Revenge, Deferred in Stephen Mills' Hamlet
Post-pandemic, Ballet Austin's artistic director brings his career-defining work back home
Ballet is often about the intersection of classic stories and instantly recognizable classical music. But there's an undeniable daring velocity in bringing together Shakespeare's text sans prose and the angular, jagged music of minimalist pioneer Philip Glass. It's a challenge that inspired Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills to create his groundbreaking adaptation of Hamlet in 2000, and to now bring it back for three performances at the Long Center.
It was, of course, the text that originally attracted Mills, who became obsessed as a 16-year-old with its depiction of supernatural vengeance. "It's one of those dark stories that, when you're a high schooler, you just gravitate towards," he explained. That romance was rekindled by Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film adaptation, which Mills called "a beautiful, masterful, easy-to-comprehend telling of that story."
"Easy" is not a word often applied to Glass' work. While Mills has repeatedly drawn on his catalog for works such as Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project and his three-part The Glass Project, he appreciated the "love-hate relationship musicians have with it." He recalled attending a rehearsal for Light at the Kennedy Center, which included a profoundly challenging 16-minute section from Glass' Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. "I sat with the pianist, and she said, 'OK, you get this one time. Do you want it in this orchestral rehearsal, or onstage?'" However, those complexities are what make Glass' work so appealing to Mills for ballet. "His music elevates the dance. Rhythmically, it is so diverse and interesting that, for a choreographer paying attention, there are so many opportunities for invention."
Mills found the opportunity to meld Shakespeare and Glass during his inaugural season as Ballet Austin's artistic director. He had already choreographed three productions (Cinderella, The Nutcracker, and A Midsummer Night's Dream) but, he said, "There were productions of all these ballets out there, so I was just adding to the canon. ... I wanted to make something that didn't already exist." It wasn't simply the opportunity to bring Hamlet to the ballet stage, but to experiment with approaches to storytelling, "eliminating those things that were not necessary. ... I was interested in the ways you can tell Hamlet without a lot of those classical ballet trappings of pantomime. How can we get to the essence of the story of this young man and find the metaphors through the body that an audience would resonate with?"
And resonate it undoubtedly has. This is the fourth staging in Austin alone, with Mills not only directing but also returning as the Ghost, a role he originated in the 2000 production and revisited in revivals here in 2009 and 2016. Not that he's too clear on that timeline: After all, this is a production that has been staged around the globe, from Sacramento to Augsburg, Germany, "so I lose track of the number of Hamlets we've done," Mills said. Over time, Mills' Hamlet has evolved to allow it to transfer between venues and to respond to technical changes in areas like lighting design and stage fog. But, Mills added, when Long Center audiences watch this latest staging it will be "basically the same production" that debuted at the Bass Concert Hall 23 years ago.
He demurred to the idea that it's his work that has attracted so many companies and so many revivals: Instead he pointed to the eternally relevant underlying themes ("deception and lying and murder and confusion, and a political state that is in upheaval") and the music curated from Glass' film scores and his Violin Concerto No. 1, "which I think is just some of the most beautiful music he has ever written."
Mills had originally planned to bring that synthesis back for an Austin revival in 2020, to mark the 20th anniversary. But, as with so many artistic endeavors, the pandemic crushed that plan. Mills called that time "my 18 missing months, when I wasn't doing art but was just trying to keep everything together, like everyone else was. ... We met every day online, and we would convene as a team to do our class, which is the daily ritual of warming up together and being ready for the rest of the day – but there was no rest of the day."
With no end in sight, several dancers left the troupe. This wasn't a matter of finances – as Mills noted, Ballet Austin managed to keep the corps on the payroll. But of all performance arts, dance may have been the most intrinsically afflicted by the pandemic. Theatre, movies, music – all can and did adapt to distance. But dance – especially ensemble dance – is inherently about the interaction of bodies in space. And without that shared space, some of those bodies moved on. When they were finally able to perform together, the corps was reduced to 20 dancers, and Mills has slowly reconstructed the company to where it is now: able to once again mount his defining work. It's been a process of strengthening and retraining not just their bodies, but "the mental and emotional muscles that you have to work every day to be prepared to perform onstage. The muscles you need to be creative – they're real, too."
Ballet Austin Presents Stephen Mills' HamletLong Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside