Othello Cannot Survive Nonsensical Melodramatic First Two Acts and One-Dimensional Iago

Ugh. I’m so angry. Just got back from seeing the NY premier of ABT’s Othello and I should probably wait to blog until I’ve gathered my thoughts better, and I may well change my mind at some point in the future, but sometimes it’s more fun when you’re raging, flaming mad. Everyone who knows me and reads my blog knows how much I love ABT and have never ever trashed anything they’ve done. But my initial reaction toward this is repulsion. I love a good drama, but I feel like this was more melodrama and it left me feeling cheap, man-hating, and repelled.

I don’t know whom exactly to blame — whether it’s choreographer Lar Lubovitch’s fault for not fleshing things out better or explaining to his dancers what his ballet was all about, or whether it’s the fault of the dancers — mainly Sascha Radetsky. Radetsky danced the part of Iago, and he played him as complete, pure evil, no complexity whatsoever. Completely black and white. I’m sorry but Shakespeare’s character is so much more complicated, and Radetsky has nowhere near the level of artistry, sophistication and intellect to pull it off. And he is going to need Botox for that damn, deep-ass frown he insisted on wearing the whole way through. He’s got to have a permanent crevice in his forehead by now. I need to see David Hallberg in this part — he has everything that Radetsky does not, and he should not be playing Othello; he should be playing who is really the most important character in this play because if someone gives this one a dumb-ass one-dimensional intepretation, the whole thing is reduced to the level of a cartoon. And you DON’T reduce Shakespeare to a cartoon, you just DON’T.

I know Lubovitch keeps insisting he’s not going by the Shakepeare but is working from an earlier source, but guess what, Mr. Lubovitch, we all know Shakespeare, we don’t know the novella by Geraldo Cintio, most of us don’t know the opera by Verdi, everyone knows Shakespeare, so you’re getting compared to him.

Which is not at all to say Shakespeare can’t be taken in a different direction, and Lubovitch clearly gives the Iago / Othello interaction a homoerotic motif. I usually don’t do this, but I read some reviews of this ballet before I went tonight and one reviewer from Critical Dance noticed this theme. When I read her critique I rolled my eyes, thinking, oh sure, anytime there’s any kind of dancing between two men, it’s got to be considered “homoerotic.” But after seeing it — she’s totally right. And if she’s not, Lubovitch has some serious re-working to do. This makes me think that Lubovitch tried to give Iago some depth here and Radetsky just wasn’t getting it. NO MORE RADETSKY as Iago — use David, please Kevin, use an intellectually and artistically sophisticated dancer in this role — please! Jose Carreno could do it too… I know Ethan Stiefel and Max Beloserkovsky are supposed to dance him as well, but unfortunately I have to miss them. If anyone goes, please tell me how they stack up.

Anyway, besides my disgust with Radetsky in this role, my other problem is it really doesn’t pick up until the third Act, and that is way too damn late for a full-length ballet to get going. This is mainly because the first two acts don’t make a lot of sense; they just wiz by — I think the intermissions were longer than those acts.

The ballet opens with Othello dancing a solo, then the corps come out and do these puppet-like moves. Why puppet-like? I have no idea? It’s never explained. There are all kinds of odd, contorting, modernist, angular moves. They just don’t make sense. If they are there just to set the general tone that something is very awry, they’re way too obvious. Another ridiculously obvious thing: in the second Act, when Othello is on his throne having a nervous breakdown over what he wrongly perceives is Desdemona’s infidelity (and it is clear, contrary to Alessandra Ferri’s interpretation, as discussed below, it is wrong), the back of the throne is made of glass and it has a huge mar in it, as if a rock has been thrown at it. Has anyone heard of the concept of subtlety? Good lord, I mean really; you just want to laugh! In fact, there are creepily weird mirrors all over the place — why?

In the second Act, the frenzied tarantella (a dance that was popular at the time and considered by the Church to have satanic connections) is performed by the prostitute Bianca and other women and men standing around on the dock awaiting the return of Othello’s fleet (which has just defeated the Turks). So, Othello and the men of his command are still out to sea en route to home, but somehow Othello is running around stage carrying Desdemona over his head in one gigantic lift. Why? This is the scene where Desdemona, while dancing, will lose the handkerchief that Othello gave her at their wedding symbolizing her faithfulness to him, that Iago eventually gets his hands on and plants on Cassio — the other man — in order to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity. So what is Othello doing running around stage with her? And while Adrienne Schulte is gorgeously tantalizing as Bianca (she makes all these intentionally broken lines — legs bent, etc., to illustrate the foreboding ugliness that will result from her actions), the rest of the dance is more repulsive than in any way sexy.

