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Hamlet

The revival of Stephen Mills' Shakespearean ballet is rich in visuals and moving passion

Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., Feb. 20, 2009

Arts Review

Hamlet

Dell Hall at the Long Center

Feb. 13

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.

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