Othello

The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, May 22.

Watching Lar Lubovitch’s adaptation of the story of Othello, you can tell that he has choreographed for ice skaters as well as dancers. On several occasions, a male dancer spins in place, the centripetal force of his motion levitating the body of his partner. (Is that centripetal force? I never took physics in high school, and I just wasted several minutes trying in vain to decipher the explanations on the internet. I feel quite ignorant.) You see that effect all the time on a skating rink, but on stage, without the momentum of cutting across the ice, it looks oddly out of place.

More effective, in my eyes, are Lubovitch’s intricate lifts. I love the graceful, seamless way they blend into the pair’s steps, but here, they also amplified the emotions of the story. At the ballet’s outset, Othello and Desdemona moved together as a loving unit, Othello guiding gently and Desdemona arcing her body in innocent bliss. In their final dance, by contrast, those lifts that once looked gentle became domineering, with Desdemona at the mercy of her angry husband.

To adapt the problematic, ambiguous story of Othello to wordless dance, Lubovitch streamlined the tale. The first act introduced the players, the second dramatized the intrigue with the handkerchief in an extended tarantella, and the third covered the fallout. Rarely did he indulge in pantomime. He didn’t have to. Freed from the conventions of classical ballet, he could treat a pas de deux like a character dance, pouring all the emotional tumult of the story into every movement.

Most intriguing was the way Lubovitch physically manifested Iago’s manipulation of his superior officer. Iago guided Othello’s movements, adjusting his arms, twisting his head, pulling him in one direction or another. Perhaps it verged on being too literal, but the uncomfortable intimacy of the sequences captivated me. It wasn’t sexual (Lubovitch seemed to resist that interpretation of Iago’s motives), but it allowed Marcelo Gomes to beautifully convey how Othello, for all his strength, was still vulnerable, malleable.

Gomes’ Othello was a magnetic figure, but Sascha Radetsky made a petulant Iago. His portrayal didn’t really convince me, but then again, I’ve never been able to get a bead on Iago. (Also, to be fair, Radetsky faced an uphill battle with me. I will always associate him with his character in Center Stage, a gloriously silly teen movie about aspiring dancers that my college roommates and I watched far too often on lazy, hung-over weekend mornings. Radetsky played the archetypal Nonthreatening Boy, the impossibly nice guy whom the heroine ends up with after the Bad Boy breaks her heart. He also appeared in the gloriously silly Mandy Moore music video for a song on the gloriously silly soundtrack. I’m sort of mortified that I know this—and that I’ve seen both the movie and the video more times than I can count—but I mention it by way of acknowledging that my inability to truly accept Radetsky as a murderous, deceitful Machiavelli might be more my fault than his.)

Regardless, though, the real star was Julie Kent, who played Desdemona. (Trivia alert! Kent also appeared in Center Stage, but in a smaller role that doesn’t make me to want to giggle whenever she steps onstage.) Watching Kent is always a joy. Lithe and elegant, she made Desdemona enchanting. That character can easily become insufferably passive (and Lubovitch’s choreography, in which she spends as much time off the ground in Othello’s arms as on her own feet, might have trended that way), but Kent found ways to give agency to the extension of Desdemona’s arms, the gentle incline on his head. Her Desdemona was pliant but not completely submissive, and when she crumbled to the ground near the close of the third act, the moment felt tragic, not just sordid as the climax of Othello often does. It’s still a squirmingly problematic tale, but when Kent danced Lubovitch’s intricately lovely steps, setting all that aside was all too easy.