Guest Review: Joffrey Ballet’s Othello

Joffrey dancer Fabrice Calmels in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

How cool is this? My friend was so impressed with Joffrey Ballet‘s Othello that she took it upon herself to write a review! And the fact that we both led with the same Shakespeare quote proves that brilliant Libra minds think alike. Thanks Joc :)

REVIEW: Othello by the Joffrey Ballet
By Jocelyn Fuller

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.”

- Iago in Othello

Note from author: I have NO IDEA how to critique or write about dance, so please don’t be offended.

“How are they going to pull this off?” That’s what I asked myself when Rogue Ballerina invited me, a ballet novice and Shakespeare fanatic, to Othello by the Joffrey Ballet. The Bard is known as a wordsmith, not a choreographer. And Othello, my favorite Shakespeare story of manipulation, jealousy and death? I owed it to myself and all Shakespeare fans out there to see it for myself. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a Joffrey believer. I’ve been to four or five shows and never been disappointed, but Shakespeare? Hmm….

Not only am I believer, I may be the maker of the Joffrey kool aid now after seeing this show. It wasn’t just the stunning choreography by Lar Lubovitch, or the dancers, or the chilling sets, or perfectly crafted costumes; it was the riveting score of Elliot B. Goldenthal performed by The Chicago Philharmonic that made the show so electrifying. The way in which this performance told the tale of such a tragic, gut-wrenching story through movement and music was astonishing to me. I found myself more connected and emotionally attached to the characters of the ballet than I have of most theatrical performances I’ve seen in years past.
Fabrice Calmels as Othello was breathtaking. The only other man I’ve seen play Othello on stage who exposed his soul to the role more was James Earl Jones – and that’s probably only due to his bellowing tone and 40+ years he probably has on Calmels. I felt Calmels’ pain, his jealousy, and his rage with every movement as the Venetian Moor.

Oh, Iago. One of the most hated men in all of Shakespeare. How I love to hate thee.  Matthew Adamczyk was spectacular with his sharp movements of scheming and evil, making you feel hatred at his every step. He would make the old Bard himself proud. Many find Othello to be the star of this play, but I always lean a little more towards Iago.

The rest of the cast was equally as talented. April Daly as Desdemona was sweet, innocent and angelic, just as Desdemona should be. Her story telling through her dance was exquisite.

I will most certainly be raving about this show for weeks to come. My passion for Shakespeare has been reignited once again with this powerful performance by a very talented group of people that this city should be so proud to call our own. I am a believer.

 

Joffrey Ballet’s Othello 2.0

Joffrey dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.

Othello: Act III, scene iii

Nobody does drama like Shakespeare. The Bard, who had a birthday this week, adapted the story Othello from a 1566 work by Geraldo Cintio and in turn, Lar Lubovitch, who just turned 70, adapted the tale into movement for the dance stage. Add in an original, chilling score by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal and the incomparable opening night cast of Joffrey Ballet principals and you have something extraordinary. Last night, Othello: A Dance In Three Acts, the story, the choreography, the music and the cast all came together in a perfect spiral of love, deceit, beauty, betrayal and death. Joffrey performed this ballet in 2009 to great reviews, but the second time around is even better.

The story. Although Lubovitch doesn’t directly follow Cintio or Shakespeare’s versions, the essence of the story is embedded in his movement. Ballet steps get a contemporary twist with a flexed foot, bent arm or parallel leg. Corps scenes take an ominous edge with twitchy, staccato moves. Each principal’s character is revealed in everything they do. The simple turn of a head or placement of a hand relates the intention in a second. The dancers don’t have to act for the story to be told, yet this cast acted their roles to perfection.

The choreography. For me, Lubovitch’s genius lies in the intuitiveness of his partnering. Sweeping, circular lifts with unexpected holds float to the floor and back up again with amazing fluidity. The strength required for most of his partnering is immense, yet the dancers never look taxed.

The music. Dark and dangerous like the plot, this music isn’t your typical ballet score. Loud timpani drums, saxophone, and oboe punctuate the lighter notes of the marriage pas de deux. Iago’s sharp, thrashing solo is all but dictated by the angry horn section’s shouts. The Act II tarantella speeds to its conclusion carrying the storyline along with its pace. A few Psycho-esque moments let us in a fracturing mind that’s ready to kill. The difficult score was beautifully played by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra led by Scott Speck.

