Well, I was going to upload another hasty set of notes, but “gaedea’s” review over in the Tulsa Ballet thread inspired me to do a more complete job.
San Francisco Ballet at the Orange County Performing Arts Center
9/28/02 Saturday matinee
Othello—Pierre-Francois Vilanoba; Desdemona—Katita Waldo; Iago—Damian Smith; Emilia—Sherri LeBlanc; Bianca—Kristin Long
I think we all learned from school that “tragedy ends in death” while “comedy ends in marriage.” But, I also learned that “comedy is tragedy interrupted” and “tragedy is comedy completed.” Perhaps nothing in the Lar Lubovitch “Othello” could be truer.
Lubovitch’s “Othello” starts with the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. It starts, in other words, at the moment where a comedy must end if it is to remain a comedy. What happens thereafter are the darker rhythms of the theater, distinctly modern in the intensity of its interiority, futility, and cruelty. It is as if, as Frederic Jameson has suggested, tragedy rebukes comedy.
Not that the choreographer says as much. In the program notes, he talks of the sense of artistic freedom he felt upon learning that Shakespeare’s “Othello” was itself based upon a tale from the Gli Hecatommithi by Giraldi Cinthio. By transforming Cinthio’s tale of Desdemona’s destruction by a spurned and jealous Iago into a story about the destruction of innocents, Othello and Desdemona, Shakespeare’s genius converted a banal story into a psychological drama anticipating the moderns’ preoccupation with character and psychopathology.
However, the ballet’s prologue tells us that Lubovitch has a different agenda in mind. Shakespeare’s “Othello” begins with Brabantio’s alarms that the Moor has stolen his daughter, Desdemona. Brabantio’s accusation is in the language of property ownership – property stolen.
Property, ownership, rights—of Desdemona, of name and honor, of the handkerchief … of the truth –- these become the major preoccupations of the Shakespeare. Basically Othello is an honest soldier and in a world of intrigue he is an innocent, clinging to belief systems and modes of knowledge that are archaic, obsolete. He trusts Iago. He trusts the “ocular proof” of the handkerchief. But, Iago is a modern, or rather, Elizabethan, and thus represents true power. It is the intrigue ridden world of the Elizabethan court that destroys the romantic world. In the Arthurian world, Lancelot’s distant love of Guinevere is the ideal, an incompatibility with the Shakespearean world of the Dark Lady.
The central passage of the ballet’s incredible opening sequence is Desdemona’s entry. In the chapel, the crowd, seething, parts for Desdemona, very pure and white, gliding forward on pointe to glissando-like notes towards an Othello who is kneeling before her as one would to a divinity. Othello stands and enfolds her in his cloaked arms before they turn and the entire assemblage kneels.
In addition to being a beautifully wrought sequence, here is what might be the basic insight of the ballet: For Othello, Desdemona is at once goddess (he kneels before her) and chattel (he enfolds her in his cloak). But, that is a very vulnerable position for any woman. To glorify, to worship, to sanctify, or (to use the ecclesiastical terminology) to beautify any mortal woman is to do a kind of violence to her. And, sexual violence accounts – in this interpretation at any rate – for the particular quality of this ballet’s theatrical power.
It seems tautological to say that “Othello” is a story of misogyny. The maltreatment of Desdemona and Emilia is merely one level. Movement motifs are another level. Its there in the Act I courtiers’ dances. The men handle the women by holding or handling their necks (a foreshadowing of Desdemona’s death). When Pierre-Francois Vilanoba’s Othello puts his large hands on both sides of Katita Waldo’s neck, you can’t tell whether he means to lean down to embrace her or to yank her up and throttle her. He will of course do both.
The rougher and more mechanical handling of women recurs in the corps choreography of Act II. A tarantella of waving arms and thrusting hips for Kristin Long’s Bianca and a corps of over a dozen dancers becomes by its third appearance a drunken band of men slinging, dragging, kicking the women wrapped around their legs.
