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'Othello' plays out in dance with a modern spin

N.C. Dance Theatre will close its season with tale of jealousy, love in a new setting.
By Steven Brown

Suddenly he steps back. Where's the necklace he gave her? She's doesn't know: She's as surprised as he is.

The scene won't sound familiar to Shakespeare buffs. So here's a hint: Which of his plays hinges on a missing trinket and the jealousy it inflames?

Dwight Rhoden, N.C. Dance Theatre's resident choreographer, has translated “Othello” into dance. The company will close its season next weekend with Shakespeare's tragedy of a man duped into thinking the woman he loves has been unfaithful.

Jealousy, betrayal, intense romance: They're “timeless in terms of the human condition,” Rhoden said.

While “Romeo and Juliet” is choreographers' darling among Shakespeare's works, the dance world has occasionally turned to “Othello,” too. One classic adaptation: “The Moor's Pavane,” by dancer and choreographer Jose Limon. His economical version, created more than 50 years ago and still performed by his namesake troupe, skips storytelling and simply uses four dancers to embody the main characters' relationships and tensions.

Rhoden's new work will go back to telling the story – in a new setting.

Shakespeare's Othello is a war hero of 16th-century Venice. Rhoden's Othello belongs to the modern-day United States, where he has found fame as a music mogul.

“American Idol” and other hit TV shows prove that legions of people either long to become celebrities or enjoy watching others try, Rhoden says. A star musician – such as rapper Jay-Z – can branch out into business dealings, take on a glamorous lifestyle, and become an icon.

That's where Rhoden sees a parallel between the soldier and the impresario.

“It's not that I think a music mogul is a hero,” Rhoden says. “But society treats them that way.”

Where Shakespeare's hero is surrounded by soldiers and thankful Venetians, Rhoden's will be orbited by investors and paparazzi. The characters around Othello have been transplanted into a new milieu, but the passions driving them are much the same.

In Rhoden's scenario:

Desdemona, Othello's wife, is the hottest pop diva of the moment.

Iago, the story's villain, is a behind-the-scenes figure in the music business. He's hungry for power and resentful of Othello for having it.

Cassio, Othello's right-hand man, is an unwitting accomplice in Iago's plot against Othello.

Rhoden's “Othello” unfolds to a new score by composer David Rozenblatt, who has collaborated with Rhoden outside Charlotte. Rozenblatt's music – for instrumental ensemble – weaves together jazz, classical and other influences.

That late-night afterparty with the disappearing necklace unfolds to the sound of languid saxophones. At another party, a hard-charging piano solo drives revelers to cut loose.

Rhoden's “Othello” will star Joseph Watson, who joined this company last season right out of New York's Juilliard School. Rebecca Carmazzi, back in action after having a baby, will play Desdemona. David Ingram, who was NCDT's Romeo last season when Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux staged that other Shakespeare favorite, will explore the darker side as Iago.

“I'm pushing them, too,” Rhoden said. “I want them to keep growing.”