Oh, and going back a minute to the beginning, also making no sense is the choreography up front. In their wedding pas de deux when they’re in love, when Othello has no reasons to suspect Desdemona of anything, he still holds her head tightly, aggressively between his hands as if about to break her neck. In this scene it’s supposed to be a loving gesture and I guess also a foreshadowing of what’s to come, but it’s too obvious.

The best thing about the ballet was that Julie Kent (as Desdemona) and Marcelo danced gorgeously together –so much better than he danced with Alessandra in the excerpt on opening night. The problem with opening night, as I now realize Alastair Macaulay was getting at, is that, poetic as Alessandra is, she pulled that willing-victim schtick straight out of her butt. After now seeing the whole, I have NO IDEA what she was thinking — that is NOWHERE in the text, nowhere in the choreography, nowhere in the first two acts, and she completely made it up and Marcelo had no idea what in the world she was doing and couldn’t keep up with her. Julie’s Desdemona tried with all her heart to convince Othello of her innocence right up until the end; she loved him the whole time. No stupid childishly kinky crap that has no place. That’s why real partners work together and two people who may be great on their own just don’t. If Alessandra was going to do some crazy interpretation, she might have let her partner in on it beforehand. Alessandra’s admitted that she doesn’t practice with the rest of the company very much and it shows unfortunately…

The only other thing I have to say about Marcelo — not to be nitpicky, but why does he always need to raise his free arm in the air during a trick? Does he need to show that he can lift or hold Julie with one hand, or does he think it makes a good line? At one point, he didn’t even get his free arm all the way up, and it looked very odd. He held her in a lunge with one arm, the other shot up half-assed and failed to make a complete line. Then, he threw her into a lunge supporting her with the other arm, and the opposite hand shot up for five seconds making a likewise incomplete line. With his large bone structure, the free arm in the air doesn’t always look very beautiful. It’d look far more romantic if he left both arms wrapped around his ballerina. Who cares if he can hold the woman with his pinkie if it looks unnatural and off?…

One last note on the music. Very melodramatic, very loud, booming, frightening. Don’t sit near the orchestra pit. I was in the second row and I feel like I’ve just come from a rock concert my eardrums are so numb…

There was this gross older guy shouting, “yeah, baby” really horrendously pervertedly when Adrienne and Julie came out for their curtain calls. He really created a scene and several people looked his way. On the way out of the house he gave me the eye and I worried he was going to grope me from behind. If he would have done so I swear I would have found the super-human strength to push him to the ground, nail his crotch to the floor with my stiletto heel while calling the police on my cell phone. Something about this ballet made me feel dirty, disgusted, and repulsed at all men; I can’t help it — even Marcelo. I feel like between Lubovitch and Radetsky, they ruined Marcelo, ruined Shakespeare, ruined my night…

Okay, calming down: in general, the first two acts need to be fleshed out much much MUCH more, Iago’s motives and love for Othello need to be explored further, Iago needs to be better portrayed, the choreography needs to make sense, and the concept of subtlety needs to be realized. Then perhaps it won’t be flat, one-dimensional, cartoonishly melodramatic, and misogynistic…

Okay, Marcelo acted it really well and he gave the lead a lot of depth and was extremely conflicted and almost killed her by accident. But it’s after 1:00 in the morning and I’m tired and cranky and hating all men right now and that includes Marcelo so screw them all and him too!…

12 Comments

  1. I personally loved Othello; it was an interesting modern twist on a classic ballet, which Lubovitch is good at. Sorry you didn’t like it! It was slow (yes, I agree), but I savored the angst, the music, and I think I saw a great cast…Carlos Lopez was fabulous as a deliciously evil Iago (Radetsky does leave something to be desired in the acting department, you may want to avoid “Center Stage” if that pisses you off :p), Xiomara is also great at acting (who knew? would love to see her R&J), and Rasta Thomas is the only dancer (I’ve seen) whom I feel is perfectly at home in both classical ballet technique & modern dance. The only other dancer who I feel is *close* is Baryshnikov. I do hope you get to see Othello on Wed evening; however, based on your review…I doubt you want to see O again :)

    You can’t expect a well-rounded “bad guy” in ballet, I think….should we expect our ballet dancers to be great actors as well? Savliev is another common “bad guy” who seems very one-dimensional. (Sorry GEnnadi!) This brings up an interesting point; recently, in opera…the modern trend has been to expect great acting and “thin” opera singers, going against the traditional opera singer (you know, “fat”, voluptuous, and with Viking braids).

