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Well-painted passion

The principals carry ABT through its uneven original `Othello' with a thrilling climactic duet.

July 16, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Commissioning -- and programming -- a full-evening ballet by an American choreographer and composer is just as risky today as it was in 1997 when American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet jointly sponsored the creation of "Othello."

This three-act Shakespearean dance drama with choreography by Lar Lubovitch (best known for modern dance one-acts) and music by Elliot B. Goldenthal (known for his film scores) has been seen in Southern California in performances by the San Francisco company on stage and on PBS, but Ballet Theatre hadn't danced it here until this weekend.

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, it received full commitment by everyone from company principals to corps dancers displaying their prowess in major roles. But it remains a problematic collaboration, with the music and movement often disastrously out of touch. In style, it's vaguely contemporary -- but backdated and conservative, not the complete re-imagining of a classic that a Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne or Angelin Preljocaj might have ventured in the same decade.

Depicting Othello and Desdemona's wedding, Act 1 is especially useless, padded with divertissements and lacking the sense of Othello's heroism and deep love that would give him tragic stature when his world begins to collapse. Yes, there's a love duet -- but it's a public statement, showy, none too personal -- and it's completely unsupported by Goldenthal.

In Act 2, the energy and brutality of the music effectively drive the plot and dancing. Here intimate narrative episodes alternate with large-scale corps dances. It's too late to give Othello the grandeur that makes his destruction so horrifying in Shakespeare, but at least the story plays as in Shakespeare's source: as a warning not to get married to someone you don't really know. What's more, the ghost ships and web of ropes conjured up by set designer George Tsypin prove infinitely more atmospheric than the glass-and-metal abstractions that he introduces in other acts.

Act 3 contains Lubovitch's weakest choreography (the bland Iago-Othello duet) along with his most inspired (the murder of Desdemona). In the latter, the simmering partnership between Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg suddenly became well-nigh phenomenal Saturday. The power, the clarity, the dedication in their dancing stayed at the most thrilling level imaginable through a series of daring, intricate lifts -- enough to carry the ballet through its rushed, dull, pantomime conclusion.

In Lubovitch's "Othello," Iago has no facets -- he's transparently evil, first to last. But Maxim Beloserkovsky managed to make his one-note role memorably forceful. As his wife, Emilia, Marian Butler offered a whole spectrum of worried looks and nicely judged outbursts of emotion at key moments.

Lubovitch asks little of Cassio (Othello's lieutenant) other than boyish charm and a lot of jumping, all of which Blaine Hoven delivered capably. But unless the character seems a credible romantic rival for Desdemona, Othello's jealousy becomes ridiculous and he generates more contempt than pity. Lubovitch's fault, not Hoven's.

Used as the choreographic focus of the extended Act 2 tarantella, Kristi Boone exuded a free-spirited flamboyance as Bianca, which also served her well in her mime scenes.

The five divertissement dancers made little effect capering to music thick with pointless dread, but they looked cute in their Ann Hould-Ward party clothes. Pat Collins' lighting gave the dark world of this ballet a glowing intensity, and Charles Barker enforced a facsimile of high emotion from the orchestral forces.

Indeed, everyone worked with diligence to justify the grand experiment that "Othello" represented, but whether the result was preferable to programming one of the company's misguided productions of antique Franco-Russian repertory is a question that each dancer and balletomane must answer individually.

A flawed original or a fake antique -- you choose.

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