ABT's "Othello"

American Ballet Theatre
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
January 11, 12 & 13 matinee, 200

by George Jackson
copyright 2007, George Jackson  

Mucking up the classics is commonplace with contemporary choreographers. Not, though, with Lar Lubovitch. His “Othello” sticks to Shakespeare pretty much and keeps such things as action, characterizations, locations and period within bounds of the familiar*. Tediously familiar is what this three-act ballet seemed because neither the acting nor dancing was allowed to take flight. Lubovitch had been careful in blocking out parts and trying to make the movement apt. Even the pain of proud Othello, his writhing when he becomes Iago’s victim, seems calculated. So does Iago’s rigidity. I could have stood some mucking up if only the choreographer had gone mad with inspiration.

There’s the promise of poetry at the start: Othello’s majestic rise from a knotted gargoyle crouch to full height, the populace of Venice popping like bubbles through the cathedral door, and Desdemona gliding forward into Othello’s arms. After that, the crowd’s dances were awkwardly stylized and constrained, the comedians’ divertissements too silly, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the principal characters’ encounters would be visualized as lifts. Sometimes, Othello and Iago resembled each other, so similar were their contortions. At the beginning of the ballet’s middle act, the female corps represents waves and then, suddenly, women waiting on shore. The choreography for these passages is almost symphonic but lacks tidal force and welcoming warmth. Structuring much of this middle “handkerchief” act as a tarantella might have come off if only the dancing had cut loose. An odd port de bras appears throughout the three acts, with the arms often resembling mechanical signals. Perhaps better music was needed. Elliot Goldenthal’s orchestral score blared repeatedly. During much of the ballet Lubovitch dipped his choreography into the sound rather than letting the music propel the motion.

Three casts danced the five Washington performances. Marcello Gomes’ sensuous Othello became a movement study. Even anguish seemed a thing of beauty as displayed by this dancer’s large, legible body. Is that enough, though, all evening long? David Hallberg, wearing a face-sharpening black wig and looking lanky in high tights, was a downcast Othello right away and remained monotonously morose. Rasta Thomas, making his ABT debut as guest, gave a dramatically nuanced performance. Strong, proud yet feeling true pleasure at first, this Othello changed under the impact of Iago’s vile onslaught. At the end of the middle act, the final moment is supposed to be Iago’s but the audience wiped it out by applauding for the preceding passage, Thomas’s display of desperation as Othello. For me, Lubovitch’s “Othello” took flight briefly during two moments at the very end of this performance — when Thomas’s Othello is unable to hide his love for Desdemona even as he kills her and, after he stabs himself, when he sinks to the floor, his frame forming a question mark as if he were Job asking why of God.

The three Iagos — Sascha Radetsky, Maxim Beloserkovsky and Carlos Lopez — tried to individualize the villain role. It remained obstinately itself. Julie Kent’s ice sculptured Desdemona suited her. Gillian Murphy’s performance was warm but fuzzy. Xiomara Reyes, plausibly, played the child bride but apparently doesn’t believe that less can be more. Just two dancers, the whirlwind Herman Cornejo and Jared Matthews, were the Cassio – assigned by Othello to guard Desdemona and then the target of Othello’s jealous fury. Cornejo projected a positive image by establishing a brotherly relationship with his Desdemonas — Kent and Reyes. Matthews, who often takes great care no matter how small the role, neglected to define his Cassio. Stella Abrera, Marian Butler and Maria Riccetto alternated as Iago’s mistreated Emilia; and Adrienne Schulte switched with Sarawanee Tanatanit as the street dancer Bianca. Ormsby Wilkins and Charles Barker were the conductors for ABT’s Washington run.

Because of this year’s January to June “Shakespeare in Washington” festival in all the arts, the calendar is crammed with dance works based on the Bard. Dance fans warn that, with a couple of exceptions, Shakespeare translates even more poorly into choreography than into French.    

*[Lubovitch’s program note for “Othello” refers to three sources: Geraldo Cintio’s tale “The Moor” (Venice, 1566), Shakespeare’s play (London, ca. 1602) and Verdi’s opera to Arrigo Boito’s libretto (Milan, 1887). I saw my first “Othello”— Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer starring — during grammar school years and my most recent with DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company last year. Orson Welles’s 1952 movie version is a fascinating attempt to suggest that Iago was more than a figure of unalloyed envy but acted because of homosexual lusts he couldn’t satisfy – something that Lubovitch too is said to imply but that doesn’t come through. I fondly remember a farce version of the play, “Othello, der Moor von Wien” by Josef Ferdinand Kringsteiner (1775-1810), Vakhtang Chabukiani dancing in the film version of his 1957 Tbilisi ballet and Arthur Mitchell, Mimi Paul and John Prinz in Jacques d’Amboise’s 1967 NewYork City Ballet one-acter, “Prologue”. ABT’s press kit for Lubovitch’s “Othello” included a list of a dozen other dance productions on the theme.]        

Volume 5, No. 3
January 15, 2007

copyright ©2007 George Jackson

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