoire by Colette’s contemporaries with studious attention. She is on stage but she is not in the apartment; Léa and Chéri do not hear her playing — the music serves, like Zinn’s set, as an anchor to a specific time and place — but it provides a structure to which they dance. It is not Colette’s structure, however. For that, Clarke asked Tina Howe to adapt Colette’s novels and to shape a text to be spoken by Léa’s friend and Chéri’s mother, Charlotte (the actress Francesca Annis). Charlotte is thus both a nominal character in the work and a one-woman chorus. Like Rothenberg, she doesn’t seem to be in the apartment but slips invisibly into the room like a spiteful ghost to poison the surroundings with her prattle and hasten the story to its end. Her interventions are directed to and for the benefit of the audience; Chéri and Léa overhear her but remain mute. For the purposes of unity, I wonder if Charlotte’s role could have been divided into a program note and a third dancer and if the grand piano could have been replaced — with no disrespect to Rothenberg’s playing — by a gramophone.

Taken on its own level, the dancing is beautiful. Ferri may be older than Cornejo but when they dance we see two young lovers. The initial vocabulary of intimate partnering sings of romance, sex and their complexities — the two can’t keep out of each other’s arms and legs — even if in subsequent scenes the partnering does not evolve sufficiently to give a sense of development in the relationship. It is in two solos that Clarke allows her characters to express their inner feelings more completely. She translates Léa’s despair following Chéri’s arranged marriage into movements close to the floor, leaving behind as much as possible the trappings of classical ballet to reveal Ferri’s embodied experience. Nevertheless, when Ferri dances there is something of the consummate artist in her that expresses her fragile state in a body that is too confident of its ability. Cornejo’s solo is more substantial; it comes in the final scene of the work, an adaptation of Colette’s La Fin de Chéri, which portrays the unstable, frenetic mind of the young man burdened by his experiences of the First World War and aware that his relationship with Léa is over. Cornejo is very much the romantic antihero here and like Ferri his effortless technique makes him appear much stronger than his state of mind might otherwise indicate.

I read Colette at school and remember the excitement of imagining forbidden, sensual relationships at a time when they seemed so out of reach. Without advocating complete realism on the dance stage, it is rather disappointing to see Colette’s vision turned into a scrupulously censored version where Cornejo and Ferri make love in their underwear and sleep and wake in their costumes. Clarke is fully aware of this; for one brief moment she has Cornejo pull down his underwear to present his bare backside as he falls on top of Ferri in bed. It is another gesture meant only for the audience, a naughty peak in a peep show that at best titillates and at worst passes for sensuality. Colette might well be giggling in her grave.

One more ambush awaits Clarke. In Colette’s story, one of the causes of Chéri’s existential crisis is that Léa, his once beautiful courtesan, has grown plump. It is left to Charlotte to announce it to us (with unconcealed pleasure) but there is an immediate suspension of belief. We do not see Léa again on stage; we cannot. She appears to Chéri instead in a mirror as a romantic vision. Chéri’s downward spiral is thus based on an implausible abstraction and his end is reduced to little more than a dramatic artifice.

Chéri has too many contradictions to make it work as dance theatre, but in one important regard it is invaluable: it has allowed Ferri the confidence to emerge from retirement. She is at a remarkable stage in her career when the instrument of her body is working beautifully in its maturity as she searches for ways to express it. Chéri has given this great dramatic dancer a chance to find her feet once again.


The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Royal Ballet: Woolf Works

