“Othello” Joffrey Ballet by Joy Bolger


*****The Joffrey’s Othello –  Lar Lubovitch’s Dance in Three Acts, inspired by a sixteenth-century tale on which the Bard’s 1622 Othello the Moor of Venice, is also based—proves one thing about Joffrey dancers:  their ability to perform exquisitely and convincingly, in dancing and acting, across a wide array of choreographic styles and performance types. Whether the choreographic twist on classical ballet forms in Othello suits your particular tastes or not,  the dancers’ performances are worth seeing. After watching this company perform for years, each of their dancers are like that extremely rare singer who can perfectly execute all notes in the octave, or an artist who can create in various genres. Sure, any dancer has strengths and weaknesses in a given choreographic style, school of dance or technique. In casting, certain dancers will fit a given role better, taking in various factors such as technique, body type, acting strengths, appearance, and other factors.  However, the dance style presented in Lubovitch’s Othello is yet another example of their versatility. From the works of Corralli/Perrot (Giselle) to Nijinsky (The Rite of Spring )to Wayne McGregor (Infra) and everything in between— this company has helped make dance that truly universal language.

     Othello itself is ground-breaking in its choreographic  vision, clearly imbued with the effort, passion, and technical precision of its creator, the Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch. What is so unusual about the performance is its mosaic of choreography in terms of dance styles, not only within the entirety of the show, but within the same dances and characters themselves. He simultaneously embraces and departs from classical ballet, striving to “create a contemporary version of classically shaped ballet, but one using contemporary language, one with a twist.” The only character that stays purely within the realm of classical ballet, without any modernized interpretations, is Desdemona herself. It is an apropos contrast and choice, with the purity of her character, completely innocent and unknowing in the events that are to unfold, reflected in unadulterated balletic forms. The other dancers and characters break that mold in a style that is a unique hybrid, still classically-based but with marked modernization, say, of arms or upper body movements—still beautiful in their own right, but not purely classical. It is original, unique choreography that modernizes ballet, but it also serves a purpose in delineating the immaculateness of Desdemona herself.

The choice of April Daly as Desdemona could not have been more befitting, dancing in a manner that perfectly mirrored the innocence of the character. The performance of her and Othello (Fabrice Calmels) in the final act moved me to tears – not a “regular” reaction on my part, only “reserved” for the very most sympathetic Giselles, Odettes or Juliets. At the beginning, she exudes the naivety and pure innocence of a young wife very much in love with Othello, and eager to please in every way and happy just to be with him. The end is heart-wrenching, as she portrays the same innocence yet a clear
knowledge that she will be killed. Dance-wise, the individual variations for this role are not meant to be on the level of virtuosity as, for example, Odette/Odile, Giselle, Kitri or many other classical roles. However, the part  heightens the artistic and acting elements of ballet – in some ways, far more important than the 32-fouette turns—and in this respect, Daly is a gem. Angelic in both the lightness of her partnering and portrayal of her character, I could not envision a better Desdemona. She and Fabrice Calmels, each exquisite performers in their own right, meld together as one body in the pas de deux. Without the impediment of words, their last bedroom scene demonstrates a poignancy that will move even the most hesitant of audience members.

While all the lead dancers were spectacular, two other performances that stood out were those of Matthew Adamczyk in the role of Iago, and Anastacia Holden as Bianca, leading a Tarantella dance in Act II. In the scenes portraying his internal struggles and jealousy of Othello and Cassio, his movements are simultaneously deliberate and sharp, yet jarring and dichotomized, causing him great distress.  On one hand, we feel he is powerlessness to control these strong resentments, yet in the end, he chooses to act on them with premeditated, deliberate intent, rendering  him a true villain. In a fascinating scene with Emilia, his wife, performed by Valerie Robin, we see both his control and utter lack of it, as he turns out needing her both her support and actual complicity in his evil machinations. His performance is enthralling in the same way one cannot disengage from a good crime show or mystery novel, knowing of a malicious outcome, but fascinated at the darkness of the perpetrator. Anastacia Holden gives a captivating performance as Bianca, a local woman of Cyprus of the lower classes, in a Tarantella dance.

According to the program summary and Ballet Notes, the Tarantella, after ‘tarantula,” was a dance sweeping medieval Europe,  opposed by the church for alleged satanic connections. Composer Elliot Goldenthal is quoted as explaining its role in Sicilian lore, that the dance was performed to cleanse one of the venom of tarantulas. Holden’s dance is a riveting performance of a dance both alluringly sensualized yet frantic, drawing one in, yet wild in its purge of the alleged poison. She is superbly athletic and strong as a performer.  Iago’s and Holden’s dances, portraying different and often opposing aspects of the same struggle or purpose, in some ways dovetail with the mixed choreography, another part of the overall mosaic of the show, yet within the same characters themselves. Desdemona is the only one completely “simplistic,” out of pure chastity and goodness.

Throughout the performance, one clear form of symbolism comes in the use of gestures with the head and neck. Both Iago and Othello both almost control their spouses with embrace of their heads; in the case of Othello, it is lovingly at the beginning, but the choreography appears an ominous foreshadowing of Desdemona’s death.

*****     Lubovitch, in the program notes, directly addresses one issue many may have with ballets such as Othello—that of putting in balletic form works that are crafts of linguistic genius, such as Shakespeare, or, in this specific case, the original source material for Shakespeare’s work, a story by Geraldo Cinto in a Venetian work of 1566. As an avid ballet fan, who loves the art precisely because it portrays beauty without words, I still often struggle with this component of full-length ballets – the language subtleties of Shakespeare disappear; ballets such as Anna Karenina put an 800-plus page book into a two hour production with no words. It is important, in my mind, to appreciate each art form for what it is – whether a performing art form, fine art form or the art of writing—and evaluate it within that context. Ballets such as Othello are not meant to “replace” the written form, but rather use the medium of dance versus text to portray central emotions or themes of the characters in such text. It is not meant to be an exact portrayal of the plot itself.  Lubovitch’s words, in the Choreographer’s Note, are best. As a ballet enthusiast who adores full-length ballets, but also loves Shakespeare or many of the other authors such ballets are based on, I appreciate his addressing this issue (from the Program): “Othello- A Dance in Three Acts has been adapted from a story originated by Geraldo Cinto in the Hecatommithi (Hundred Tables) published in Venice in 1566.  Shakespeare adapted his play Othello the Moor of Venice written around 1602 from the Cintio tale.  Othello (the dance) does not seek to create a precise telling in pictures of either the Cintio tale or the Shakespearean play, but rather to relate the legend of the Moor through a passages of images in movement, which, over time, accumulate to capture the essence of the characters and their story, through the domain of dance.”

Lubovitch succeeded.  It was not my “all time favorite ballet,” but it far and beyond accomplished the elements that make such a story ballet worth seeing – evocation of emotion, portrayal of characters, technical mastery of dance steps,  originality of vision with clear effort on the part of the choreographer, and skill of the dancers—and is not to be missed.
Performances will continue through May 5th at The Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University located at 50 East Congress Parkway, with a schedule as follows”
 April 28  2 p.m.                                                                                      
May 2nd 7:30 p.m.
May 3rd  7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 4th  2 and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 5th 2 p.m.
Tickets range from $31- $152 Plus taxes and can be purchased by calling Joffrey at 312-386-8905 or at all Ticketmaster outlets
For more info on the season, visit www.joffrey.org