Chicago Dance Review: OTHELLO (The Joffrey Ballet)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 4, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Alas, this is mainly a review of record: This is the final weekend to savor the triumphant revival of the Joffrey Ballet’s Othello. Originally given its world premiere by the American Ballet Theatre in 1997, this “dance in three acts” is fueled by a suitably ferocious score by still-young Elliot Goldenthal. Worth a second viewing, the gorgeous staging and dynamic choreography by Lar Lubovitch transforms Geraldo Cintio’s 1566 story (the same source material for Shakespeare’s 1602 tragedy) into a Renaissance pageant of pomp and passion, aided by Wendall K. Harrington’s backdrop projections of Venetian masterworks and George Tsypin’s foreground of see-through pillars and columns — both used to great effect.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."

At its heart — here more mobile and thus more malevolent — lies the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy that makes the final tragedy all but inevitable.  A giant Moor in any production, Fabrice Calmels moves effortlessly from rhapsodic ardor for April Daly’s diaphanous Desdemona to non-negotiable rage over her presumed betrayal. That, of course, is an elaborate lie engineered by the supple and duplicitous Iago, the real incarnation of toxic envy in this two-hour tour-de-force.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."

The legend of the Moor remains relatively unchanged, except that here Desdemona seems even more helpless as she glimpses the handkerchief that will doom her in another woman’s possession. Since dance is mute, she’s unable to explain away her love token’s seeming infidelity. The staging also elevates Othello to the prominence of the Doge himself, allowing his wedding festivities to be as lavish as Aurora’s in Sleeping Beauty. Harnessing the full clout of the huge Joffrey corps de ballet, this Othello abounds in spectacle — including writhing tarantellas, sailors’ dances (executed by five sprightly Venetian dancers), and swirling court dances in a frescoed great hall.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."

Like a tarantula himself, Matthew Adamczyk’s Iago supplicates, wheedles, and manipulates Calmels’ strapping Moor, his all but homoerotic movements providing a dire motivation of their own. At the same time, Othello’s intractable hatred of Iago is perfectly conveyed in a kind of robotic rage, angular and rigid with a loathing that explodes from every limb in all directions.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."

In contrast, Daly’s delighted dalliances with both her handmaid Emilia (Christine Rocas) and a doting Cassio (Derrick Agnoletti) are innocence itself. That’s no small triumph: With few lyrical outbursts, Goldenthal’s scary score — perfectly distilled by Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic — is heavy with menacing percussion tantrums and an aggressive overlay enough to outdo Prokofiev at his own fearsome game.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."

There’s nothing subtle in Cintio’s story (from Hecatommithi, or Hundred Tales) — so the Joffrey’s ensemble’s frenzied retelling is just another faithful follow-up. No pretty pictures here from classical ballet; just a pummeling of energy, both lovely and lethal: One extreme — Desdemona’s virtue — seems to trigger its own terrible nemesis in Othello via Iago. We can only watch this most riveting of storytelling ballets and ultimately applaud what in real life we’d flee like the plague.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of the Joffrey's "Othello."photos by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet
at the Auditorium Theatre
scheduled to end on May 5, 2013
for tickets, call (800) 982-2787
or visit

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