    Can we also expect our ballets to incorporate detailed, complicated plotlines? After watching Bayadere…I don’t think so =D. Like you, I also didn’t fully understand the nuances of the Shakespeare story in Othello…but then again, can anyone fully incorporate the details of the story in ballet? I thought Lubovitch did a pretty good attempt at portraying a very complicated story.

    Ferri is an amazing dancer (for me at least) because she is fully passionate and emotional… and you can at least see her fully committed to (try to) portray the story. I am a bit bothered you said that about Ferri…come on!! She is amazing. =)

  2. I’ve never seen the balletic setting of OTHELLO and I have no desire to do so. It sounds like the sort of narrative-laden dance drama that I find so tedious. I have enjoyed much of Goldenthal’s film music – it’s rather operatic – but I can’t imagine watching people dance to it.

    As with NYCB’s recent R & J, OTHELLO raises the question: does a great play logically make a great ballet? Even Balanchine’s masterpiece MIDSUMMER NIGHT’s DREAM skillfully compresses the story into one act and spends Act II in a joyous divertissement while Ashton’s equally enchanting version likewise dispatches with much of the narrative and weaves the story into a swift-moving fantasy.

    You seem pretty hard on Sasha; and wishing more work on David at this point seems sadistic!

  3. “This brings up an interesting point; recently, in opera…the modern trend has been to expect great acting and “thin” opera singers, going against the traditional opera singer (you know, “fat”, voluptuous, and with Viking braids). ”

    The big valkeirie in braids are a fixture of Wagner’s operas. They are not an accurate picture in any way of the remainder of European opera.Thin-ness among opera singers is nothing new. Maria Callas was possibly the best singer of the 20th century (the height of her career was in the 40’s) and she was *skinny*. And it’s not just her, Sofia Scalchi died in 1922 and was also a tiny little thing. I can’t think of any non-Wagnerian sopranos that were considerably heavy. History is full of large tenors, but the women were generally slim and willowy, regardless of the time.

    On the other hand, you’re right about singers needing to be able to act as a new thing. Until maybe 30 years ago, it was totally normal to see singers stop in place, stand up staight, and belt out an aria. On the other hand, I saw Aida at the Cincinnati opera in 2000, and Aida sang one of her arias laying head pointed down on a flight of stairs, it was amazing!

    As for the Shakespeare thing, As I am familiar with Verdi’s Othello, and there too Iago is still a nuanced character. Even if someone choses to play him as purely a “bad guy” – he should always have an air of shaddowy motivations and mystery. Although I can see how it would be hard to work a complicated plot into a ballet, the richness of human body language should make it possible to portray complicated characters, even in a simple story.

  4. Callas was a very large woman when her career began…she underwent an extreme weight-loss in 1953-1954 which resulted in the thin, glamourous woman most people think of when the name “Callas” is mentioned. Many people, including myself, attribute Maria’s early vocal burn-out to a combination of the weight-loss, over-singing, and screwing around with Ari Onassis.

  5. To say she was a “very large woman” is quite an overstatement! She topped out at 200 pounds, but was also very tall, 5’8″. At that height she would have been quite overweight by the standards of the time, but in current clothing, she would probably have worn about a size 12, so nowhere even close to that large, round, stereotype of opera singers.

  6. She was a very large woman compared to the woman she became after the weight loss…though never as obese as Jessye Norman or Jane Eaglen or Ebe Stignani.

  7. I’d like to see ABT’s Othello. I love SFB’s Othello starring Desmond Richardson, Yuan Yuan Tan and Parrish Maynard as Iago. In this case, I didn’t really care about the play vs the ballet since from the opening scene nothing seems familiar. You should rent this version since it was set on those 3 dancers originally. But if you just don’t like the story line, you just don’t like it. Now, you can understand how upset I was when Daria Pavlenko couldn’t keep her balance in Swan Lake b/c it ruined her role and Leonid failing to even do the Coda felt sacreligious.

    I thought Radetsky was great as the bad guy playing Tybalt in R&J, which has no dancing and as Benvolio, which was a good guy. He outdanced David as Romeo in my opinion on David’s 2nd night in a row. I think you should definitely see Sascha as the good guy, Charlie, in Center Stage b/c he is so damn sweet in that role next to the brash Ethan Stiefel as Cooper. Overall, it sounds like the dancers effectively did their job in portraying the evilness that lurks within their character and all of humanity even if it was only one dimensional. Really, if someone is stabbing or strangling me to death, do I care if they’re only being one dimensional during the act? No!

