Othello returns to The Joffrey Ballet stage one last time

April 21, 2013
Donna Robertson


2013 is the year of Shakespeare’s Othello in Chicago. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Othello: Remix has been extended through June 15, the Lyric Opera will perform Othello in the fall of 2013, and beginning Wednesday, April 24 (the day after Shakespeare’s birthday), The Joffrey Ballet concludes its 2012-13 season with choreographer Lar Lubovitch’s three-act dance, Othello, in celebration of native Chicagoan Lubovitch’s 70th birthday this year. This production represents the last time The Joffrey Ballet will perform this work before it is retired from the active repertory.

Othello was created in 1997 as a co-commission between American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. In 2009, the dance was premiered by The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, receiving unanimous acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director of The Joffrey Ballet, recalled that “Othello was the first full-length I introduced to the Joffrey in 2009 and is certainly a masterwork of narrative dance in the new century.”

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Mr. Wheater explained that this production, which blends classical ballet and modern dance to convey a dramatic story of passion, jealousy, ambition, and betrayal, “tells the tragic Shakespearian story using bold contemporary movement rather than words or pantomime. We watch the tragedy unfold, helpless to prevent the stunning, dramatic conclusion.”

Shakespeare’s play tells the story of Othello, a general serving the state of Venice, who weds the young noblewoman Desdemona in a controversial union among high society because of Desdemona’s Catholic heritage and Othello’s Islamic faith. At their wedding, Othello presents Desdemona with a handkerchief, passed down through his family since the time of Egyptian queens and believed to ensure its possessor of eternal love and fidelity. However, Iago, a senior ensign under Othello, becomes enraged when passed over for promotion and quietly plots vengeance against Othello by spinning a web of deceit, with the handkerchief at its center, thus ensnaring Othello with rage and jealousy. In an interview with Mr. Lubovitch, he advised the audience to “watch the journey that the handkerchief takes through the dance. Each time it appears, and changes hands, the story is carried further forward to its terrible conclusion.”

When I asked Mr. Lubovitch about the process of adapting a play for dance, he explained that Shakespeare’s Othello “lends itself to being depicted in dance because it can be told in pictures. Unlike many other plays by Shakespeare, it is the actions the characters take through which the story is widely known . . . these basic big actions can be captured in pictures. In addition, the main characters are not subtly drawn . . . These are extreme characters who take powerful actions and display big emotions. These are the ideal ingredients for dance, which has a unique ability to capture states of emotion through movements that embody human behavior as depicted through the actions they are given to do. Choreography, at its best, speaks to the human heart, on a level that is beyond words; it is understood through the eyes.”

Othello is set to a score by Oscar® winner Elliot Goldenthal with live orchestral accompaniment provided by The Chicago Philharmonic, led by Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck.

A versatile composer, Mr. Goldenthal creates works for orchestra, theatre, opera, ballet, and film. He won an Academy Award® and a Golden Globe® for Best Original Score for Frida in 2003 and has received several Tony® and Grammy Award® nominations. He was also named one of the two finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in music for his original three-act opera Grendel. On Tuesday, April 23, Mr. Goldenthal will be inducted into The New York Foundation for the Arts’ Hall of Fame.

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Goldenthal and explore the process of composing music for a ballet. When I asked him how composing for a ballet is different from composing for the theater and film, he replied that they are more similar than different, because all three involve collaborating rather than writing from scratch, in the abstract, as he would do for orchestral pieces. Here, there is a pre-existing structure which includes a structure of expectations. For example, when composing the music for Othello, he wrote the music first, and then Mr. Lubovitch would respond with comments such as “the adagio you just wrote is too long for a solo; a human body will be exhausted” or “I need something more muscular here – can you do that?” So, there is a framework within which the composition develops and continual communication between the collaborators shapes and reshapes the process and the product. In Othello, he found the ensemble pieces to be more challenging than duets and solos in terms of coming up with strategies to make the practical work with the story. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Goldenthal shared that “I especially love hearing the music and dance in the first rehearsals where there are no settings.”

Lar Lubovitch leads the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York City, which he founded 44 years ago. He received a Tony® Award nomination in 1987 for his musical staging of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical, Into the Woods, and in 1996 he created the musical staging (and two new dances) for the Tony® Award-winning Broadway revival of The King and I. He has also made a significant contribution to the advancement of choreography in the field of ice-dancing by creating dances for several Olympic gold medalists and choreographing a full-length ice-dancing version of The Sleeping Beauty. In 2007, he founded the Chicago Dancing Company, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to present a wide variety of excellent dance and build dance audiences in his native Chicago. Lubovitch has choreographed over 100 dances for his own company and other companies around the world.

The Joffrey Ballet presents Othello in ten performances only at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 East Congress Parkway, April 24 – May 5. Single tickets, which range from $31 to $152, are available at The Joffrey Ballet’s Box Office in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, the Auditorium Theatre Box Office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at (800) 982-2787, or online.

The complete performance schedule is as follows: Wednesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm; Friday, April 26 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, April 27 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, April 28 at 2 pm; Thursday, May 2 at 7:30 pm; Friday, May 3 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, May 4 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sunday, May 5 at 2 pm.