Story ballets can perplex dance fans who want to focus on movement but find themselves trying to decipher narrative, like opera goers with one eye on the libretto and one on the stage. Fortunately, those watching the Joffrey Ballet’s “Othello, A Dance in Three Acts,” won’t have that problem. All it takes is an outstretched arm, palm up, for Iago to speak folios: we see that he is provoking Othello into a jealous rage, falsely insinuating that the Moor’s beloved Desdemona has been unfaithful. With the text thus crisply communicated, we can put our attention where it belongs, on the dancing.
Chicago native Lar Lubovitch choreographed “Othello” for The American Ballet Theatre in New York City, where it premiered in 1997, at once classic and postmodern. Heightening the drama is a brassy, percussive score composed by Elliot Goldenthal and given the full instrumentation it deserves by the Chicago Philharmonic, led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck. Adding to the atmosphere are ever-changing projections by Wendall K. Harrington — the turbulent gray sea in the second act is particularly effective — as well as fractured slabs of glass that serve as sliding backdrops and a throne for Othello (décor by George Tsypin) and Jack Mehler’s moody lighting, which shifts from the amber hues of a Vermeer painting to a starkly lit Venetian nightmare. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward complete the picture.
Fabrice Calmels, a graceful giant of a dancer, makes for a nuanced Othello, one minute tender and adoring, another on the edge of menace in the first act as he lifts Desdemona’s head in a powerful embrace that foreshadows the violence that is to come; Miguel Blanco portrays the role on alternate performances. Desdemona, the Moor’s noble Venetian wife, is all vulnerability and daintiness as danced by the sprightly April Daly (Victoria Jaiani on alternate nights). The medieval power couple is wonderfully reproduced in miniature by a couple of child dancers who bear an uncanny resemblance to the two.
But “Othello” isn’t about Othello as much as it is about Iago, his manipulative nature embodied in Lubovitch’s choreography of jerky, marionette-like movement. Matthew Adamczak (Temur Suluashvili on alternate performances) plays Iago with surgical precision, with wide stance and angular movement. Valerie Robin, capping her career at the Joffrey, plays Emilia, Iago’s wife and, conveniently, handmaid to Desdemona. Robin is an accomplished dramatic dancer who allows Emilia’s multiple dimensions to emerge as she moves from an edgy pas de deux in complicity with her villainous husband to the despair of a bullied wife.
Aaron Rogers plays Cassio with energy, and Anastacia Holden brings a frenzied sultriness to Bianca as she spins with flexed feet to dance the Tarantella, named for the venomous bite of the tarantula. The chorus picks up steam in the second act as they swirl around Holden in a storm-tossed dance, an improvement over their somewhat ragged performance in a series of divertissements in the first act.
Lubovitch’s choreography is at its best when it defies convention. In a macho pas de deux in the second act, the manipulative Iago turns an emasculated Othello in the way a male partner spins a ballerina. In the final act, Othello lifts Desdemona on outstretched arms as in a crucifixion. The dancing is powerful and crystal clear, lip-synching the Bard’s words.
Othello, A Dance in Three Acts
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago
Tickets $31 – $152 at Joffrey Tower box office at 10 E. Randolph St.; Auditorium Theatre box office; by phone at (800) 982-2787; or online at ticketmaster.com
Through May 5, 2013
Photos: Herbert Migdoll