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Director-choreographer Martha Clarke consistently searches for a kind of theatrical alchemy, trying to bring fine arts to fuller life on the stage. Since the 1980s, she has devised wonderfully evocative dance-theater hybrids inspired by the paintings of Tiepolo, Hieronymus Bosch, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt, among many other sources. For Chéri, now running at Signature Theatre, Clarke turns to Belle Époque Paris courtesy of Colette’s 1920 novel about a tragic love affair.
To stage this modernist tale of Chéri and Lea, who discover only through separation and time that their passions amounted to love, Clarke alternates between dance, narration, and musical recital, trying to apply enough inner life from the text to sustain long movement sequences illustrating it. (Playwright Tina Howe did the adaptation.) Unfortunately, this time, these elements don’t mix well if at all, despite the delicate beauty afforded by Colette’s writing; things might have worked out better if the spoken and danced portions had been integrated. The accomplished ballet performers Alessandra Ferri (Lea) and Herman Cornejo (Chéri) are left with too little to do, for too long. Although Christopher Akerlind’s softly glowing lighting goes a long way toward conjuring a distant Paris teeming with desires, Chéri ultimately gets too bogged down in its awkward composition to convey the story, much less the epoch behind it.