Herman Cornejo and Martha Clarke’s “Chéri”: An Interview at Signature Theater

Herman Cornejo and Ferri in "Cheri"

Herman Cornejo and Ferri in “Cheri”

I interviewed Herman Cornejo in December 2013 in New York while “Chéri” was running in previews at Signature Theater. Alessandra Ferri was the show’s co-star. The play is an adapted danced version of Colette’s Parisian novellas “Chéri “and “The Last of Chéri”. It was conceived and choreographed by Martha Clarke and featured live on stage music for a solo pianist and one speaking role for a narrator played by Amy Irving.

Steven Woodruff:    I am here today at Signature Theater in New York with Herman Cornejo. He is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and is currently playing, along with his co-star Alessandra Ferri, in Martha Clarke’s new adaptation of Collette’s novellas. Thanks very much for speaking with me today, I appreciate it very much.

Herman Cornejo:   It’s a pleasure, thank you. 

SW:   Now that “Cheri” is about to open what is foremost in your mind about the journey you’ve taken with the production.

HC:   Well, the journey has been quite amazing for Alessandra and myself. We’ve talked about this many times and for us it’s such a new experience. First of all working with Martha and coming to the Signature Theater where they present mostly plays, it’s the first time they have dancing on stage, so for us in a way it is opening a new window to a new audience. The process is very different from what we usually do so it was very nice to get into the studio together to make something different.

SW:   Where did you start with the choreography? Was there particular music that became the beginning point or did you work with improvisation as your approach.

HC:     Yes definitely, definitely. Every time we would come to the studio, especially during the first weeks Martha would approach us as ask if we would like to try this thing with me. She talked at first about “Chéri” and the whole story, about this older woman and a younger guy and of course she had to tell who was going to be Léa. When she said Alessandra Ferri for me it was such an honor to share the stage with her and partner her because we were in different times at American Ballet Theater so for me it was a dream come true to dance with her.

SW:   Two different generations of dancers…

HC:   But for us to come to the studio basically with no idea of where to start from, actually Alessandra mentioned this in an interview, it was very clever, very beautiful, that we came to the studio with no idea, with nothing, and from that nothing there was everything. We started from nothing to create this, Martha would read a paragraph from the book and we would try to analyze that with our bodies.

SW:   Was there a particular scene you used as a beginning point?

HC:   The first weeks were mostly improvisation and seeing how we felt together, if we had a chemistry that you can see on stage. We were in a way very surprised. First of all because she knew me when I first came to ABT I was sixteen years old so for her to picture me as a lover now was quite hard. But sixteen years has passed…laughs…I am a grown up man now, and we definitely found that chemistry even on the first day and that was why we kept going with this project.

SW:   I have read now both of the novellas and in them, your character, Chéri, is not a very likeable person.  He mocks people, he ridicules those who have to work for a living, even his friends, and he can be very abusive toward the women in his life. You actually play him much more sympathetically. How did that come about? 

HC:   Yes, during the process Martha mentioned this, even though I had to interpret the role a little because it’s a novel, she gave me the opportunity to explore a little bit farther and also to incorporate a little bit my own feeling about the story which would make sense for me and also for her to really make this character alive, and not just a copy of what you read like you see in the movies.

SW:   Did you read the novellas in Spanish or in English?

HC:   We read it in English, a few things that I didn’t understand Martha tried to explain these things for Alessandra and myself. But we read the book together every day in the studio rehearsing, I saw the movie. I usually try when I do a role like this I try to get not too many details so I can put my own into it, so that made the process special.

SW:   Did you already know Mompou’s music for piano?  He’s not well known, but several of his pieces are used in the play. He is Spanish but he writes salon music that fits with the so-called French impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy that make up most of the music.

HC:    Not at all. Very new for me, and when we started to listen to the music. We were skipping from track to track, this was all very beautiful so we ended up using a lot of music from him. It makes it interesting because the pieces from him are not well known.

SW:   His music was new to me. The better known Spanish keyboard composers are more in the mold of Granados, Albeniz, but Mompou sounds very much like Belle Époque impressionistic salon music.

HC:   Yes, it totally fit.

SW:   Your career as you said crossed paths with Alessandra Ferri at ABT. How long were you there together?

HC:   I have been at ABT now sixteen years, Alessandra retired six or seven years ago. So we share about ten years together. But we never had the opportunity to dance together. The only time we shared on stage was when she was playing Manon and I was playing her brother. That was the only moment we share a moment on stage. Since that time we never danced together. 

