The plays of William Shakespeare have long inspired other artists, from composers to filmmakers. “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, the classic tale of doomed young lovers, has been transformed into an opera by Gounod and several ballets and films (not to mention “West Side Story”).
But what about “Hamlet,” often considered Shakespeare’s most confounding play, where words matter, where the hero’s intellect and psyche is a critical part of the play? There are, of course, film versions of the play itself, including the Oscar-winning Laurence Olivier version, and there is the 1868 opera by Ambroise Thomas (which resurfaced recently, after years of semi-obscurity, with productions including a Cold War version at Washington National Opera in 2010).
But what about dance? How do you make a psychological and word-driven play like “Hamlet” come to life as a ballet?
Washington audiences will get the answer when “Hamlet,” choreographed by Stephen Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin, gets a company premiere by the Washington Ballet, featuring music by contemporary music icon Philip Glass. The ballet will be performed March 23 through April 3 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
For Mills, “Hamlet” is a milestone work that echoes with meaning for him in different ways. In 1959, the folks at Ballet Austin went looking for a new artistic director. They found him in Mills, already a critical member of the company. His first work in his first year at Ballet Austin? “Hamlet,” of course.
“It meant a lot to me and I wanted to begin with something new, and something significant,” Mills said in a telephone interview. “I would probably guess ‘Hamlet’ wouldn’t be everybody’s first choice for a ballet, a dance piece. In part, it’s about language and words, but, I think, it also lends itself to a ballet. It’s a silent ‘Hamlet,’ but not a mimed ‘Hamlet.’ Dance has its own language, of movement, of gesture, where you use every part of your body to illustrated emotions, to show feeling and, most importantly, in this case, to tell a story.”
Mills has created other Shakespeare dances, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” which were part of the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series, in collaboration with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. One of his signature works is “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project” from 2005.
“I think, and thought then, that the story of Hamlet and all of its incidents — the urge for revenge, the father-son relationship, the killings and plots — they’re part of a highly dramatic story that can be done in a ballet, in dance,” he said.
“If the story, the play, is in sharp, clean focus, you can make something very special about it. You don’t need elaborate costumes, and castles. It’s a universal, timeless story, very resonant in our time.” Mills has seen the Olivier film, which he found inspiring. “There’s so much movement in it, choreographed, stylish. And it’s all in black and white. Visually, it was stunning. It was very minimalist.
“I think in musical terms. My ballets don’t always have music in them, but most of the time, they do. And I think the music of Philip Glass is perfect for this,” Mills said.
“Philip’s music is often pigeonholed, I think — that’s somehow it’s atonal or difficult — but his work can also be very accessible, very powerful and moving, which I think when you’re dealing with ‘Hamlet’ is critical.
“‘Hamlet’ is about big themes, big feelings,” Mills continued. “Narrow it down and it’s about relationships and relatives, revenge and politics, which are very contemporary themes. So what’s important in terms of the ingredients are the situation, the score and the look. They’re all design elements that are very important.”
The focus in this “Hamlet” is squarely on his family: his father’s ghost, the adulterous mother Gertrude and the new and murderous King Claudius, along with Ophelia, her brother and her father.
Artistic Director Septime Webre called the production “sleek and dramatic, from the choreography to the sparse and contemporary scenic design,” by Jeffrey A. Main. “This is like no Shakespeare work you’ve ever seen. Mills strips down the complex play by focusing on the lead characters, all the while interjecting several take-your-breath-away moments.”
“It’s a real pleasure to have ‘Hamlet’ at Washington Ballet,” Mills said. “Septime and I are old friends, we’ve known each other for over two decades. We were both in the same company in Texas — I think we both wore the same Peter Pan costumes.”