Lights up on a handsome black man in slacks, dress shirt, and tie, fingering a white handkerchief. He struts to the microphone downstage, strokes his hand up the length of its stand, and then kicks it sideways, softly catching its fall. Trumpets blare, and as Gregory Osborne drags the spindly metal pole into a lilting dance, James Brown’s voice soars over the scene: “This is a man’s world.”
In this way, choreographer Doug Elkins sets the stage for “Mo(or)town,” his take on Othello, which premiered Friday night at the Lobero Theatre, representing the culmination of DANCEworks’ third season. Yes, this is Shakespeare pared down to four players and set to classics of the Motown label. Yet like all of Elkins’s work, “Mo(or)town” is also thick with sub-references to everything from early modern dance to recent hip-hop singles.
Osborne, of course, is Othello, and his movements suggest a passionate temperament that runs the full spectrum from tender to violent. The object of his desire and the recipient of that ill-omened handkerchief is Desdemona (Donnell Oakley), whose dancing tells the whole story in its descent from buoyant partnering (aided by a peppy Italian version of The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”) to an anguished solo full of sinuous body rolls and robotic isolations, as if she’s trying and failing to locate herself inside her own skin.
Then there’s Emilia (Cori Marquis), who gets the spotlight while she agonizes over what to do with that damned strip of cloth, and Iago (Alex Dones), who helps her out by using it for some soft bondage and then taking off with it. Both are utterly captivating movers.
The references to José Limón’s “Moor’s Pavane” are evident early on in the quatrefoil arrangement of the dancers and the stately way they bow and weave. But when Iago suggests Desdemona’s infidelity, the stage becomes a dueling ground for the two men, and once again, James Brown is the emcee. Clear, effective theatrical staging suggests the influence of dramaturg Anne Davison. And in a brilliant twist that’s pure Elkins in its blend of satire and poignancy, Othello strangles Desdemona to the soulful rhythms and blues of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”
Students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts filled out the program with excerpts from Elkins’s wildly popular send-up of The Sound of Music, “Fräulein Maria,” a goofy mash-up where boys in aprons and girls in lederhosen alternate between prancing around like the Von Trapps and getting down to some rather raunchy club dancing. The program closed with an older work, “Center My Heart “ (1996), set to the Sufi devotional music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and featuring the North Carolina students in a ceaseless, trance-inducing whirl of color