Tag Archives: shakespeare

Otherworldly Othello at The Joffrey Ballet

25 Apr

Chicago rocks my world and the Joffrey Ballet is a huge part of the earthshaking. The opening performance of Othello, choreographed by Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch was by far one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this year. I thought I loved the DVD (and I still do) but the opportunity to see it live on a prestigious company like the Joffrey for the first time was something else. And not just the performance itself, but attending the Joffrey Ballet yielded something new—I even received a swanky electronic press kit complete with bios and photos on a CD (a commodity of pure class if you ask me) and I was immediately impressed by how accommodating the Joffrey is to the press (if I could even call myself that!). Like any non-profit arts organization, they want to make themselves known, and I appreciate that they make it easy, so three cheers to the public relations and media team for outstanding operations! To feel respected as a writer was a tremendously generous gift.

Meanwhile, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, a grand hall gleaming with the Midas touch and illuminated by vast arches of incandescent lights, provided a venue more than worthy of a great Shakespearean tragedy. Lubovitch’s Othello loosely follows a distilled summation of Shakespeare’s play, taking necessary plot details and making some alterations in order to make the story compatible with ballet. Though the ballet picks up partway through the play, the meatier elements of Othello the Moor’s marriage to the noblewoman Desdemona, the resentment from his ensign Iago, a sinister plan of betrayal framing Desdemona for infidelity with Othello’s lieutenant Cassio, and subsequent death for pretty much everyone involved are all present (Cassio is executed, Iago murders his wife and Desdemona’s attendant Emilia, Othello kills Desdemona, Othello commits suicide, and the villain outlives them all). There are many times in movies, art, etc. where I find people try too hard to be dark and dramatic but certainly not here—it just is. Lubovitch certainly knows theatre and he succeeded in creating this grisly and macabre world without resorting to any form of antics, which reigned supreme with a refreshing authenticity.

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Lubovitch was definitely aided by the score, composed by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal (I have to geek out for a moment and mention that Interview with the Vampire is one of my FAVORITE film scores). One of the best things about Othello is not the fact that Goldenthal actually wrote a part for alto flute (apologies for geeking out again) but that a contemporary choreographer brought to life an untapped, non-fairy tale libretto and utilized an original score by a contemporary composer. Though the aesthetic of this ballet has modern elements, it still follows the story ballet tradition, and is arguably the most phenomenal ballet to have done so in the past couple of decades. I can’t praise Lubovitch’s storytelling abilities enough and find it interesting that while he did work professionally as a ballet dancer (as well as other forms of dance), he didn’t necessarily have a famed career as a performer. Still, he did study under ballet great Antony Tudor at Juilliard, but diversified his studies with modern dance artists like Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, and Martha Graham, the multi-faceted influences woven into his education very much apparent in his choreography. If Lubovitch was a dancing smorgasbord (er, not literally), Goldenthal was something of a musical equivalent, composing concert works, ballets, film scores, Broadway musicals, and more. They both had lives, work, and perspectives outside of ballet and it made the ballet they fashioned together all the more compelling.

I would go as far as to say that the non-balletic choreography Lubovitch created were the most fascinating. One of my favorite steps had three Venetian dancers (danced jovially by Erica Lynette Edwards, Amber Neumann, and Kara Zimmerman) perform a simple pencil turn en pointe, a simple pirouette with a straight body but the choreography called for a flexed foot instead of a pointed one, and while I often find that the flexed foot can be overused simply because it’s considered a “modern aesthetic” and therefore automatically makes a piece seem “edgier”, it wasn’t at all trite in that moment and even surprised me. And then there’s the tarantella of Act II, where women and men rapturously celebrate the latter group’s safe return to a seaport in Cyprus…let’s just say there are times in ballet where it can be said that the choreography given to the corps de ballet is actually far more interesting than that given to the dancers in the lead roles. From a purely movement based perspective, the corps work was hands down the pinnacle of excitement. To see a bunch of ballerinas let their hair down and throw themselves into a wild style of movement with reckless abandon was great fun. With undulating spines and dynamic jumps stripped of the virtuosity that we expect of classical ballet, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral urge to join them.

