Othello, as Lar Lubovitch tells it in his evening-length work for American Ballet Theatre, is a tale that resonates powerfully in the modern world, with its themes of jealousy, intrigue, and the plight of the outsider. Lubovitch has pared Shakespeare’s byzantine plot down to essentials, and knitted ballet and modern dance idioms to give us a blistering portrayal of Machiavellian scheming and domestic violence.

Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in <i>Othello</i>. © Gene Schiavone
Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in Othello.
© Gene Schiavone

The dream team on Tuesday night featured the two leading dramatic artists at ABT today, Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent, in the roles of Othello and Desdemona, with indelible performances by James Whiteside as the sinister Iago and a splendid Misty Copeland as the prostitute Bianca, who serves as the catalyst for Othello’s downfall. 

The entire company looked smashing against the dark splendor of the handsome scenic design – all shimmering Mylar, imposing structures of glass-like Lucite (including a glass throne for Othello, that sports an ominous crack by Act III), the massive ropes of a ship’s rigging, and striking video projections – the wizardry wrought by set designer George Tsypin, video designer Wendall K. Harrington, and lighting designer Pat Collins.

Yet this production is sabotaged at every turn by the wreckage of a score that oscillates between two genres of sound: the soundtrack to a car chase scene, and the eerie drone from an M. Night Shyamalan movie. (An occasional sultry clarinet wanders in from time to time, searching in vain for a seedy nightclub.) Lubovitch’s dance tapestry, and the considerable dramatic and technical skills of ABT’s finest, could not survive the shelling by composer Elliot B. Goldenthal – while valiant maestro Ormsby Wilkins and his beleaguered orchestra tried their damnedest to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

There was a blessed moment of silence in the score – when James Whiteside’s creepy Iago audaciously mounted Marcelo Gomes’ thigh and shoulder, stared him down, then sprang off him.

Many such images of terrible beauty and perverted power, and several exquisite pas de deux would have transfixed the audience, had it not already been paralyzed by the anxiety-producing score.

Several scenes open or close with Othello on his knees, his forehead to the ground – the Moor prostrated in prayer, then in anguish at the thought of Desdemona’s betrayal. Gomes communicates yearning, pain and fear with every twitch of his gorgeous musculature, and he makes all the heavy lifting in the pas de deux with Kent look like child’s play.

She is a vision of purity and innocence, Desdemona’s trademark bourrés soft and creamy, her steps on to pointe elegant and insubstantial. There is not a lot of demanding technique to this role, as Desdemona is mostly whipped and whirled around, first by Cassio (Joseph Gorak), then by Othello in moods that range from tender to impassioned and, finally, murderous. But Kent radiates beauty with even the simplest lifting of an arm. She acts up a storm alongside Gomes, and the twin tragic arc of their characters anchors the entire work.

Whiteside is turning out to be one of the most versatile men of the company, dispatching the princely roles, as well as the scoundrels. Here, he gives Iago both a campy swagger and a truly terrifying malevolence. 

The young, handsome Gorak dances the role of Othello’s favored lieutenant, and the object of Iago’s jealousy, in a distinctive Romantic style – as if channeling the Poet in Les Sylphides – with an attention to wrists and hands that seems strangely studied for a battle-hardened Venetian warrior. Yet the panther-like quality to his jumps and his beautifully articulated feet are much to be admired; we simply cannot get too much of Gorak.  

A bristling tambourine announces the arrival of Copeland who, program notes inform us, is meant to deliver a deadly tarantella. Someone forgot to tell the composer – instead he orchestrates another one of his car chases. Copeland lights a fire onstage anyway, whipping the company into a sexual frenzy and finishing with a bravura whirlwind of turns that induced gasps from the audience on Tuesday night.

A fragile-looking Stella Abrera, in the role of Iago’s long-suffering wife, Emilia, blossomed in the third Act, in a poignant duet with Desdemona in which the women express their bewilderment at the cruel and bizarre behavior of their husbands. They seek solace in a small glass cross that resembles the hilt of a sword, foreshadowing the violent deaths of Desdemona and Othello. In their hesitant steps on and off pointe, their frequently intertwined arms, and the sorrowful tilt of their heads, Emilia and Desdemona's duet is a long, sorrowful sigh – a brave but futile attempt by two battered women to comfort each other.

After Desdemona dies a horrible death, strangled by Othello, the distraught Emilia confronts him and outs her scheming husband. Abrera is magnificent and fearless in this moment. 

Throughout, the ensemble are constantly hustling – notably, in a brilliant ballroom scene in Act I, which mocks the empty, sterile rituals of the nobility, and in a remarkable storm-at-sea scene that opens Act II, in which the corps women, their hair down and their blue-green dresses ragged at the hem, embody the raging sea.

One wonders what conversations go on between choreographer and composer. When the ensemble is exiting from the ball in Act I, their feet teasing out a menuet, would it have been too much to ask for a nod to menuet rhythms? This avant-garde composer may have rebelled against something so obvious. But the music he served up only diminished the beauty of the dancers’ movement, and sent an unfortunate signal to our brains that suggested that perhaps the dancers were off the music.

Were it not for the soul-deadening score, Othello might be considered a modern masterpiece. It is wrong, however, to judge a ballet independently of its score, and in its present incarnation, the overall impact is mostly migraine-inducing.