Joffrey dancers Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The cast. This cast. The originals. Bravo for bringing back the five original principal dancers. Fabrice Calmels (Othello), April Daly (Desdemona), Matthew Adamczyk (Iago), Valerie Robin (Emilia), and Aaron Rogers (Cassio) were completely committed to their characters as if letting them simmer and age for four years made them exquisitely ripe. Calmels was strong, fierce and frightening, cutting an imposing, yet ultimately fragile figure on the stage, his solos impassioned and impressive. Daly made an impression with her first solo (the “Look, he gave me a hankie!” dance) with her bourrees as fast and light as butterflies and beveled extensions to the skies. The two together created something magical with her tiny, delicate, light frame next to his tall, chiseled and dark body. I really can’t say enough about how beautifully these two dance together. Adamczyk personified evil, lurking on the edges spider-like, then creeping in to weave his tragic web with one raised eyebrow revealing the murderous thought in his head.  Robin, a seriously strong dancer, played the battered wife role with aplomb. You have to be that strong to be thrown around like that and make it look easy. Rogers, always delightful, brought his precise technique and ballon to his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time role. Stacia Holden stood out as the sassy Bianca and special shout outs to Mahallia Ward, Amber Neumann and Michael Smith for their extra reckless abandon in the tarantella.

Cast, composer, conductor and choreographer were all on stage for the ovations and applause, recognition for a job more than well done. This is your last chance to see Lubovitch’s Othello, as it is being retired from Joffrey’s active rep. There are nine performances left. You should get your tickets NOW.

Joffrey Ballet presents Lar Lubovitch’s Othello at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. through Sunday, May 5. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org.othello.

Joffrey’s Fabrice Calmels on being Othello

Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in "Othello". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

At 6’6″ and 216 lbs, this 32-year-old Joffrey Ballet dancer stands out on stage…or anywhere. In 2009, landing the lead role in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello solidified him as a star. “It’s the ultimate role,” said Fabrice Calmels*. This week he revises this life-changing role as Joffrey presents the three-act ballet for a two-week run at the Auditorium Theatre before it is retired from the active repertory.

Calmels grew up outside Paris, France and began dancing at age three at a small school in Magnanville. By 10, he was studying at the Paris Opera Ballet School and by 16 things really began to change. “I became very tall and it became an issue,” he told me over tea last week. “They told me I wouldn’t do very well in the company, that I wouldn’t be dancing very much.” He came to the States to study and dance at The Rock School in Philadelphia, then traveled across the country auditioning. After a year dancing with Boston Ballet II, he accepted a spot with Joffrey in 2002. He’s now finishing his 11th season here in Chicago.

Being plagued with a back injury (two bulging discs) for almost a year hasn’t slowed him down much. He’s hard at work preparing for the Othello run, bulking up and building stamina. Calmels spoke with RB about dancing this signature role.

You’re almost a week before opening. What was your schedule like today?

We’ve been very meticulously working on the first act now for a few weeks trying to really get all the dancers to understand Lar Lubovitch’s style. Lar has a very specific style that’s very circular and grounded. When you’re dealing with younger dancers who’ve been training in mostly ballet, they’re up, up, up and he wants down, down, down. To get his style ingrained in your brain and to really feel confident takes a while. When you understand, it becomes easier. The second act came together really quick. Now we’re working on the third act. Today we ran the first and second act…not right away. We ran one, then had notes and then the second act and notes. I think tomorrow we’ll run all three acts and start getting momentum, because we need it.

This role made you a big star here. What are you doing to take it to the next level?

I follow different training. I want my body to be very strong and tense. I need that frame to be really solid, so I don’t hurt myself. I needed to gain weight. In a long run, you tend to lose weight because you’re so tired and overburning. I bulk up to become the character, one, and so I have the structure that I can handle the ballet. I’m working out a lot more. I’m working out my legs more. I run more. I do like ten miles every other day to build stamina in my legs. The last production my upper body was strong, but by the middle of the third act, my legs were burning. In terms of character, I want to completely submerge myself in the character and be able to be the character through the three acts. My goal this time is to stay in character, even though there’s intermissions, and see where it leads to. I want to be able to produce that all the way through. The character and the role is as important as the dancing. Otherwise, you lose the audience very quickly. They want to hear the story, they want to care, they want to hate you, the want to feel emotion. What will make a huge difference is what reads. It’s not a battement. It’s the emotion and the acting.

What does dancing the role of Othello mean to you?