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

The colossal Fabrice Calmels, towering at least a head above the rest of the cast gave a foreboding presence to the title role. It’s not so easy for a 6’5” guy to dance because that’s a lot of musculature and a high center of gravity to throw around but Calmels was very much in control of his performance and psychologically deep into the character. The diminutive April Daly was so tiny in his arms as Desdemona, with the beauty and appearance of fragility like a porcelain doll, but with a great deal of emotional integrity. To show a full range of romance, resolve, and resignation only scratched the surface at what was indeed a masterful performance by her. I also quite enjoyed Aaron Rogers as Cassio, who had a certain elasticity to his arms and hands that finished every movement. My friend I attended with noted how he used his head to look up and out at his surroundings, not presenting only frontally to the audience, but really observing the world around him and really living in that moment. But let’s be real—the entire cast (with Matthew Adamczyk as a sleazy Iago, Valerie Robin as a skittering and pitiable Emilia), was fantastic and showed a marvelous union of ideas and energy. Combined with Lubovitch’s narrative talents, my mind never wandered for a second, and I found myself engaged the entire time.

It’s hard to believe the Joffrey Ballet will retire Othello from the active repertory (although I find the wording of that statement unclear…what is active vs. inactive repertory? Will they never perform it again? Will they simply put it on hold until they activate it again? I’m not sure), but with several performances remaining through the weekend and next, limited opportunities exist. I only wish I could be in Chicago still, to see the Joffrey’s outstanding Othello once (or twice) more, to relive the mighty drums that make your heart explode, and observe other dancers in the company taking flight in various debuts in one of America’s finest achievements in theatrical ballet. To miss out is a tough pill to swallow, but after all is said and done, the optimist in me wonders if maybe a final bow with the Joffrey could mean passage for the Moorish martyr to unmarked territory, and the lurid wonder that is Othello can indulge the fancy of new audiences.

Fabrice Calmels's suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels’s suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

JeRoméo et JuLesleyette

15 Feb

Much like that scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’, when Treebeard and his fellow Ents took an exceptionally long time to decide that the hobbits Merry and Pippin were not, in fact, orcs, deciding which cast of dancers to see at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette required a serious amount of deliberation. Between newly minted principal dancer James Moore partnered with spritely Kaori Nakamura, the luminous Carla Körbes with princely Seth Orza, not to mention a one-night-only guest performance by former PNB dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite (now dancers with Maillot’s own company in Monte Carlo), the selection was beyond an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I had to go with the underdogs, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, who would only perform the title roles once for a Saturday matinee (and they delivered!). Although it’s unlikely that other audience members mulled over their casting choices as tediously as I did, the house was the most full I’ve ever seen for a matinee performance, an extraordinary feat considering the fact that the Pantastico/Postlewaite performance later that night completely sold out (bravo, Seattle!).

Obviously, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is the perfect ballet to have in Seattle, because it truly satisfies the entire spectrum of dancegoers. The typical model for ballet companies these days is to brandish the war horses in full length, classical story ballets to appease the regular ballet-goers and coax people who generally don’t attend the ballet to do so (thanks to our human need to be told stories), and then leave it to mixed repertory programs to present a greater variety that finds appeal in diversified but niche audiences, namely those with more eclectic tastes in contemporary dance. Historically, modern dance has eschewed the narrative and naturally, the vast majority of contemporary dance are shorter pieces that are easily incorporated into a mixed bill. Still, the question needed to be asked if modern styles of dance could in fact tell a proper story and fortunately, a handful of choreographers have answered the call. Some have taken on original stories or previously unused ones, while others have re-imagined ballet classics and although the results may be hit-or-miss depending so heavily on an individual audience member’s tastes, the exploration is an important part of the evolution of dance. Roméo et Juliette comfortably sits right on the nexus of classical and contemporary here in Seattle, where pretty much everybody loves it. Based on what I’ve heard (“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves, sir, honest!”), it just fits with the energy of the city.

