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TV Review: Richardson is at center of stirring 'Othello' ballet

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Just as Shakespeare lends the rhythm of his words to great actors, so does his dramatic impulse inspire choreographers to translate his works. The immensely popular "Romeo and Juliet" heads the list, but "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Taming of the Shrew" also have received significant productions.


When: 9:30 tonight on WQED.


But since 1949, "Othello" has stood alone, cloaked in a tautly conceived chamber piece by Jose Limon. Cast for only four dancers, it brilliantly portrays the tangled maze of jealousies in Shakespeare's drama.

Only in 1997 did Lar Lubovitch premiere a new full-length "Othello" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. A joint production between American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, starring Desmond Richardson, one of America's premiere dance talents, it was subsequently recorded in San Francisco in 2002 and will be telecast tonight on WQED at 9:30 p.m.

The production bears Lubovitch's stamp, an amalgam of balletic and modern dance styles linked with the surging tide of movement that is his hallmark. George Tsypin's darkly glamorous set features sliding screens that both break and reveal the action, and Wendall K. Harrington's projection provided a highly effective storm sequence. Underneath it all is Elliot Goldenthal's musical score, with strains of Prokofiev running through its veins.

Although there is a ritualistic wedding sequence at the start, the ballet begins slowly for the major characters. Cassio, Othello's young lieutenant, resembles a Mercutio-like figure as he bounds among the street dancers and dances with Othello's new bride, Desdemona. But Othello seems aloof, immersed in his own power, and Iago and Emilia cast only a brooding presence.

Like the Russian tradition that concentrates more on ensemble dances than on character development, the ballet bides its time until the second act.

There Lubovitch is in his element, although director Mark Diamond inexplicably chooses quick camera cuts that interfere with the full scope of the choreography. The corps becomes an extension of the sea, then a Greek chorus that reflects the agitation between Othello, Iago and Cassio through a quirky tarantella.

That momentum leads to the third act, where Lubovitch narrows his focus on the leads. The final moments belong to Richardson, his empire and his body slowly collapsing with the realization that he has been duped.

Richardson may have served as an inspiration for Lubovitch. Like Lubovitch, he transcends all forms of dance and has had considerable success in each one. He established his career with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, then left to become a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, a difficult jump from modern dance to ballet.

Richardson serves as the vortex for the play, a seemingly calm center at the start, which makes his betrayal all the more powerful.

The rest of the cast comes from San Francisco Ballet, and it is wonderful. Although the corps is underutilized, the leads are impressively displayed. Yuan Yuan Tan is a fragile, unaware Desdemona. Like Emilia, suitably played by Katita Waldo, she is dominated by her male counterpart. But her exquisite lines and flexibility are a joy. Parrish Maynard's Iago is a cauldron of tensile emotion, portrayed in flailing angles and seething revenge. He is balanced by the fresh-faced, trusting Cassio (Gonzalo Garcia).

In the end, this Shakespearean epic is not a literal interpretation. But with decidedly contemporary accents that abstract the action in some places and tap realistically hard emotions in others, it is a production that effectively transcends time.

Jane Vranish can be reached atjvranish@post-gazette.com .

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