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Shakespeare continues to attract directors of theatre and film as well as composers of opera and choreographers of ballet. After Romeo and Juliet, Othello is the most appealing of the bard's dramas for composers and choreographers alike—perhaps because such passions as love and jealousy are conveyed more effectively by music and movement than by words. Othello was adapted as an opera by composers Rossini in 1825 and Verdi in 1887 and choreographed as a ballet by Jose Limon (as The Moor's Pavan) in 1949, John Butler in 1976 and Lar Lubovich in 1997. It has challenged modern stage actors from Paul Robeson in 1939 to Laurence Olivier in 1964 and film actors from Orson Welles in 1952 to Laurence Fishburne (the first black actor to play the role on film) in 1995.
Four centuries after Othello, or The Moor of Venice was first performed in 1604, Albertans were fortunate to see the world premiere of renowned contemporary American choreographer Kirk Peterson's adaptation of the bard's ever-relevant portrayal of racial tension and domestic violence, which launched Alberta Ballet's three-year Shakespeare cycle at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary on October 25-27 and the Northern Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton on November 2-3.
Alberta Ballet—which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, under the direction of Jean Grand-Maître and toured China this summer with Grand-Maître's Romeo and Juliet and Who Cares?, choreographed by George Balanchine to music by George Gershwin—has become "a choreographer's company," according to guest choreographer Kirk Peterson, who spent nine weeks setting Othello on the company: "They're like a blank slate for a choreographer."
In Othello, Peterson has created a brilliant ballet that melds many dance forms, including ballet, modern, and ethnic dance. A native of New Orleans, where he studied Caribbean, Flamenco, and jazz (his mother taught tap dancing) as well as ballet, Peterson has created over fifty ballets and adapted several classics. But this is his first full-length Shakespeare ballet. He created a fourteen-minute Othello for the San Francisco Ballet several years ago. So when Grand-Maître invited him to choreograph either Othello or Macbeth, he jumped at the chance to create a full-length version of Shakespeare's drama of jealous passion.
Shakespeare succeeds brilliantly in portraying "the green-eyed monster," as Iago infects Othello with his evil, transforming him from the idealistic lover of Desdemona to a man who itches to "chop her into messes." Compare the bard's version of the murder, where Othello smothers his wife in their bed with his bare hands, with his Italian source from the Hecatommithi by Geraldi Cinthio—in which Othello and Iago cause a sandbag to fall and crush Desdemona as she sleeps—to appreciate Shakespeare's psychological realism.
"I was trying to create a narrative ballet which would be successful in conveying psychological realism through dance movement," says Peterson. He succeeded. To create the visceral power of Othello's jealous agony, Peterson employs the contraction made famous by American modern choreographer Martha Graham, with whom he worked, and also the dramatic movement of his mentor at American Ballet Theatre, Anthony Tudor.
Peterson telescoped the play, omitting Act One and opening with Othello's triumphant arrival in Cyprus, after vanquishing the invading Turks at sea. Bobby Briscoe, who danced the title role on opening night in Edmonton, was a statuesque Othello. To prepare for this challenging role, Briscoe read Shakespeare's play and viewed film versions, including a German silent film version from 1922. Desdemona, danced by Galien Johnston, a native Edmontonian—who, after training at the National Ballet School and dancing with the National Ballet Company and the Hamburg Ballet, wanted to come home—was ravishing. Johnston combined graceful, fluid dancing with great personal charm that guarantees that she will continue to grace the stage in future ballets. Grand-Maître calls her his "Muse."
Both newcomer Bernard Courtot-de Bouteiller and native Edmontonian Kelley McKinlay were brilliant Iagos—Courtot as precise as a rapier and as vicious as a viper, and McKinlay sinister and sadistic in his cruel manipulation of Othello. Jonathan Byrne Ollivier, who danced Othello Saturday night, was as dramatic in his acting as he was impressive in his dancing. The principals were supported by excellent performances by Nicole Caron, Laëtitia Clément, and Blair Puente in the supporting roles.
Peterson's Othello combines intensely dramatic solos, duos and trios with ensemble pieces. He augmented the characters by creating six Furies, extroversions of Othello's inner torment, plus six guards to accompany Othello, giving more dancers a chance to perform and filling the stage with movement. The rapturous pas de deux between Othello and Desdemona were contrasted by powerful duos between the two male leads, as Iago pours his poison into Othello's ear, which are among the most original pas de deux in the ballet repertoire.
The Edmonton Symphony under the direction of Peter Dala rose to the challenge of a score that combines rapturous lyricism with cacophonous percussion. Compiled by Peterson from film scores by Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith—who was nominated for eighteen Oscars and won for The Omen, one of his nearly 200 film scores—the music expressed the conflicts of the dance dramatically. The primary source was Goldsmith's score for the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, with its rich tapestry of North African motifs. Peterson used Goldsmith's score to create leitmotifs for the characters to match their signature movements.
Designer Sandra Woodall, winner of four Isadora Duncan Awards, drew on memories of a visit with Peterson to a Cairo spice market for rich, autumnal colours of saffron, tangerine, and cinnamon. For Othello's stately robes, she was inspired by the portrait of the Moroccan ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Award-winning designer Alexander Nichols created sumptuous sets to match. Columns and portcullises gradually close in, enmeshing Othello in Iago's machinations. Lighting designed by Pierre Lavoie complemented the sets by casting shadows of roccocco grids on the stage to convey the web in which Iago catches Othello and by creating tableaux that spotlight Iago. The final tableau of Iago hoisted on ropes like a crucifix or a slab of beef in an abatoir, as four torturers commence to whip him to death, is imprinted indelibly on the viewers' retinas.
This brilliant new Othello is bound to attract other ballet companies. Principal male dancers will vie to dance the brilliant roles of Othello and Iago. Alberta was privileged to see it first.
Article by: Nora Foster Stovel
posted:19 Dec 2008
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