SW:   What especially was different for you doing “Chéri” and working with a new choreographer like Martha Clarke who is more of a theater and post-modern choreographer.

HC:   The difference is that Martha’s work comes much more from emotions and reality, in ballet you always choreograph steps and then you put in the emotions afterwards. This was more a reaching inside of you to take that emotion out, so that was a different approach between ballet and Martha’s work.

SW:   What choreography that you do at ABT feels most like what Martha Clarke does.

HC:   Well, Martha’s work is unique. There is no other like Martha, same way no other like Twyla Tharp, or Mark Morris, or Alexei Ratmansky. They are all very different. For example Alexei Ratmansky, when you go into the studio he is already very clear on the steps that he wants, so he is very specific. The work in a way is faster because you go into the studio with someone telling you what to do. And with Martha it is a different approach, she really takes what is inside of you to create the role.

SW:   I was interested in listening to Clarke talk after the show about being influenced by Anthony Tudor. What she has created with “Chéri” is very much in the mold of a work like “Pillar of Fire” or some of Ashton’s narrative choreography where the interior dramas become the focus the ballet.

HC:   Yes that’s actually very much like Tudor if you are going to compare.

SW:   So she really followed through on some of her early influences with her dance teachers and experience.

HC:   Yes.

SW:   Do you think this is something that you want to have become a permanent part of your performance repertory beyond Signature Theater?

HC:   Yes, there is a lot of proposals right now. We’re setting a tour here in the United States. I believe Washington and Boston are already set up. Italy is very interested, Argentina, and Russia, so “Chéri” is going to start moving around and of course now this relationship with Martha is going to keep going. We find a very good connection so this is the first work of many.

SW:   So will you come to Los Angeles.

HC:   Hopefully, it would be beautiful.

SW:   We’ll start looking for a theater, one that is the right size.

HC:    That’s the thing, we have to find a theater that is appropriate for this play. Signature Theater was a perfect house for us, and how intimate it is, and great people working there which made everything so easy and possible.

SW:   Did you feel that the stage at Signature Theater gave you enough room and freedom to dance. It was a very different set up compared to a ballet set.

HC:   At first when we started, there is going to be windows, and tables and a bed and (lots of laughing) where are we going to dance? No but everything is really perfect.

SW:  The old acting saw about how to be successful on stage, remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.

HC:   (Laughs)

SW:  Does this show make you more interested to do more beyond the ballet world like other plays or film?

HC:   It opens up your eyes that there is more out there that you can do. Amy Irving told me many times since we start working together that I have an amazing facility for acting and how true that emotion shows on stage. But of course my ballet career can’t go farther than forty I want to take the opportunity to keep dancing. You never know, it’s always good to be open. And as I was open to do this it was something very different for me and especially being at the peak of my career to choose to do something like this, it was a step, it was a decision. And I guess the combination between Martha and Alessandra was a step and I’m loving every minute of it.

SW:   So you’ve had to take some time off from your ABT schedule to do this.

HC:   I did take time off from ABT ad from my private galas. But I don’t regret it. This is amazing. It was a challenge at the beginning. This is very rewarding what we’re doing. And like I said, it’s going to start touring so I can’t be more happy with this work.

SW:   Where will you perform in Argentina?

HC:   Well, the promotor is coming to the performance tonight. We will talk about it. There are a few beautiful theaters there. We just need to find the right timing.

SW:   Bueno, la ultima.  Is there dance happening now in Argentina that you want to be part of? Julio Bocca has been successful with his company and school there and there is interesting dance coming from Maria Steckelman’s tango fusion company TangoKinesis. Do you eventually want to return home and make something there?

HC:   I worked with Maria many times, she was wonderful to me. She created this piece for me in Julio Bocca’s company Ballet Argentina when I was fourteen and since then we are very close friends.  Julio Bocca did an amazing thing. He made ballet very popular in Argentina and I think nothing can equal what Julio did. I have never danced at Teatro Colon with a company which is surprising, so maybe that is something I want to do before I retire.

SW:   I just want to take a moment to thank you for talking with me. It’s been a pleasure.

HC:   No, it is my pleasure.

SW:   Muchissimas gracias!

HC:   Muchas gracias a ustedes.

by Steven Woodruff

Here is the review from the Signature Theater performance of “Cheri”. Herman Cornejo will be in Los Angeles with Roberto Bolle for “BalletNOW” July 10-12. The three programs feature Latin American and European ballet  stars and is co-produced by Richard Kielar and Emanuela Bolle with the Music Center. Thanks to Signature Theater and Richard Kielar for their help in arranging this interview.

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