The role Othello is really magic. It’s magic. I saw “Othello” when I was younger. Desmond (Richardson)…he’s a legend. There aren’t many that have done the role. To be asked to do it, at first it was a lot of weight. It’s huge. I feel really fulfilled. Thank you Lar. He’s a master to create such a piece. It’s a difficult role physically. It’s tense. It’s a marathon. You have to be powerful all the way to the end. 

You’re dancing with April Daly again. Do you find you’ve evolve as partners in these roles?

Of course. There’s the experience. The second shot. It’s the big problem in ballet, you get that one first shot. Now we can look back and see that we were able to do it, but the first time, it was a challenge for us. They were big roles for us. I think we were taking it a little bit too tense even though it was a good run. It was a huge risk for the Joffrey and it was a big deal. The second time around, we know we can deliver. We know what to do. We know how people reacted the first time, so we can do better. It can only go up. She knows she can trust me.

Are you nervous? Do you get nervous?

I’m a perfectionist. When I do well, I expect to do better. When I don’t get this, sometimes it really pisses me off. I want consistency. I hate roller coaster seasons. I hate roller coaster performances. I think they are the worst. I want to deliver great and above. That’s my only concern. It’s myself. I want to have always great, better, better.

Joffrey Ballet presents Lar Lubovitch’s Othello at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Wednesday, April 24 – Sunday, May 5. Tickets are $31-$152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org/othello.

*Calmels performance schedule:

Wednesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, May 4 at 2 pm

Sunday, May 5 at 2 pm

Sneak Peek: Joffrey’s Incantations

Choreographer Val Caniparoli.

RB sat in on a run-thru of Val Caniparoli’s world premiere for Joffrey Ballet this afternoon. Incantations is a whirlwind of movement from start to finish. As lead dancer Matthew Adamczyk* said, “It’s like being shot out of a cannon.”  The full-costume run (men shirtless in nude tights w/ sanscrit verse, women in nude leotards with spirals and lines) showed off dancers still a week out from the premiere, but at the top of their game.  This work is difficult and non-stop, yet some of the dancers were smiling as if they were delighted (or perhaps delirious) with performing it.  Solo passes garnered applause from the dancers watching.  Duets are dramatic and fast, with a few partnering moves reminiscent of Mr. A’s Light Rain and William Forsythe’s works.  A brief male duet featuring Adamczyk and Rory Hohenstein is…hot!  In fact, every dancer in the piece looks great – a tribute to the choreographer.

Caniparoli’s Incantations is joined by Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night on the Spring Desire program.  Fantastic news!  RB also learned that Miguel Angel  Blanco, who was sidelined with an Achilles tendon injury last season requiring two surgeries, will be performing a piece on opening night.  Welcome back.

Joffrey Ballet Spring Desire runs April 25 – May 6 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.  Tickets:  800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.

*Click here to read my preview of Incantations in Windy City Times.

Bringing the Heat

Joffrey dancers Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

In a pre-show video at opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s Winter Fire program, artistic director Ashley Wheater says, “This company is eclectic and diverse, the repertory should reflect that”.  The three works presented from international contemporary choreographic stars William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor were eclectic, diverse and showed the current company of dancers in a new light.  A big, hot spotlight.  This show reminded me of the Joffrey I fell in love with years ago.  A company that always pushed boundaries with challenging, interesting new works.  A company that made you sit up and ask,”What is happening on stage?”…in a good way.

This program pushed the dancers to a new level, challenging technique and complacency.  They rose to the challenge – they were hot!  The hottest of them all was Rory Hohenstein.  He hasn’t been featured much in his first season with the company (aside from a stand out solo at Dance For Life last August), but wow, keep your eyes on this one.  Last night, he was on fire.  A fierce presence in every piece, Hohenstein showed off his partnering skills, flexibility and attitude with every flick of his wrist, penché pitch and swing of his head.  Paired with Victoria Jaiani in two of the three pieces, he held his own with the dancer that has become the unequivocal star of the company (“All stars/No stars”? I’m not so sure that’s the motto here anymore).

Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated featured these two in dazzling duets that were so intricate and hyper-extended you wondered how they got through them without being tied in a knot.  Jaiani’s incredible capacity for extension and impossibly thin frame punctuated the dark, downlit stage.  Similar in build and flexibility, Christine Rocas – let’s call them the bendy/flexy twins – showed her stuff alongside a strong cast.  There were some extraordinary things happening on the sidelines, particularly with April Daly, Amber Neumann, Anastacia Holden and Ricardo Santos that unfortunately got lost with so many things going on at once.  Also, the two lead females (Jaiani and Rocas) were supple and strong in the partnering, but seemed timid on their own.  I spotted Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Jay Franke and David Herro in the audience, with Mayor Emanuel and family.  Hint: this would look great on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in August! Yes for the Fest?

