In the court of Denmark, revelry is the order of the day. Couples decked out in riotous shades of red, rust, and violet dance boisterously, with an abandon that reeks of decadence. They follow the lead of their queen, Gertrude she of the lurid crimson gown who is lustily celebrating her marriage to the brother of her late husband. Amid this wild festivity, one figure is desperately out of place, the only person still attired in the black of mourning: Hamlet, son of the deceased king. He moves solemnly through the crowd, his mood as dark as his clothing, which only isolates him further from his mother, uncle, court, all.
So began the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark as adapted for Ballet Austin by Artistic Director Stephen Mills. Through the vision and skill of this insightful choreographer, one of the Western world's most familiar stories came across with an urgency that made palpable the all but unbearable burden of grief and rage shouldered by this young lord, and Hamlet's alienation from all that holds meaning for him his mother, the fair Ophelia, life itself was portrayed in visuals that were stark, vivid, poetic.
Mills may not have had Shakespeare's incomparable words at his disposal, but he found eloquence in other kinds of language: the musical, the visual, the choreographic. The score by Philip Glass, with its roiling strings and pulsing, insistent brass, described the turmoil within this prince and those around him, and propelled the piece like a heartbeat racing with adrenaline. Passions were expressed in the colors and cuts of Christopher McCollum's costumes. Scenic elements by Mills and Jeffrey Main communicated states of mind, as with the fratricidal Claudius, who contemplated his crime from inside a glass tube, spinning within it, pressing against its walls, a man trapped by his own lusts. And, of course, much was said, and with true poetry, through the movements of the dancers: Margot Brown's violent spasms as her Gertrude is confronted by her son, revealing both fear and guilt; Gina Patterson's Ophelia curling her body into that of Desmond Richardson's Hamlet, her limbs going limp as if she had no support but what he provided, and when that is lost to her, becoming lost in madness, arching her back, throwing her arms wide, frenziedly splashing her way through a long, shallow pool; Frank Shott's Laertes' anguished leaps toward his sister's lifeless body, his head thrown back in grieving howls to heaven.
It was in the funeral for Ophelia that Mills and company provided the production's most visually striking scene, with the young woman's corpse on a bier suspended high above the ensemble, all clothed in funereral black. Then, in a perverse echo of the opening scene, the prince enters, dressed in the boldest of reds: scarlet shirt, scarlet slacks, scarlet tie. His appearance is as alarming and unsettling as a droplet of blood on a sable fur, or perhaps even Poe's Red Death, sweeping through the masque with tragedy in his wake.
Scenes such as this made Mills' adaptation an absorbing experience, and yet for all the innovative theatrics, the ballet's power came from the portrayal of the characters. Nowhere was this more true than in the performance of Desmond Richardson. So deeply grounded in Hamlet's grief and vengefulness was he that every movement was charged with passion. A wave of his arm carried force and purpose, a leap proclaimed defiance. When he jerked backward abruptly, it appeared as if he were on the receiving end of a blow. Whatever he did was stunning in its leonine grace, but more importantly, it made us feel Hamlet's torment, what set him apart from everyone. Richardson's articulation of aloneness had a largeness that made his prince of Denmark emblematic of how we all are ultimately forced to make our way through life alone.
This was powerfully expressed in the scene following the funeral of Ophelia. Mills inserted a dream for Hamlet in which the figures from his life, the living and the dead, come to him, one by one, and he must grapple with what they are to him and what he is to them. The dances themselves, as choreographed by Mills, were compelling, each so specific to the characters we had come to know, each turning on the dramatic relationships as they had been established with such clarity. But they were made all the more compelling by the investment of the dancers, the emotional richness that they radiated from every limb and gesture. It was, in one scene, the summation of who a person is and how a person connects with others, a meditation on the nature of humankind that was Shakespearean.
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