But, the ballet isn’t content with conventional depictions of sexual violence. The ante is upped by sexual fetishism. Desdemona dances a short lyrical solo with the beautiful silk handkerchief and admires it during the Act I divertissements. But, so much attention gets heaped up on it by Othello, Emilia, and Iago, that soon we understand that the handkerchief itself begins to assume the proportions of Desdemona’s honor itself, her virtue … her sexuality. It has become a sexual fetish object in other words.
Soon, the handkerchief is transferred by Iago to Bianca and then to Cassio. It becomes mixed up with the Gypsy dancer’s easy virtue and Cassio’s manly desires. A kind of violence has been done to Desdemona by fetishizing her (it’s the operant deviance of fetishism—a body part or object sexually signifying the whole) and then passing it around like some bizarre kind of sexual currency.
But, perhaps the most extreme form of sexual violence is in the slashey sequences of Act III in Othello’s chambers. Iago is clearly corrupting, perverting Othello, turning him into one capable of monstrous acts. Iago torments Othello by whispering stories of Desdemona’s infidelities. We see Othello’s torments as his visions (hallucinations really) of Desdemona’s infidelities are acted out on an platform behind him on the stage.
But, what is really striking is the way the ballet shows Othello and Iago repeating the adulterous hand holding, caresses, and embraces of the hallucination Desdemona and Cassio. As he envisions Desdemona’s hand being kissed by Cassio, Iago holds Othello’s hand to his lips. Soon, Othello is being caressed by Iago just as Desdemona is being caressed by Cassio.
Yet, rather than just suggesting a sort of homoerotic tension between Othello and Iago (which it does in other places), these sequences seem to be saying something ominous about the gendered nature of evil and violence. Othello’s degradation isn’t just his being tricked. It’s in his being forced to submit to the position of the female. Iago’s crime isn’t just deceiving Othello. Its his forcing Othello to assume the submissive, secondary position of the feminine within the ballet’s structure of force and desire. The ballet doesn’t suggest that Iago loves Othello; rather, the ballet suggests that Iago loves power and the structure of power demands sexual domination.
It should become no surprise when Iago has become more powerful than Othello. Over the course of the show, as Iago has gained more and more control over Othello by the manipulation of Desdemona’s sexuality (by the fetish handkerchief, his deceptions, etc) his movements have become more assured, more powerful—sexual. His crimes bring him alive. Contrast that with Emilia. When she finally defies Iago to reveal the truth, she is only validated by Iago’s knife in her belly. It is as if the cost of truth is a woman’s own life.
Naturally, I’m not suggesting that Lubovitch had any sort of literal misogynistic agenda in mind, but in his interpretation of “Othello,” the boundaries of power, gender, and desire became so blurred, perhaps even disrupted, that his theater begins to approach what Artaud was describing in his Theater of Cruelty.
Sartre (was it Sartre? Or Camus?) had said that there are some crimes that become innocent, even glorious in their magnificence, splendour, and excess. Was he talking of Sade’s nightmarish castles of endless torture? I don’t remember. But, I can’t help thinking of this particular quality in the Lubovitch “Othello.”
In danger of making a too long post already longer, I do wish to add a few performance notes:
Pierre-Francois Vilanoba’s Othello retained a majesty despite the tendency of the choreography to reduce Othello to a type. Katita Waldo showed Desdemona’s suffering most poignantly. Damian Smith’s Iago and Sherri LeBlanc’s Emilia had a simmering, portentous quality to their folie a deux.
Kristin Long’s Bianca (with really big hair) took the scorched earth policy. The Commedia divertissement dancers were fun to watch. They were Megan Low (very youthful appearing--I wonder if the company ever has to worry about child labor laws ... just kidding--I do enjoy seeing her in these demi-soloist roles), Amanda Schull, Brook Broughton, Garrett Anderson, and James Sofranko.
Neal Stulberg conducted.
<small>[ 09-29-2002, 06:14: Message edited by: Jeff ]</small>