Joffrey dancer John Mark Giragosian in Wayne McGregor's "Infra". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The LED projections of figures walking displayed above the dancers in Wayne McGregor’s Infra was distracting at first, but became part of the movement theme happening below.  Inspired in part by the 2005 London bombings, McGregor takes the every day action of going to and from work and turns into an emotionally charged romp set to a cyber techno beat by Max Richter.  You could see a hint Forsythe’s influence at work here.  Again, a strong ensemble cast featuring virtuoso turns by all.  Amber Neumann showed her acting chops with a mental melt down center stage.  A large cast of extras walked across the stage sweeping her off with them alluding to the fact that life goes on.  Jaiani and Hohenstein end the work with another eye-popping duet.

Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain was the mid-show palette cleanser offering a softer break from the hard-hitting opening and closing numbers.  The music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (which can make me weepy within the first three notes), was brought to life with accompaniment by Paul James Lewis, Paul Zafer and Carol Lahti.  A stellar cast of Jaiani, Hohenstein, Daly, Matthew Adamczyk, Fabrice Calmels and Valerie Robin added maturity and nuance to the work that was a company premiere in 2010.

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The duet by Jaiani and Calmels, which was stunning last season, was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on stage (aside, perhaps, from the Act II pas in Giselle).  What once had a breathtaking romantic feel, like how a young girl dreams her first time in love will be, evolved into a heartbreaking, lifelong love shifting in need.  For me, it took on a she’s-dying-and-he’s-taking-care of-her/Dying Swan vibe.  Whatever the impetus, it works.  As the donor’s rose to their feet in ovation, you could sense the many wallets falling open asking simply “how much?”.

 

Joffrey’s Nutcracker a Sweet Treat!

 
1/14
 

Time really does fly during the holiday season.  It’s been almost a week since opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s annual The Nutcracker performance at the Auditorium Theatre and I can’t stop thinking about it (or get the music out of my head!).  Honestly, this is not a new development.  Nothing says Happy Holidays to me more than watching a good version of The Nut and, in my view, Joffrey’s is the best.  Set in 1850s America, Robert Joffrey took a classic German tale and made it ours.  There is so much action happening on stage that even the notoriously boring Party Scene breezes by leaving you wondering what you missed. Derrick Agnoletti as the bratty little Fritz provided comic relief for those not completely enthralled with Clara (Abigail Simon), her Godfather Drosselmeyer (Matthew Adamczyk) and her obsession with the wooden doll that happens to crack nuts.  Once the clock strikes midnight, the action escalates in Clara’s dreams aided with some magic dust from Dr. Drosselmeyer.  (Seriously, what is in that sparkly stuff? I’ll take two please!)  Dolls coming to life, an enormous growing tree, a, epic battle, a first kiss, a beautiful snow fall and a lovely pas de deux: and that’s only Act One!  The audience seemed a bit shy and lulled by the graceful snow pas danced by Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez, but finally livened up to applaud during Agnoletti’s spirited dancing as the Snow Prince.

The excitement carried over into Act Two which had each of the divertissements getting rousing approval.  Erica Lynnette Edwards was sassy in the Spanish variation, Arabian showed off Jaiani’s super flexibility, the Russian Nougats’ gravity-defying leaps (as usual) brought down the house, Elizabeth Hansen proved perfectly pristine as the lead Marzipan Shepherdess and Gerald Arpino’s choreography in Waltz of the Flowers is just as gorgeous as the famous music.  The petite Yumelia Garcia as the Sugar Plum Fairy stunned the crowd (and RB!) with a spectacular balance at the end of the Grand pas that lasted at least 10 seconds!    No joke, she stayed perched in first arabesque so long, she missed the next section of choreography, then hurried with her cavalier (Ogulcan Borova) downstage for the dramatic end poses all to cheers and wild applause.

On a somber note before the show, Artistic Director Ashley Wheater dedicated this season’s Nutcracker performances in honor of the city’s former First Lady, Maggie Daley, who was a huge supporter of the arts and served on Joffrey’s Women’s Board.  Daley died last month after a long battle with cancer.

There are 16 performances left – get your tickets now and enjoy this holiday classic ballet.

