Moor Love

By Michael Mattis

A footnote in the program from last weekend’s superb performance of “Othello, a Dance in Three Acts,” by the American Ballet Theatre, reads:

The Tarentella (named for the Taratula spider whose venomous bite causes delirium) swept medieval Europe and was believed by the church to have satanic connections. It was subsequently outlawed by the authorities for purportedly causing insanity.

Further research reveals that the Tarantella originated in Taranto, Italy, where the local wolf spider is said to deliver a hallucinogenic venom that can only be cured by dancing wildly.

ABT’s production of Othello, part of this season’s Dance at the Music Center program, had the dark, layered, dreamy quality of just such a venom-induced vision, building from an edgy reverie to a hypnotic nightmare whose crescendo comes so suddenly it shocks. For Othello, danced brilliantly by Marcelo Gomes, this turns out to be one bad trip. But then how could it be otherwise?

Othello — originally conceived by the 16th-century Italian author Giovanni Battista Giraldi, also known as Cinthio, and later adapted by William Shakespeare — deals in all the dark themes: Sex, race, class, religion, ambition, jealousy, anxiety and deceit. This complexity of emotions and social issues accounts for much of the sensuous depth in Lar Lubovitch’s choreography, Elliot Goldenthal’s frenetic music, and the conscious layering in ABT’s artful, multimedia-inspired production.

Digital projections, deftly provided by Wendall Harrington, allowed the dancer’s dramatic changes in mood to appear seamless with their surroundings. Meanwhile, George Tyspin’s scenery of cracked slabs of glass offered a sense of lightness mixed with foreboding. In some productions, such boldness might become a distraction to the dance. But in ABT’s, it’s so complementary that you almost don’t notice it at all. Until, well, you notice it. In fact, during the scene in which the plotting Iago (Sascha Radetsky) lies to Othello, telling him that Desdemona (Julie Kent) has made him cuckold with the innocent Cassio (Herman Cornejo), one almost expects Shakespeare’s imagery of fornicating frogs to begin leaping against the back projection.

But this isn’t Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s Cinthio’s and Lar Lubovitch’s. As such, it’s a quite original work of art and a moving and spectacular one at that. “Othello, a Dance in Three Acts” captures this classic tale in contemporary ways that vibrantly evoke the hallucinogenic madness of love, rage and the Tarantella.

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