The Royal Ballet, Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, May 13

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Federico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Anyone who knows Wayne McGregor’s work to date would be hard pressed to guess he is the choreographer of the first act of Woolf Works, infused with literary weight and embodied in the lithe, tragic figure of Alessandra Ferri as Virginia Woolf. The act dances like a story; characters enter and leave through giant wooden frames that revolve slowly as they wait to be filled with or emptied of portraits from the past: lovers, her husband, and a soldier killed in the First World War. By her presence alone, it seems, Ferri holds McGregor’s hand and gently traces her movements. Her quality has a stillness that is foreign to the choreographer but he has made this work with her in mind and appears to follow her lead whenever she is on stage. In an interview with Sarah Crompton, Ferri, who returns to the Royal Opera House stage at the age of 52, puts her finger gently but firmly on the phenomenon we are seeing: “You have baggage which a young dancer cannot have because it comes with experience in life and on stage. I feel I am refined to the essential. Companies now, the world over, are very young. When I grew up here in this Company we had dancers like Antoinette Sibley and Merle Park who had a lot of experience. Michael Somes was still here. They had theatrical weight. Now, because the repertory requires these 20-year-old bodies, companies are very young and I think there is a link missing.’ She fills that gap; when she is alone, as she turns in on herself with soft, beguiling spirals, she is at her most expressive. As soon as the men begin to partner her — Federico Bonelli as her young lover or Gary Avis as her husband Leonard — McGregor’s choreography does not maintain those qualities and like a flower that is inexpertly pruned she withdraws from being Woolf to being manipulated. In her sapphic relations with the playful Francesca Hayward and Beatriz Stix-Brunell she is more at ease; women in McGregor’s universe know how to relate to each other.

Max Richter’s score is at its most refined in the first act, flowing like memories and ticking like time. The literary nature infects the scenic elements, too, not in its linear narrative but in the painting of inner emotions and thoughts, the stream of consciousness for which Woolf’s output was celebrated. Lucy Carter moulds Ferri and her lovers in an almost palpable emotion of light and haze and Ciguë’s frames change the perspective of now and then with a simplicity that belies — or because of — their scale. However, the panorama of Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House that is projected through the frames onto the backdrop takes us into the realm of an exhibition (for which much of the program resembles the catalogue).

Woolf Works is called a triptych because it joins three scenes from three of Woolf’s novels like an altarpiece of her life. The first, I Now, I Then is based on Mrs Dalloway, the second, Becomings, on Orlando and the third, Tuesday, on The Waves. Apart from Watson’s histrionics as a shell-shocked soldier, the fragile sensibility of I Now, I Then gives way to an excuse for McGregor’s standard overextended vocabulary in the time-travelling, shape-shifting central depiction of Becomings. Needless to say Ferri is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a willowy Natalia Osipova who, despite the choreographic desecration of the Woolf altar, makes an extraordinary statement of hyperextended sensuality. Around her is a chaos of couples and brutish couplings (McGregor has not mastered the idea of partnering) racing across a black reflective floor in exotic costumes of the centuries (by Moritz Junge) like figures by Hieronymous Bosch on ecstasy. It looks as if the choreographer has thrown everything he can into Becomings that the presence of Ferri elsewhere would not permit. It is also an occasion for a high-quality light show unleashed by both Carter’s ingenuity and the Opera House’s resources. The function of lighting is traditionally to illuminate the dancers but the level of production here puts lighting on a choreographic level.

The final panel, as Ravi Deepres’ slow motion film of waves suggests rather redundantly, is from The Waves. Ferri is the central character again so McGregor is on his best behaviour, or almost. This is the scene where Woolf ends her life (she drowned herself in 1941 by walking into the river Ouse weighted down by stones in her pockets). The panel opens with a reading by Gillian Anderson of Woolf’s final letter to Leonard, a scene that doesn’t immediately suggest Ferri being partnered by a semi-naked Bonelli; it is an interaction that interferes with her lonely, tragic state of mind. There are children who rise on a lift at the back underneath the waves and play games on the shore with rope. They are the children of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell (though this is only evident if you read the program) in the form of Sarah Lamb. Ferri sits contemplating, then turns to watch her sister and nieces playing. She gathers her shawl and wanders slowly around the stage while other characters rise on the lift as if arriving on a platform at rush hour to surge on to the stage. McGregor revels in choreographic distraction so it takes concentration to follow Ferri as she keeps her meditative pace around the stage until she arrives in front of the crowd, facing them. Then she is inextricably upended by assorted men and passed between them as if her final parting were a social event. In The Waves she writes about death as ‘active, positive like all the rest, exciting; and of great importance — as an experience. The one experience I shall never describe.’ The choreography fails to take up the challenge. The projected waves gather velocity, the chorus retreats and Bonelli is left to drag Ferri’s dry body to its resting place.

When the curtain rises Ferri is alone on stage to receive the applause; it is apt, not only out of respect for the artist she is, but because she is the saviour of Woolf, not only of the Works but of the woman.