The ballet begins near the story’s ending with Hamlet mortally wounded. As he lies dying he relives the events that brought him to this place.
Hamlet arrives home from school and is told of his father’s untimely death. His mother Gertrude is celebrating her marriage to Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius.
Ophelia’s father and brother, Polonius and Laertes, want her to have nothing to do with Hamlet. Hamlet’s mourning for his father is so intense that Ophelia comforts him. Seeing this, Polonius forbids her to see Hamlet.
In the dark vacant ballroom, visions appear to Hamlet. The ghost of his dead father visits and tells Hamlet that his death was not an accident: He was murdered as he lay sleeping by his own brother, Claudius. The ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his murder, Hamlet agrees.
As he replays the story in his mind he begins to come unraveled. Hamlet is confronted by three visions of himself as he fights to keep his sanity. Obeying her father’s orders, Ophelia attempts to return love letters she has received from Hamlet. Questioning Ophelia’s motive, the fragile Hamlet rejects her.
A group of street performers attract a crowd. Hamlet convinces them to re-enact the story of his father’s death in a performance for Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet hopes Claudius’ reaction will confirm what the ghost has said. Upon seeing the play, Claudius becomes disoriented and enraged and flees the scene.
A distraught Claudius begs the heavens for forgiveness. Polonius takes the overwhelmed Gertrude back to her room but hides when he hears Hamlet entering. Hamlet tries to understand Gertrude’s explanation of why she has married Claudius so quickly after his father’s death. An argument ensues. As Polonius tries to escape the turmoil he is accidentally stabbed by Hamlet. Gertrude is horrified. To pacify her unbalanced son, she promises that she will stay away from Claudius. Hamlet flees.
After the death of her father and rejection of Hamlet, Ophelia sinks deeply into madness. While swimming she drowns.
All have gathered for the funeral of Ophelia. Upon hearing of her death, Hamlet comes out of hiding. Everyone has heard of Polonius’ murder and avoids Hamlet. Claudius lays all the blame, including Ophelia’s madness, on Hamlet. Laertes becomes enraged. As the crowd disperses Claudius convinces Laertes that he must avenge his father’s death.
The shock of seeing Ophelia’s lifeless body sends Hamlet into great introspection. As he dreams, the demons of his mind visit and in the end, he is crushed.
Hamlet has been challenged to what he thinks is a sporting match of fencing. Claudius has conspired with Laertes to poison Hamlet with a drink. In case this fails, Laertes has dipped his foil in poison. One drop of the potion will kill. Claudius continually tries to persuade Hamlet to drink but he will not. Gertrude toasting her son’s fine showing in the match, accidentally drinks from the poison chalice intended for Hamlet. Seeing that the plan has been ruined, Laertes intervenes by cutting Hamlet with his poison foil. Hamlet is furious that Laertes has purposely cut him and begins to fight in earnest, stabbing Laertes. At this moment the poison takes its effect upon Gertrude. As she dies she tells Hamlet that she’s been poisoned. At his death, Laertes confesses the whole plot; Hamlet’s poisoning and Claudius’ deception. Hamlet gathers all his strength and with his foil kills Claudius.
BY MICHAEL KELLERMAN
Dell Hall at the Long Center
Feb. 13, 2009
Hamlet, which premiered in 2000 as part of Stephen Mills' inaugural season as Ballet Austin's artistic director, comes back to remind Austin just what a difference nine years can make.
In this time, the company has catapulted to prominence in the ballet world, due in part to the ongoing inspiration of Shakespeare to Mills' choreography. Given the achievements of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew in this short time frame, it's no wonder The New York Times stamped Mills "the bard of the ballet."
Lest this conjure a sense of antiquity, however, Mills' Hamlet is nothing if not modern. Set to the music of Philip Glass and brought to life through colorful costuming and sleek scenic designs, the work opens as Hamlet dies, setting up the remainder of the tragedy in reflection. What follows is a visual feast, brought to life by the company's dancers and Mills' aching and passionate choreography.
In the first pairing of Hamlet and Ophelia, Frank Shott and Ashley Lynn gracefully evoke the great joy of new love in the night's only angst-free moments. Following the revealing visit by the ghost of Hamlet's father, performed with great assurance by Mills himself, Hamlet begins his descent into madness and encounters three visions of himself. The scene is awesome, the four Hamlets struggling against one another as Hamlet's psyche wages war.
Ophelia's death scene is unto itself a fully realized piece. Alone onstage, accompanied by Glass' solo piano, Lynn's performance is heartbreaking in its swells of desperate emotion and loneliness. Given a patch of water to interact with onstage, Lynn's movements succumb with aching beauty to her character's fate, and the curtain falls as Ophelia drowns.
The collaboration with Glass is especially inspired in the second half, when the composer's Violin Concerto accompanies the tragedy that unravels following Ophelia's death. The Concerto, at times furious and tender, barrels along in perpetual anxiety, giving Mills an effective score for the action onstage. The opening image, with Ophelia entombed in midair above the throng of mourners, clad in white and black with a touch of damning red, is a stunning sight.
Ultimately, however, this is Hamlet's story, and Shott digs deep for a tremendous performance. After seeing Ophelia's lifeless body, Hamlet loses himself to despair and rage and ultimately writhes, chest arched upward, like a spider seconds before its death. The material calls for a dancer who can display not only great precision but also deep emotion throughout, and Shott's performance is a triumph of both.
Now, I am by no definition an expert on ballet. As the final scene unfolded, I wondered, what does one have to know about ballet to enjoy a performance like Hamlet? The very basis of Shakespeare's endurance in our culture is due to not just the degree of his literary standard but also the universality of the human experiences he brought to life. In many ways the same is true of Stephen Mills' success with Ballet Austin. No matter what you know, you know how greatly it moves you. Judging from the audience reaction to Hamlet, I'm by no means alone in my sentiment.