San Francisco Ballet


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

March 1, 2002
Mary Ellen Hunt

With all the controversy surrounding the production of Lar Lubovitch's Othello which was presented by the San Francisco Ballet last week, it would be difficult to evaluate this production on its own merits. It will be immortalized on television, with the controversially non-controversial choice of Desmond Richardson as the lead, and it carries the imprimatur of two major American dance companies, but is it any good? As with many productions, I can say unreservedly that this is a ballet with interesting music, beautiful sets and adequate choreography and its success will depend entirely on who is dancing it and what they can make of it.

On Friday night, Cyril Pierre and Lucia Lacarra took on the leading roles of Othello and his wife Desdemona with Damian Smith playing Iago with a crafty glee, and Sherri LeBlanc as Emilia, his wife.

Frankly with all the brouhaha over the casting (Should it be a black actor playing "the Moor"? Will audiences accept a white male in black face on stage? And what of the Asian Desdemona?), it never seemed to occur to anyone to simply have Othello be played by whomever it was played, black, white, brown or yellow, without resorting to the questionable "Al Jolson" look. In the program notes, Lubovitch notes that in Giraldi Cinthio's original novella (on which the Shakespeare play was based), "race is not an issue." Why make it an issue now? This ballet could have played exactly the same without any indication as to ethnic background. It is the story of a man driven to jealousy and murder by the envy and scheming of an unscrupulous friend. Why does Othello have to be black? Why should Desdemona be white? The confusion about whether or not we would have non-traditional casting was all compounded by the appearance of Chidozie Nzerem (the only black dancer in the company) in the corps. It made Pierre's makeup only too obvious.

The theatrical sets by George Tsypin along with imaginative projections created by Wendall K. Harrington, are impressive and modern, for the most part. I could have done without the too literal and anachronistic projection of the ship as they came to the port in Cyprus, but that was only one moment in a whole evening of beautifully architectural backgrounds. The score, by Elliot Goldenthal certainly gave the choreographer a tapestry to work with, and included some fascinating effects from instruments, such as contrabass clarinets, a contrabassoon and a glass armonica, about which my more musical companion had to educate me. Still, it seemed to me to be a little too relentlessly driving for the length of the ballet. We were barely given a respite for the entire two plus hours, but then, the strength of the music underscored the primal feeling that I suspect Lubovitch meant to evoke with his choreography.

Creating a full-evening length ballet is no mean feat, and Lubovitch deserves credit for assembling quite a production, and for putting together some very nice moments. Nevertheless, one feels that this Othello will never be a classic. The story is not particularly clearly told, and the choreography, while interesting, is entirely dependent on the dramatic skills of the individual dancer to elevate it to "compelling".

As the work opens, we are shown the wedding of Othello and Desdemona set in an abstracted version of the Doges palace in Venice. The percussive music elicits an articulated style of dancing, and each of the leads I saw that evening interpreted it in a different fashion, which helped to establish their characters right off the bat. Pierre's approach was brutish and heavy, perhaps appropriate for the man of action rather than brains, and he sharply contrasted with both Lacarra, as his child-like wife, and Smith, who had clarity to his movement, even as he softened the edges to his steps. Smith's portrayal was without doubt, the winner of the evening, and he made every scene he was in worthwhile. His Iago never made a move without calculating it and covering the whole process with a cool slickness that was deliciously malevolent. He was not a man to be trifled with and one had the sense that there was no one onstage who was up to the challenge of dealing with him, least of all the very youthful and spirited Cassio, danced beautifully by Stephen Legate. I began to think of Cassio as the "Mercutio" role, against Smith's "Tybalt" role, partly because there were so many jesting movements that seemed to be lifted straight out of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. What was not like MacMillan though, was Lubovitch's neglect of the musical cues. There would be a great crescendo in the score, and onstage the dancers would be dancing on as if nothing had happened. It felt like several dramatic moments were missing, and I found myself scanning the stage to see if some small event were happening that I ought to be noticing. If there were one, I definitely missed it.

The wedding dances as a whole, did not look to be much fun. The dancers ran though their paces, some even smiling, but the propulsive nature of the score demanded a more abstract look on their faces. Then too, Pierre's almost feral attack into a pas de deux with Lacarra made me really wonder if this was a wedding and if he even liked her. Possibly a more effective way to build the performance would have been to make Othello's character a little more tender at the beginning, so as to establish that he really loved his wife. Their pas de deux was quite difficult, with much running and complex lifts, but in the end, it seemed to lead to nowhere, as it didn't reveal any more about their characters than before.

In this Othello it is perhaps, more up to the dancers to take the choreography and invest it with meaning. Certainly Smith's solo and later his duet with LeBlanc demonstrated this. The choreography had him mainly stalking and slithering about, but he managed to infuse every gesture with meaning and contained rage. Whenever Smith was present, and even when he was not, we felt his eyes taking everything in. It was most unsettling because I was willing to bet that when he went offstage, he continued to fix Othello and Cassio in his gaze. He and Le Blanc clearly had decisions made for each moment in their choreography and their sense of purpose completely encompassed the telling of the story. By contrast, Lacarra had a disconcertingly presentational style, by which I mean she was less the devoted wife to Othello, and more the woman playing the devoted wife to Othello. Sometimes her gestures didn't even make sense. When Othello demanded to know where the all-important handkerchief was, she looked in her sleeves, in her dress and then...under her skirt.

The corps seemed to fare better in the second act. There was a truly affecting moment at the start, in which they surrounded Lacarra, Le Blanc and Legate like undulating waves against a projection of stormy seas. I was a little disappointed when they arrived at Cyprus and suddenly looked less like water nymphs and more like galley slaves to be sold in a Turkish market. Some of the partnering was peculiarly awkward, although I give Nzerem credit for being gentlemanly enough to adjust his partner's costume to a more attractive line at one point. Still, the sets were imposing, and I especially liked the stark lines of the ropes in the background. A solo for Kristin Long, as Bianca, a woman of questionable background, was lively and she attacked the role with her usual zest. In the trio in which Smith contrived to plant the handkerchief on Cassio via Bianca, the three worked well, if not seamlessly together. Smith was the undisputed master of the situation and Legate was gracious enough to allow him to be that.

It is hard to say whether this story is too thin for a three act ballet because it's too thin, or because there exists a more compressed version that distilled it down to the essentials so beautifully. I surely could have done without the semi-sexual pas de deux between Iago and Othello in the third act. Having already established that Iago loved power, there was no need to add the complication of him loving Othello as well. Perhaps this twist was to demonstrate yet another way for Iago to exercise control over Othello, to humiliate him further, although I began to think I might be reading too much into it all when the duet with Emilia and Desdemona took place. After all, no one thinks that Emilia is making a sexual advance to Desdemona when she embraces her.

It all ends exactly the way you'd think it would, even if you don't know the story, with the requisite lapse into melodrama and I felt, unsurprisingly, unfulfilled at the finish. Maybe it will look better on TV.

A word about Lacarra's appearance really should be made, not as a personal attack, but as a genuine indication of alarm. While her dancing was clean, her thinness is, to say the least, a distraction. Less so in the first two acts where the costumes largely hide her figure, but very obviously prominent in the last act where she is more exposed. On the whole she is so unusual a dancer that one might be inclined to think that it was her flexibility that makes her look at times strangely alien, but it is also the extreme attenuation of her body. I have seen performances of Lacarra's that I have enjoyed, and I wouldn't want to decry her abilities as an interpretive dancer, but I feel she could be so much more effective, stronger, and audiences would not worry about her continuing health.


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Edited by Marie.

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