Joffrey Ballet presents The Nutcracker through Dec 27th

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress, 800.982.2787 or ticketmaster.com

 

Joffrey’s Don Q: Q for Questioning

Derrick Agnoletti & Fabrice Calmels in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The sets were amazing, the costumes stunning, the integration of video/images imaginative, the score fast and flamboyant, the life-size horse puppet fantastic, the choreography ambitious, the characters lovable, so why am I left with the feeling something was off? Last night’s premiere of  Yuri Possoknov’s version of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre had all the elements for a spectacular opening night, but it just didn’t quite get there.  That may be a bit harsh.  It was a wonderful show and sure to be a huge hit with audiences, but some of casting and staging were questionable and at times it seemed more like a full dress run and not up to the bar Joffrey has set for themselves.  The show was held for twenty minutes due to a medical emergency (someone slipped and fell in the lobby), which may have had a negative effect on the dancers.  I should also note that I sat in the third row, which was too close for my taste, and the ballet seemed almost too big for the stage.

Victoria Jaiani as Kitri in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Let’s start with the good stuff – and there was more than plenty.  First, Victoria Jaiani as Kitri was fantastic as we have come to expect.  Her fiery, flirty interpretation seemed second nature (although she seemed uncharacteristically nervous in parts of Act I) and I assume, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was practically weened on the part.  Her ridiculous flexibility was on full display particularly in Kitri’s Act I solo with Plisetskaya leaps (named after Maya Plisetskaya who made them famous with the Bolshoi) where she literally kicks the back of her head.  But why was she carrying castanets if she wasn’t playing them?  The Act II wedding pas de deux coda famously has a run of thirty-two fouettes.  Jaiani’s was spot on, even tossing in doubles every third turn in the first half.  From my seat, while watching her turn, I could perfectly see her husband Temur Suluashvili’s face behind her beaming with love and pride.  Jaiani’s partner (hired to replace the injured Miguel Angel Blanco), Cuban guest artist Carlos Quenedit, was charming, charismatic and mui talented, although I kept wondering “who is this guy?”  The program only notes (with an asterisk) that he’s a guest artist.  He was great and would be a lovely addition to the Joffrey family, but why hire a guest artist?

Amber Neumann & Anastacia Holden in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The other star of the show was the puppet.  Crafted by Von Orthal Puppets, Rocinante, Don Q’s faithful companion was fresh and endearing addition to the cast performed by Shane Urton and Alberto Velazquez.  The creation, nicknamed Otis by the company, only appeared in a few scenes which was a shame.  Free Otis!  More of the horse please.  All of the character parts were perfectly played.  Fabrice Calmels as Don Quixote (dashing, distracted), Derrick Agnoletti as Sancho Panza (delightfully bumbling), Willy Shives as Lorenzo (deliciously daft) and Matthew Adamczyk as Gamache (scene-stealingly silly).  Soloists Amber Neumann and Stacia Holden were stand outs as Kitri’s friends.  The corps — toreadors, seguidillas, dryads and bridesmaids — were outstanding and, aside from Kitri, did most of the dancing.  Two female solo variations beautifully danced by Amber Neumann and Jeraldine Mendoza inserted in the middle of the Act II pas de deux seemed out of place and unnecessary.  Equally perplexing was the need for the character Mercedes, a street dancer (Alexis Polito) who danced in the village with the toreadors.  No offense to Polito who danced a lovely solo amidst daggers ingeniously stuck to the floor with frightening intensity, but I failed to see how her character aided the story line.

Victoria Jaiani & Carlos Quenedit in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The audience at first seemed timid and unsure of how to react to such a bold and ambitious production.  Case in point:  Kitri and Basilio do these amazing one-handed presage lifts about six times.  The first four are done in pairs and in quick succession separated by supported pirouettes.  Fair enough, the lift might not have been held long enough for them to really see what was going on.  The second two are held for a sustained period of time – long enough for Jaiani to hold, look at audience and shake her tambourine before coming down – with the orchestra (Chicago Sinfonietta) holding for effect.  The first lift…nothin’.  The second, held long enough for Quenedit to carry her  – with one hand! -  across the entire stage.  I laughed out loud before obnoxiously clapping, wondering what it was going to take to get these people going.  Luckily, they came around and were clapping to the music enthusiastically during the finale.  Over all, it was a tremendous undertaking that, once a few kinks are figured out (particularly the long, awkward “pause” in Act II), will delight for the entire two week run.  As Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said last week, “I think the company will grow into it.”  I think they will and hope Don Q will be in Joffrey’s rep for a long, long time.