  8. Thanks for the great comments, you guys. I’ve been so busy at work trying to get ready for my trip I haven’t had much time to think, but it is interesting to ponder the differences between what a play and a ballet can each bring to an audience (and opera too). I think the play Othello is way too complicated plot-wise for a ballet to have the exact same plot, with all of the scenes within each Act, but I still think the general story isn’t too complicated, and I still think the characters need to be well-rounded and complex. And, like Natalia said, I think complexity can be expressed through dancing too and not only “acting” — as in facial expressions, miming, etc. Acting can happen through the body as well… I forgot to say a lot of the small things that I liked, such as Marcelo’s standing with his knees completely straight and hyper-extended — looked very harsh; a small detail that helped develop the character. Herman was excellent as well; the role of Cassio just ended up being much smaller than I thought it would after having seen the Works & Process portion at the Guggenheim.

    Lubovitch also said at the W&P that he didn’t feel the need to follow a linear narrative — I remember that now. It makes more sense then, how Othello’s carrying Desdemona all around during Act II when he’s still supposedly out at sea, and why Othello’s holding Desdemona’s head so firmly in his hands that it looks like he’ll twist her neck long before he suspects her of anything, etc. Still, to me, the lack of linear narrative is only an explanation, not an excuse for the drama not making enough sense. I felt like we got to Act III and all of a sudden all of these things had unfolded and there was this great drama that had no past. I didn’t know how we arrived at it, and I really needed to see what motivated Iago and how he convinced Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity. I felt like it was more that we were told that it had happened and were then left only with the final scene as the real drama, without seeing that prior action played out. It just felt really unbalanced. And, even though Marcelo fought against it and did all he could to make the character three-dimensional, I can see how Art (who commented on a former post) and others could see Othello as a big dumb brute who was easily manipulated by others. The manipulation scenes had to be extended, not just the aftermath…

    Anyway, those are my two cents… Oh, and Jennifer, I didn’t so much mean that Alessandra was a horrible dancer — I’d never say something like that! I guess I just meant more that she works differently than some of the others. She really makes these incredible shapes with her body and her dancing is elevated to poetry, while others are more the ‘actors.’ I just didn’t think she and Marcelo fit well together — I feel like she’s more poetry and he’s more personality, I guess to put it simply. And I didn’t think they were operating on the same set of principles last week when they danced that scene together. But that’s not to say they don’t work spectacularly well with others. At first I was disappointed that Alessandra was dancing with Bolle from La Scala for her final performance instead of an ABT guy, but now I guess it makes more sense. Since Julio’s gone and they’re not bringing him back for her farewell (at least not to dance) , I guess it makes sense for her to dance with someone who’s used to partnering her and partners her very well than an ABT guy who she hasn’t danced with much.

  9. Gracia Michelle

    This sentence: “I swear I would have found the super-human strength to push him to the ground, nail his crotch to the floor with my stiletto heel while calling the police on my cell phone.” made me laugh because actually I can imagine you suddenly getting super human powers and doing all that! 😀

    Anyway, it’s topo bad the ballet disappointed you and made you so upset about it. :(
    Just 2 short notes on the Shakespeare thing: 1) if this ballet version wasn’t based on the Shakespeare, then I really don’t think it’s fair that you are blaming Sasha Radetsky for not following Shakespeare well enough. Because if he was NOT doing something, how could he have been doing that *wrong*?
    For all we know the character of Iago WAS one-dimensionally pure evil in the novella that we haven’t read, so until we know, WE are the undereducated ones.
    2) As happy as I am that there are people in the New world who’ve read/seen shakespeare too, I think you are taking him too seriously. The way he was always taking the mickey out of everything in his work, I think he would have loved to have been made a cartoon. 😉

    And I mean, Odile is a pretty one-dimensional character, but that’s what I love so much about her! It’s fun to be bad! Let’s at least hope Sasha Radetsky enjoys it. :)

  10. wow, i’m gone for a day and so much discussion!!

    Natalia and Philip, when I’m talking about “thin” opera singers…I mean, really thin…not 200 pounds, 5’8″ thin like Maria Callas..but almost ballerina thin. Check out Natalie Dessay in this photo (who originally was an actress, NOT an opera singer! :o)…and Anna Nebtreko, who is lauded as much for her beauty as well as her singing/acting talents. (Natalia, your last name isn’t Dessay, is it? :))

    Swenson, a standard favorite at the Met for a while…has been ungraciously dropped and not renewed for next season. She has made it clear that she believes it is due to the new trends for thin, young, sexy opera singers. Very sad. My favorite opera singer, Hei-Kyung Hong is not scheduled to perform next season as well. Very very sad.

    btw, Tonya…I liked SR as the mean jailer in Manon. But perhaps it’s because he has that frown on his face for the short period for the small role…instead of for the majority of the performance :)

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