Review: Othello (Joffrey Ballet Chicago)

April 28, 2013
Chicago Theater Beat
Lauren Whalen

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“It was just a stupid scarf!” I heard an audience member remark after Othello. She’s right: in some ways, the mayhem started with a piece of fabric, and all issues could have been cleared with a simple, honest conversation. At the same time, she touched on what makes Othello such a universal story, and a popular one. (CST extended its run of Othello: The Remix, and it’s not just because of the hip-hop.) Who hasn’t experienced love, jealousy, betrayal, or all of the above? The core of Othello is its base emotions – and thanks to gloriously haunting music, flawless choreography and the magnificent Joffrey dancers, Lar Lubovitch’s ballet rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy is not to be missed.

 Herbert Migdoll)Noble Moor and military hero Othello (Fabrice Calmels) is head-over-heels in love with new wife Desdemona (April Daly) – so much, that he forgets to watch his back. Meanwhile, his ensign Iago (Matthew Adamczyk) is plotting to ruin Othello’s life in a grand scheme that involves Othello’s trusted compatriot Cassio (Aaron Rogers), the flamboyant Bianca (Anastacia Holden) and Iago’s long-suffering wife Emilia (Valerie Robin). It starts with a scarf, builds with a few well-placed thoughts and misinterpretations and culminates in a terrible (and thoroughly avoidable) end.

When I first saw this Othello in 2009, I wondered how exactly it would work. Iago manipulates Othello with words, and ballet is largely nonverbal. Lubovitch’s genius interpretation conveys the plot points without relying too heavily on pantomime. Act II, when most of the damage is done, is a tarantella: a medieval European dance named for the tarantula spider and outlawed by authorities for reportedly causing insanity. As Bianca leads the citizens of Cyprus – where Othello is now commander – Iago works his ugly magic and Othello grows more and more paranoid, seeing a romance between Cassio and Desdemona that doesn’t exist. It’s beautiful and terrible to watch, and lingered in my mind four years ago when I first saw the ballet, and again this past weekend.

All of Lubovitch’s choreography is just as poetic, from the commedia wedding dance in Act I to the horrifying final coda. Elliot B. Goldenthal’s score (played by Chicago Philharmonic) is positively Shakespearean, with epic percussive highs and unforgettable lows. George Tsypin’s scenery and Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design evolve with the story, from endless light and air to barren darkness.

The principal dancers (supported by Joffrey’s terrific ensemble) create incredible energy and evoke genuine pathos. Rogers’ Cassio is sweetly innocent and good-hearted, and Holden’s always-delightful showmanship takes on a new sensuality. Robins’ Emilia is sympathetic from beginning to end: even as she takes reluctant part in the deception, it’s so clearly because of her blind love for her husband Iago. Adamczyk is the consummate villain, every movement infused with sinister motivation – he doesn’t utter a sound, but I could hear Iago’s evil cackle and the wheels turning in his demented mind. Desdemona is Daly’s role: her tiny stature and perpetually sad face sometimes work against her but are absolutely appropriate for the Moor’s doomed wife. And Calmels gives a tour de force performance. His Othello is physically intimidating, emotionally vulnerable, the portrait of passion and a cautionary tale of following instinct.

Othello is a universal story, and a frightening one. Thankfully, most stories of love, lust and falsification don’t have such a disturbing end, but it’s enough to know they could. Joffrey’s stellar production of Lubovitch’s masterpiece is a must-see for balletomanes and Shakespeare fans alike – and a last chance, as the ballet will be retired from Joffrey’s active repertory after closing. It’s the story of a scarf, and everything tied up in it. Go.