Measure for Measure in Russian, King Lear in Belarusian, Romeo and Juliet sung in Italian, Othello in—actually, no language. Othello the ballet.
A recent post asked if any rewritten version [or re-motioned version] can measure up to the original. But the real question, I would argue, is not if it can but how it can. And if the result is good, but it’s not “Shakespeare”—so what?
The Hamburg Ballet’s production of Othello uses none of Shakespeare’s words (or at least none I could make out). Instead it uses motion to evoke emotion. It defines the core of the play not as the words themselves but as the feelings and thoughts that the words convey—or in Iago’s case, with the feelings and thoughts that the words disguise.
In his choreography, Hamburg Ballet Artistic Director John Neumeier creates a vocabulary of motion that ranges from the classically balletic to modern-but-still-dancelike to what can best be called street motions, if ordinary people in the street were wonderful dancers. (This has a striking analogy to Shakespeare’s language, ranging from high-poetic to vernacular, always with the condition that it is the vernacular of people who ordinarily talk with the brilliance of Shakespeare.)
Neumeier’s (e)motional vocabulary allows him to juxtapose two very different worlds. One is a dream-like Venetian world of hope, love and desire. People are beautiful, their bodies are garbed in white, their movement is a graceful classicism unfolding to passion. Iconographically this world is as much Florentine as Venetian, recalling fifteenth-century Tuscan paintings of classical scenes, with slender figures draped in short tunics. This is the world in which Othello and Desdemona woo each other and wed. But each is attracted as much to a mythical image of the other as to the actual other. For Othello, that other Desdemona is a Botticellian virgin dressed in flowers. For Desdemona, it is a more disturbing figure, an ebony-black body wearing a caricatured mask of red.
So within the white world from the beginning we are allowed to glimpse the jungle fever generated by these mythic figures. It is enacted openly in the world of Cyprus by Othello’s soldiers, dressed in camo, and moving with the scarcely controlled violence of the street. In motions so realistic that one can barely still see that it is dance, Iago brutally beats his wife Emilia into meek submission. In alternating scenes, the soldiers molest and gang-rape women in the street, and pummel one of their members who is done up in blackface, as if they were lynching their commander. The sexual and racial violence is hard to watch.
And it is Shakespeare. In the early seventeenth century, at the beginning of the epoch of white-over-black racism, Shakespeare saw this demon that would haunt our own times, saw its entwinement with misogyny, and unleashed their dual fury through his play. Love, desire, trust, loyalty (male/female, male/male), lust, hatred, suspicion, jealousy, murderous wrath, remorse, despair…they all pour out one after another in taut narrative order. What he could not possibly foresee was how deeply those two demons would inhabit our cultures, both high and low. But Neumeier and the Hamburg dancers have the advantage of knowing it, and in each case suit motion to emotion, the balletic equivalent of Hamlet’s direction to “suit the action to the word,” and draw the picture of civilization entwined with barbarity.
The mythic doubles—Botticelli’s virgin and the ebony male nude—reappear at the end for the murder scene. At this point the production flirts with a distasteful cliché, one that an American company might not have dared to put on stage. But in that four-way confrontation, the two mythic figures are cast aside, and Desdemona and Othello are left on stage, alone, to dance out their final steps. It seemed from the beginning that Desdemona knew she would die, even if Othello did not know he would kill her. For a moment it seems like they might reach beyond the situation, and reach each other. But they succumb to their joint destiny, and the performance ends in profound human sadness.
A friend wrote to me afterward, “How could one not be moved to tears? I was stunned by it, on so many levels, stunned. We Shakespeareans always say, ‘It’s in his language,’ and yet here there was none (well, none SPOKEN that was intelligible to us, at least…). And yet filled with language of its own.”
The Hamburg Ballet has cast aside Shakespeare’s words, cast aside the complex social setting of Venice and Cyprus and the Ottoman wars, cast aside everything except plot, character, the body, its motion and its emotions. Those prove to be more than enough. Preserving the rest, after the silence, would be, perhaps, just taxidermy.
Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.