American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
May 22, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel

“Othello” is not a ballet, or at least it isn’t labeled as such.  Lar Lubovitch subtitled his version of “Othello” originally created for American Ballet Theatre a decade ago, “A Dance in Three Acts.”  Of contemporary choreographers working regularly with ballet companies, Lubovitch is one of the most adaptable to ballet vocabulary. “Othello” doesn’t look glaringly modern, but Lubovitch was right in his labeling.

There are a few versions of “Othello” floating around, the best known of them José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane.”  Lubovitch’s version is made to accommodate ballet dancers, particularly by incorporating pointe work for the leading women. But in order to give ABT what it constantly and desperately needs — a large scale narrative ballet — Lubovitch had to scale the dance up, adding in characters above the two main couples and more importantly a corps de ballet.

The classical corps de ballet was the big casualty of 20th century narrative ballet. Two of the most durable narrative ballets from the last century, Cranko’s “Onegin” and “Romeo and Juliet” in almost all versions, use the corps narratively. The dancers are townspeople, villagers or courtiers; they view and react to the action. If the ballet were a movie, they’d be extras. Classical ballet uses the corps thematically. The corps dancers aren’t just there to fill out or observe the narrative; they reflect and amplify the meaning of the ballet. The Wilis and the Shades are part of a sisterhood. Their set dances don’t stop the action dead; they embody it in microcosm.  Like Cranko or MacMillan, and unlike Petipa, Ashton or Balanchine, Lubovitch uses the corps narratively. The dancers attend the wedding of Othello and Desdemona; they’re buffeted by a storm at port, but they mean nothing.

If the work’s strength is in its central characters, Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent more than did their share to make a case for “Othello.”  This revival was first shown at the Kennedy Center last January; in New York we are seeing all the leads except Kent for the first time. Gomes’ commitment to movement, no matter the style, as well as his impeccable partnering, Kent’s intelligence and effectiveness as an actress added a vein of richness to a thin evening. Gomes threw himself into Lubovitch’s turned-in vocabulary to portray Othello’s torment; Kent turned her long, supple feet and eloquent line into an aspect of Desdemona’s purity.

Stella Abrera also gave a sympathetic performance as a battered and co-dependent Emilia.  Other supporting roles were less felicitously cast. As strong a dancer as Herman Cornejo is, his lack of physical stature hamstrung his portrayal of Cassio. The part was originally made on Keith Roberts, a big, voluptuous dancer.  When Cornejo danced with the Commedia dancers in the Act I wedding festivities, he looked like one of them instead of an interloper — Cassio became a jester. It’s hard to imagine that Gomes’ Othello could look at this Cassio with Desdemona and see a romantic rival.

The biggest miscasting is Sascha Radetsky as Iago. The role was originated on Parrish Maynard, a sinuous dancer who could bring to life and logic Iago’s jealousy and viciousness though his movement. Radetsky can’t move that way so he chooses to make Iago’s spasms almost comic rather than angry. The banality of evil exists, but it can’t fill the stage of an opera house.

In spite of a few effective moments including a sad and tender final pas de deux for Othello and Desdemona, this version won’t displace more resonant versions of the story such as Limón’s.  Lubovitch tries for meaning; he gives us an entire act of foreshadowing with just about every sort of partnering by the face or neck explored beyond the point of obviousness. The Handkerchief of Doom also makes its portentous appearance early on; the way it was introduced you’d think it was Madge’s poisoned scarf, but Bournonville handled his prop better.  It’s not foreshadowing we want, but layers of meaning and resonance. In a ballet, that starts with understanding why the corps de ballet is there. Dispense with the corps de ballet in “Othello” and you have “The Moor’s Pavane” on pointe. But dispense with the swans and it’s no longer “Swan Lake.”

Photo, by Fabrizio Ferri, of Ethan Stiefel, Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent in "Othello."

Volume 5, No. 21
May 28, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Wiitchel

©2003-2007 DanceView