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’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

*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

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?”.


CDF11 Celebration of Dance

River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night was beautiful.  The weather, the venue, the dancing.  The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago.  At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year.  Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that.  Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kylían, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance.  Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.

Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jirí Kylían’s Sinfonietta.  This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF.  Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jetés and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration.  A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out.  Timing is everything.  The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended.  She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone.  This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd).  River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.  For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration.  It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude.  It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation.  Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.

Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto.  The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections.  This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends?  why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve.  With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love.  (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels.  Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in.  Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.

Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.  The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers.  Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable.  Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed.   I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life.  (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!)  I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows.  The excitement carried over to the final piece.  The crowd was ready and  Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint.  Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus.  The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance.  The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives.  The audience was too.  *Insert full standing ovation here.

Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance.   I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.  Multiple times.  Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance.  Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival.  I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.