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North Carolina Dance Theatre is closing out its spring season in a spectacular manner by premiering a daring, newly commissioned, version of the tragedy Othello in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
Roll over Orson, and give Limón the news: this complex work of dance theater catapults the story’s ancient verities into the 21st century. Choreographer Dwight Rhoden follows the Shakespearean drama and draws on both the cinematic visuals of Orson Welles’ 1952 film and some of the conventions of José Limón’s beautiful 1949 ballet but relies more on the flash style of current pop culture — and his own apparently inexhaustible imagination, talent for patterning, and musical acuity.
Instead of generals and soldiers, we see music producers and CEOs, surrounded by sycophants, wannabes, and schemers. The famous handkerchief is here a fancy necklace instead. Othello is a music mogul, an award-winning producer, making money rather than saving the Serene Republic from the Turkish threats; Desdemona is the reigning queen of pop; Iago is a one-hit, embittered, almost-made-it, and Emilia, his battered wife. Poor Cassio, who just wants to climb the business ladder, is the hapless pawn he ever was. Shakespeare’s insights into human behavior remain perfectly acute in this new setting. If anything, the tragedy is the more wrenching for its insistent currency. There is no possibility of comforting oneself with the idea that all this happened long ago. This is us, now.
The work is set to a highly textured commissioned score by composer David Rozenblatt, with whom Rhoden has worked before. If it must be categorized, you could call it jazz, but it contains all the peculiar variety and rich strangeness of music in a dream. During the premiere performances, the recorded sound is accompanied by Arun Luthra on soprano and alto saxophones. Having live music at the ballet makes so much difference to the experience of the art — and it turns out that is true even if only part of the music is live. This music feels inseparable from the hard-edged, super-stylish sets and lighting by Michael Korsch and the brilliant, glittering, barely-there costuming by Christine Darch. Visually and aurally, this is a world complete.
But it is the dance, and the dancing, that make the chills run up and down the viewer’s body. Rhoden gets at the essential qualities of his messy characters like a trauma surgeon slicing into flesh: he doesn’t so much build characters as quickly reveal them, in their timeless, fateful relations. It is not that Rhoden lacks empathy for them or fails to elicit sympathy from us, but his art runs on a high-octane sense of urgency that brushes aside conventional niceties. In this, he has the full collaboration of the stage-filling cast of the company’s dancers, who throw themselves into this strenuous soul-baring with the full panoply of their talents.
Dancer David Ingram may remain my model of Iago forever. From the first moment of his first appearance, he conveys that man’s scheming sickness. With chords of his neck, with the tilt of his hips, with the slit of his eyes, he compresses paragraphs and pages into a burning image, and when he begins to move! — we trust him as Othello does, and love and fear him as Emilia does, even having been given the knowledge of his corruption. Traci Gilchrest dances Emilia, and her commutation of her personal power in service of the role is astonishing. I often think Emilia is the most tragic of the four characters. She doesn’t mean badly, she just wants to please her husband, even though he’s brutal to her. The moment when she realizes her culpability in Desdemona’s death is so horrible, and Gilchrest gives it its due. For anyone who has seen Gilchrest and Ingram as partners previously — say, as Juliet and her tender Romeo — their work together here will be particularly impressive.
Rebecca Carmazzi is fabulous as the doomed Desdemona, her innocent happiness and faithful love no protection against Iago’s machinations and Othello’s fearful jealousy. As Chuck Berry says, “she wiggles like a glow worm/Dance[s] like a spinnin top/She got a crazy partner/Oughta see em reel and rock.” I thought I’d seen Carmazzi’s range of expression before, but she showed more, and then still more, in this performance. Sweet though she is, even Desdemona has her ambitions and her prideful desires, and between them Carmazzi and Rhoden reveal them. Whether as the platinum record diva, the delighted bride, the darling of the paparazzi, the beauty broken and spun on the wheel of fate, or the wronged woman dying at her husband’s hands, Carmazzi holds us captive to her grace.
But it is, naturally, Othello who dominates, in the person of dancer Joseph Watson. This young dancer has made an extraordinary leap since the company’s last performances. He has gained focus and found a new sense of force that, in combination with his physical beauty and incredible pliancy, makes him a very powerful Othello. He marvelously conveys, without any unnecessary fanfare, Othello’s changing state of mind, from the opening glory days to his murderous rage and ultimate suicide. Watson’s solo (which displays some of Rhoden’s enduring movement vocabulary) in the second act — when torment tips Othello toward mad murder — had the entire audience breathlessly leaning forward in their seats. Watson came to NCDT straight out of Juilliard, and now, sadly for us, he, along with also-dazzling Seia Rassenti, is leaving the company to join the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (which will perform at this summer’s American Dance Festival in Durham). So, although this role was set on him, he will dance it only in these three performances.
Rhoden’s Othello is not a perfect work. Rhoden doesn’t do fragments: he puts everything out there at once, and the viewer has to choose — and sometimes you just can’t keep track of who’s doing what to whom. The opening is a little too inchoate, and some of those confusions mar it slightly throughout. Some of the showy group numbers seem a little rote. The second act is clearer, with the individual dances more firmly delineated and expressive. But the quibbles are small against the scale of the thing, and probably some of them will have been cleared away by the second performance, as some sound issues were cleared before the second act. Its conception is brilliant; its undertaking enormous and full of risk — and not just to the high-heeled women sliding down the set’s ramps. It will undoubtedly be performed again, and possibly even more smoothly and impressively, but to have seen its nervy premiere was a wonderful experience.
Opening the program is the gorgeous Na Floresta, by Nacho Duato, set to selections from the Bachianas brasileiras by Heitor Villa-Lobos. This is a company standard and audience favorite, well worthy of yet another look. Thursday night it seemed slightly lackluster until Rebecca Carmazzi took the stage for her solo. It was her first performance since returning from maternity leave, and she danced with all the joy of home-coming, light as shadow and bright as sun, bringing the piece to life. The work’s beautiful patterning and rich meditation on fecundity and decay make it an excellent prelude to Othello and a fine start to an unforgettable night at the theater.
The program continues May 15 and 16. See our calendar for details.