Dance review: Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet”

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Ballet Austin's "Hamlet."

(This review is written by American Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)

In Stephen Mills’ ballet version of “Hamlet,” the titular character is a man of multiple dimensions. While slowly slipping into madness, the line between reality and the imagined becomes blurred; thoughts mesh with action, visions with follow through. A haunting Philip Glass score, played lived by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, set the mood at the Long Center for the Performing Arts this weekend.

Ballet Austin's "Hamlet."

Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet.”

To illustrate the multiple facets of Hamlet’s personality, Ballet Austin’s version of the Shakespeare play stars not one but four Hamlets. There’s our tormented protagonist (danced by Frank Shott at the Sunday matinee), plus three echoes of himself (James Fuller, Oliver Greene-Cramer and Orlando Julius Canova), all working to avenge the untimely death of his father at the hand of his uncle, Claudius (we see Hamlet’s father as a ghost, played by Artistic Director Mills in a white, coat-tailed suit). It is as though Hamlet is never alone; his shadows follow him, dancing in canon behind him to create a ripple effect.

As readers of the original Shakespeare work will recall, madness abounds in “Hamlet,” and Ashley Lynn Sherman’s performance of Ophelia presented no exception. She had a way of bringing us into her crazy world, where movement and emotion fused in displays of hair pulling, limb flinging and body curling on the bank of a river. She sank — both figuratively and literally: figuratively, into madness; literally, into that cold water. She dipped her hair in a water basin that lined the entire front of the stage, and flipped her head up as she moved across the space, generating her own mist.

Behind Ophelia, three echoes of herself floated in flesh-toned chiffon dresses (Grace Morton, Chelsea Marie Renner and Brittany Strickland), creating the effect of slow-motion movement under water. The stage, punctuated with upright single-stem red roses and darkly magical lighting (scenic design by Jeffrey A. Main and Mills, lighting by Tony Tucci) evoked a dream world — perhaps one where Ophelia would finally find peace. The scene ended with Sherman suspended in the air against the backdrop, bathed softly in yellow light: sinking, sinking, sinking. Her death is exquisite.

Back at the castle, there’s more death. Hamlet swordfights Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who has blamed Hamlet for Ophelia’s death, killing him, but not before Laertes stabs him with his poison-tipped sword. As Hamlet begins to feel the poison’s effect, his mother, Gertrude, succumbs to a poison-laced drink, concocted by Claudius. Realizing what has happened, Hamlet stabs Claudius to death.

Each of the four Hamlets hovers over a death, taking on an otherworldly quality. It is hard to know if the scene is real, or just how Hamlet wishes it would be.


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