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Alberta Ballet

'Othello'

by Kate Snedeker

November 2, 2012 -- Northern Jubilee Theatre, Edmonton, AB

Welcome to the Kelley McKinlay show! Kirk Peterson’s production of “Othello” may be less than memorable, but on Friday evening it served as a perfect vehicle to display the unforgettable talents of Alberta Ballet’s leading man, Kelley McKinlay. From his moody opening solo, McKinlay , as Iago the ensign whose jealous machinations result in murder, heartbreak and suicide, became the electrifying centerpiece of the ballet. This was not “Othello”, but “Iago”.

Kirk Peterson, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, comes from a rich story-ballet pedigree, but his efforts at bringing “Othello” to the ballet stage are decidedly uneven. Shakespeare’s Othello is the tragic tale of a Moorish general who murders his new wife, Desdemona, after Iago – an ensign under Othello’s command who has been passed over for promotion - tricks him into believing she was unfaithful. The story, with its intrigue, romance, betrayal and sword fights, is ripe for dramatic interpretation.

Yet, despite visually appealing sets and lighting, Peterson’s choreography lacks sufficient originality or cohesion to create a dynamic, engaging drama. Alexander Nichols’ sets are particularly stunning, featuring Alhambra-like architectural designs which leave the stage itself free for dancing (one minor quibble – the diamond-grill second act set pieces feel more chain-link fence than Alhambra window frame). The designs though are understated, requiring vibrant dancing to make the setting to life – and Peterson’s choreography is not quite up to the task.

The ballet opens with a striking solo for McKinlay’s Iago that immediately leaves a feeling of deep, unsettling unease. Between the alternately sinuous and angular, juddering steps and Pierre Lavoie’s shadowy lighting, there’s little doubt of the burgeoning evil within Iago. It was McKinlay, however, who transformed the solo from mere steps into a tour de force – if the role of Iago was not originally made for McKinlay, it is certainly a role than defines him as dancer. The often bent-kneed choreography has a more modern sensibility, requiring the ability to shift from almost slimy fluidity to powerful jaggedness. McKinlay has this ability and then some, creating a character who makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise – a uneasy mix of refinement, simmering anger and reptilian sliminess. By the end of the solo, McKinlay had the audience at the edge of their seats, and kept them rapt whenever he was on stage

And therein, perhaps is the problem – McKinlay’s Iago was so vividly portrayed, that the rest of the ballet paled in comparison. This, one hastens to add, is the problem of the production, and not of the dancers. Mariko Kondo, as Desdemona, was ray of sunshine – both in her tender dancing and Sandra Woodall’s beautiful pink and then white dresses. Like McKinlay, Kondo seemed confident enough in her technique to focus on the artistry and the character. Kodo’s lyrical, brought a loving humanity to Desdemona that made her cruel fate all the harder to bear. In the other lead role, that of Iago’s wife Emilia, Hayna Gutierrez seemed has found a role that brings out her dance-acting skills. She was equally convincing as both the sometime humorously conniving Emilia, and the remorseful, horrified Emilia.

On the other hand, Elier Bourzac was hot and cold as Othello. Nearly unrecognizable in a heavy beard, he looked sluggish and unfocused throughout the first act of the ballet. One felt a certain hesitation in his movement, a feeling that he hadn’t quite assimilated Peterson’s weightier choreographic style into his body. His Othello was shadow to the lightning bolt of McKinlay’s Iago, and so the storyline was painfully unbalanced.

However, when the curtain rose on the second act, Bourzac was improved. Uncertainty was replaced by greater commitment, creating for the first time a character who was likeable, but flawed. Perhaps the strongest demonstration of Bourzac’s dance-acting skills – and one of the most poignant scenes in the ballet – was that of Desdemona’s death in the couple’s bedroom. With Alexander Nichol’s spectacular designs - a blood red drape cascading down to a simple bed under starlit “sky” of tiny Moorish lanterns – the setting is both romantic and haunting, a perfect place for love and murder. Bourzac, in his acting and dance, was able to express both Othello’s tender, loving side and his irrational, jealous feelings. Yet he sometimes slipped out of character, for instance his rather clumsy stage walks during the final murder scene. It’s as if he’s focusing on his hands, his face, his expression, and forgetting about the lower half of his body.

Elsewhere, Colby Parsons was a fine Cassio, and the corps comported themselves well in Peterson’s pleasant corps sections. The men, led by Yukichi Hattori, got to show off their skills in a fun dance for Othello’s Guards. All were also in top form in the rousing fight scene, where Iago schemes to get Cassio and Rodrigo into a fight. The sword fight could have been pulled directly from any number of Romeo & Juliet productions, but the guys looked like they were having a blast. Peterson’s scene for the colorfully attired Furies has some of the most interesting choreography, with the women twining into intricate circular patterns. Yet, these scenes often seemed like filler between the sections for the main characters, a glue that wasn’t sufficient to keep the whole together.

The ballet ends with final tragic murder of Emilia and suicide of Othello. The score, cobbled together from soundtracks by Jerry Goldsmith, was appropriately melodramatic, but was hobbled by poor editing. As the curtain drops, Iago is strung up by his arms, but with the curtain barely a quarter of the way down, the music stops suddenly as if someone had hit the CD player button mid-note. With the music, goes the mood, and the dramatic tension; what is left is a dangling dancer, a slowly closing curtain and a bewildered audience. It not only killed the ending, it deprived the dancers of the swell of applause that they rightly deserved. If the ballet is to be performed in later scenes, it’s time to recut the music or find the money to orchestrate the score for a live orchestra.

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