“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on.” – Othello. ACT III Scene 3.
Of “Othello” the play and “Othello” the dance, you could say that “so sweet was ne’er so fatal”. The Canadian premiere of Tom Stroud’s “Othello”, performed by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD), was a bleak and emotionally exhausting experiment in unstructured, improvised dance theatre.
Driven by a roaring, primordial performance from dancer Ron Stewart in the title role, and supported by five talented young dancers in a multiple role as Desdemona, Stroud’s Othello gives full vent to the tragic elements of the story and allows his artists — and his audiences — to suffer the misguided moor’s assassination of love in the most visceral way. Not that the audiences didn’t love it — the last show garnered a standing ovation from the full house of 125 people.
As the former artistic director for WCD, Stroud’s past choreographic works, such as “The Garden” (based on Hamlet), leaned more heavily on the dramatic and less on pure dance than the repertoire of the historical WCD, under founder Rachel Browne. However, with “The Garden” achieving such acclaim, it seems a given that Stroud would try his hand at adapting another one of the Bard’s plays for WCD and take it even further out on the very long limbs of contemporary dance.
Like “The Garden”, Stroud deconstructs the play to explore its psychological and emotional — and sexual — subtext, then establishes a scenario or “spine” for the dancers and two actors (University of Winnipeg Theatre professor Blake Taylor as Desdemona’s father and new WCD artistic director Brent Lott as Iago). The “entirely collaborative” result mentioned in the program — with set pieces, props, soundscape, lighting and snippets of dialogue from the play throughout — becomes a rush of activity that peaks early and then careens out of control for the rest of the sixty-minute journey. The emotional volume and intensity of “Othello” the dance is not present at the climax, but like a siren on a city street, it gives warning when still far away, and continues to wail long after it has passed.
The advantage with a collaborative improvisation, of course, is the ability to turn trained dancers loose with all their powers and passions to deliver electrifying performances that may never be duplicated again and yet may exceed themselves at every subsequent show. The disadvantages are that without formal structure, the dance can seem episodic and even unpleasantly chaotic. For the most part, Stroud’s “Othello” aspires to the best rather than the worst of the above, but the cup often runneth over, and it sometimes sloshes around, spilling its bloody contents all over the place.
Ironically, for an unstructured dance, this “Othello” stays too faithful to the plot structure of the play, leaving you wondering, “Is this the part when Iago tricks him? Is this when Othello kills Desdemona?” and so on. Rather than forgetting about the plot and just enjoying the dance for dance’s sake, all you can think about is the play. Moreover, without the subtle nuances and plot mechanisms of Shakespeare’s structure, Stroud’s unstructured version seems to undermine the core or through line that gives the original story much of its emotional impact.
Everything about Othello is established from the onset by the evocatively detailed set design and set pieces by visual artist Diana Thorneycroft. Her gothic set features two iron bars running along the walls upstage, with leather straps and contraptions suited to a dominatrix’s bedroom. At centre stage is a four-poster iron bed with a canopy above, no less medieval in appearance than the other instruments of torture (love as torture?) flanking it.
Brabantio, Desdemona’s father (Taylor), sits dejected on the bed, knowing that his daughter has married a “moor”, while the many facets of the woman — performed by Toronto’s Rebecca Hope Terry and WCD company dancers Natasha Torres-Garner, Gabriela Rehak-Dovgoselets, Jennifer Essex and Rachelle Potoski-Lavergne — begin to interact with Othello on the giant bed.
Rather than casting a black dancer in the role, the choreographer chose instead to transcend issues of race in an early scene by having the Desdemonas sensuously paint broad lines over Stewart’s white legs and torso, saying in effect that Othello is whoever she desires him to be. When he first hears that his love has betrayed him, Stewart twists his body into angular contortions to depict the jealous Othello’s agony and brokenness. Othello’s eventual murder of Desdemona (one of them) seems to begin and end several times before the actual deed is done, and in fact the female dancers themselves did not seem to share the same emotional rhythm as Stewart, so what should have been a peak, an epiphany, hardly has the intended effect.
The bed (which is on casters) rolls and even spins around the stage at various stages of the dance, and becomes a symbol of the relationship between the two lovers. It is Othello’s conveyance as well as his bondage. During one especially poignant scene, the Desdemonas lash Othello to the bedpost, then he agonizingly hauls the weighted bed counterclockwise while taped music begins to play the old R & B hit My Girl (“I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day…”) — a cynical counterpoint to Othello’s wretched misery.
Othello says of himself that “you must speak of one that loved not wisely but too well,” which almost summarizes Stroud’s newest work for WCD — a dance that was performed not too wisely but too well. The extraordinary naked emotions and passion of Stewart, Torres-Garner and Terry, in particular, compensate to some degree for the lack of coherence in the dance, but Stroud, who recently accepted a post as a theatre professor at the University of Winnipeg, clearly has his heart set in the world of drama with this dance production.
A little less Shakespeare and a little more Terpsichore might still make this work-in-progress a choreographic tribute to “The Tragedy of Othello” instead of a theatrical dance burdened by an unnecessary debt to it.