Doug Elkins’s ‘Mo(or)town/Redux’ combines soul and Shakespeare, brilliantly

Julieta Cervantes - Cori Marquis and Alexander Dones in Doug Elkins' "Mo(or)town/Redux."

In Motown songs as in Shakespeare, fidelity issues loom large. Put the two together, add some character-defining go-go dancing, and you have a great piece of theater. That is what Doug Elkins delivers in his “Mo(or)town/Redux,” performed over the weekend at Rockville’s American Dance Institute.

Elkins’s work springs from a modern-dance classic: Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane” of 1949, which condenses Shakespeare’s “Othello” into a dance for two couples that devolves into scheming and leads the deceived Othello to murder his innocent wife. (As luck would have it, American Ballet Theatre performed Limon’s work last week at the Kennedy Center.) What Elkins and Limon have in common are deep musicality, a flair for storytelling and a way of eking character studies out of just the slightest dynamic changes.

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On top of all that, Elkins’s update has the greater erotic charge. It opens with Desdemona (Donnell Oakley) and Othello (Kyle Marshall) tumbling through some hip-rolling lovemaking to the song, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).” Iago (Alexander Dones) uses twistier, tightly coiled moves to signal his sinister self-importance. He and his wife, Emilia (Cori Marquis), employ Desdemona’s purloined handkerchief, symbol of her purity, in a bit of vicious bondage play. 

The heart of this piece is in the racing, slippery footwork and acrobatic cockfighting that electrify a duet between Iago and Othello as James Brown howls “Super Bad.” Othello gets hotter and angrier, and Iago grows cooler and happier, even as the sweat flies off him. And as Brown grunts his last grunt, Iago thrusts the handkerchief — proof of Desdemona’s deception — in Othello’s face. 

Frozen shock. 

Cue “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” 

You see how grandly it all works? But besides cleverly stringing songs together, what Elkins does so well is shape the dancing — a glorious, booty-centric binge of hard-core Motown-era moves — with subtle shifts that, along with the dancers’ timing and focus, tell us what their characters are thinking. You read it in their hips.

The second piece on the program, “Scott, Queen of Marys,” had plenty of amped-up movement but lacked a narrative element to tie it together. A tribute to the voguing brilliance of Willi Ninja (its original star, in 1994) — with bagpipes and Scottish country dancing mixed in, incongruously — it was a vigorous and entertaining affair for a few minutes. The whippet-thin Javier Ninja and his amusing too-cool-for-school attitude stepped in for his late namesake. Yet while the choreographic inventiveness didn’t wane, its impact did.

As “Mo(or)town/Redux” proved, a dance is better when it gives us more to think about than “wow.”

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