I’ve only recently started warming up to any ballet version of Shakespeare’s tragedy (which, if you’ve followed my blog for some time, or had the displeasure of discussing R&J with me on Twitter, you’ll know that there’s some history behind this, and why things have changed is a long story that I’ll have to tell you another day), but I was quite excited to see Maillot’s take on it, after being inoculated with the balcony pas de deux from PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ mixed bill last year (that time I saw Nakamura/Postlewaite dance the pas de deux). That scene remains my favorite part, for its youthful idealization of love, in the way that it’s sometimes silly, sometimes clumsy and awkward, sometimes carnal in its eroticism, and yet it incorporates these ravishing moves that are just as sensuous and adult as something you’d see in a more conventional production of R&J. In that sense, Maillot’s choreography achieves an honesty that others don’t, because his is not an adult ideal of love that draws on nostalgia. I can almost imagine a teenager choreographing that pas de deux his or herself, because it has the elements of emotional maturity with mimicry as the young couple emulates their elders. There’s a lift in particular that I have to gush about because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, where Romeo tosses Juliet around his waist and catches her as she wraps her arm around his neck, and they spin in circles, which makes your heart just fall into a pit in your stomach. I highly recommend watching the entire following video where PNB dancers talk about the principal roles, but if you’re impatient like me, you can see the lift at 1:29.

Anyway, there were a lot of things I loved about Maillot’s choreography—his use of gesture is a feast for the eyes and his phrasing so naturally picks up on the peculiarities of Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Theatrically speaking, Maillot’s production has a cinematic feel to it, complete with opening credits, a narrator, and slow motion death scenes (oh yes, he went there). Of the three, the narrator was an artistic liberty I took a major issue with—the narrator being Friar Lawrence, who basically replays the tragedy to the audience from his mind’s eye. The reason I felt this way is uninterestingly elementary, but I just felt overwhelmed with different perspectives. So you have this incredible story written by Shakespeare, as imagined by Maillot, but then narrated by Friar Lawrence, on top of dancers’ unique interpretations of the roles, which can even be influenced by the repetiteurs who stage the work. It was strangely overwhelming for a production that finds its beauty in purity, and I felt adding yet another voice convoluted the message (in addition to occasionally being unclear as to whether the Friar was actually present, or taking a stroll down memory lane). It’s sure to be a point of controversy for any traditionalist view on R&J, although in Seattle, there’s not a major dance version to compare it to so I’d imagine New York will have a much more visceral reaction upon its arrival for the company’s touring performances.

Principal Karel Cruz on the role of Friar Lawrence, explaining it way better than I can:

There were a couple of scenes I also felt were on the long side, but overall I appreciate Maillot’s creativity, and its presence in repertories around the world and popularity speaks volumes. I absolutely loved watching Rausch and Tisserand, as I think they have a chic chemistry—in past performances I’ve seen her as that cool-as-a-cucumber type dancer with pristine technique, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see her unleash in something so dramatic. The contrast is so dynamic with the flow of Maillot’s gestural choreography juxtaposed against a perfect ballet arabesque, and it really highlighted Rausch’s full range of ability as a dancer. And Tisserand is an irresistible charmer, boyish at times and yet quite valiant, as gifted an actor as he is a jumper. I do believe it was his first time performing the full ballet, and you never would’ve known it—he’s simply a natural Romeo. A great Romeo needs his wingmen though, and I have to say that Jonathan Poretta as Mercutio, and Benjamin Griffiths as Benvolio were absolutely delightful—I think New York audiences will really get a kick out of their performances. Although Orza will dance Romeo at City Center, it’s a shame they won’t get to see his menacing Tybalt—a thoroughly scary bully (who I think had something going on with Lady Capulet? Her major solo comes upon his death, where she undoes her hair, flinging it wildly about in an anguish that surpasses the grief she later shows for her own daughter, suggesting that her “nephew” was something more to her. I saw Maria Chapman as Lady Capulet and she was wild!).

I look forward to hearing peer reactions as they trickle in from the East coast in the next couple of days. I think I’ve arrived at the conclusion that for me, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette didn’t fully resonate, as I left the theatre not feeling especially bonded to the work. The ending—well, we all KNOW how R&J ends, but Maillot’s particular enactment of it left me a little confused—it had me thinking rather than feeling, which is generally not how I experience dance when given the opportunity to be in my element. Even if it never really makes its way on my list of favorites, I do think it’s a wonderful ballet and in time, I hope to have the opportunity to see it again…in ten, twenty, who-knows-how-many years, I would hope to be a different person in many ways and experiencing Romeo et Juliette at a later age could teach me a great deal about what changes took place—a truly remarkable gift of a work of art that you may not necessarily understand the first time around.