The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
June 1, 2012
by Denise Sum
Copyright © 2012 by Denise Sum
In adapting Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for the ballet stage, American choreographer Kevin O’Day has taken on an ambitious and undoubtedly daunting task. How does one translate the brilliance of the bard’s prose into an essentially non-verbal art form? It is as difficult as turning “Giselle” into a play. O’Day’s “Hamlet” is striking, atmospheric, and modern. However, does it succeed in capturing the drama at the core of “Hamlet”? That is the question.
The music is provided by John King. Like the narrative of the ballet, the score has moments of interest and cohesion, but frequently breaks down. It could be described as a soundscape. Layered over the sounds produced by the orchestra are electronic recordings blaring from speakers placed around the theatre. There are also long pauses. The choreography could appear more interesting, but when paired haphazardly with such an irregular score, it is difficult to see how the two can coalesce. Ballet music need not be limited to Tchaikovsky and Chopin, but some continuous phrasing in the music would certainly be helpful. At the opening of the second act, we are greeted by the traveling dancers (aptly led by Elena Lobsanova and Dylan Tedaldi). Not only do they provide a diversion, but their music is also faster with a steadier, more danceable beat.
Maybe there was a lot of dancing in “Hamlet”, but it does not feel that way when the dancing is disjointed and constantly interrupted -- a series of grand jetes here... then nothing.... some pirouettes over there... a pause. In the duel scene, suddenly we are introduced to slow motion sequences and tableaux, without explanation. Nonetheless, Hamlet is a meaty role, spending much of the two and a half hours on stage. Côté sinks his teeth into the role, managing to sustain a believable depiction of Hamlet’s angst amidst a production that often falls flat. His Ophelia was Heather Ogden. She dances in soft shoes, in contrast to Gertrude’s pointe shoes. Her fragility is evident from the start, as she is helplessly manipulated by the men around her. Her descent into madness begins the moment Hamlet rips up his love letter before her in the poignant “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Her mad scene is harrowing. She begins singing and tossing flower petals around herself, and ends drifting in the river as she sinks slowly to her death.
Gertrude (Stephanie Hutchison) and Claudius (Jiří Jelinek) were particularly lustful in their pas de deux, amplifying Hamlet’s disgust. Jelinek, the only dancer who had appeared in his role before (with the Stuttgart Ballet), commanded the stage and his court with confidence. Hutchison was a spineless and ineffectual Gertrude. As Hamlet’s most loyal friend, Brendan Saye was a discreet and honourable Horatio. McGee Maddox’s Laertes was earnest and vengeful, yet manages to find forgiveness at the very end. Comic relief was provided by pranksters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the gravedigger who used a skull and his own head as percussion instruments in one sequence.
Kevin O’Day’s “Hamlet” faces the same challenges as many contemporary full-length ballets, including how to advance a nuanced storyline without the help of the musical score, the use of mime or detailed program notes, and how to balance literal and symbolic representations. This “Hamlet” has no real arc of events and ends up feeling quite unstructured. We get a sketch or an outline of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but nothing is fleshed out, making the brief moments of intense drama seem abrupt and perplexing.
1. Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté in "Hamlet". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
2. Guillaume Côté with Artists of the Ballet in "Hamlet". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.