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Review: Atlanta Ballet slays two Bards in one season with exceptional take on “Hamlet”

At Ophelia's funeral, Rachel Van Buskirk (Gertrude) comforts John Welker (Hamlet) to open the second act. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

 

At Ophelia's funeral, Rachel Van Buskirk (Gertrude) comforts John Welker (Hamlet) to open the second act. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)
At Ophelia’s funeral, Rachel Van Buskirk (Gertrude) comforts John Welker (Hamlet) to open the second act. (Photos by Charlie McCullers)

Shakespeare ballets are all the rage these days. Alexei Ratmansky’s new Tempest premiered at American Ballet Theatre last October; London’s Royal Ballet gave the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale just last Thursday, and Atlanta Ballet performed Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette earlier this season.

Hamlet is not the most obvious choice for a ballet adaptation — all that introspection and indecision, all that killing. Yet several choreographers have taken a stab at it over the years, among them Ballet Austin’s Stephen Mills, whose brilliant two-act version was performed magnificently by Atlanta Ballet at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre over the weekend.

Mills’s Hamlet was created in 2000 and first performed by Atlanta Ballet in 2003. This is the first time they have performed it since, which is too bad because it’s a remarkable production that deserves more showings.

With a running time of only one hour and 37 minutes (including intermission), it’s a crisp and compact retelling of Shakespeare’s longest play. Mills strips down the story of the Danish prince who finally avenges his father’s murder by focusing on the lead characters and eliminating most of the rest. He gives us Hamlet’s family — comprising his father’s ghost, his mother Gertrude and his murderous uncle, Claudius — along with Ophelia and her family — father Polonius and brother Laertes. The infamous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nowhere to be seen.

Tara Lee in Ophelia's death scene.
Tara Lee in Ophelia’s death scene.

This sparse rendering of the plot is mirrored in the music — several Philip Glass compositions, including his haunting Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and excerpts from The Civil Wars and In the Upper Room. Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra did a superb job throughout.

The sets are similarly contemporary and minimalist. Mills collaborated on them with scenic designer Jeffrey A. Main and lighting designer Tony Tucci. Together they create a stark environment dominated by three huge chrome and Plexiglas tube-like pillars and splintered, diagonal shards of light. Hazes of dry ice, a stretch of water for Ophelia’s demise and a floor of red roses at her funeral add to the drama. The costumes are present-day suits for the men and skirts for the women, black in some scenes, red in others, with the ghost in a long, blood-stained white coat.

Mills’ choreography is classically based, spare and grounded, with telling thematic gestures throughout. For instance, Hamlet often clutches his ear, remembering how his father was murdered, and he and the supporting ensemble periodically point one finger up to the sky — addressing God perhaps? One wonderful choreographic device conjures up the disintegration and splitting of a tormented mind: three Ghost Hamlets, dressed like Hamlet, mirror his moves and at times split away. Mills uses a similar device for Ophelia as she begins to sink into madness.

The ballet begins as Hamlet lies dying. While his body is stretched out on a coffinlike black box hung high above the stage, he begins to relive each dreadful step of the journey from his encounter with his father’s ghost to the everybody-dies conclusion. His first memory is of Gertrude and Claudius celebrating their incestuous marriage. The horns and percussion of Glass’ Anima Mundi give grandeur to the scene and set the story in motion.

I didn’t see Hamlet when Atlanta Ballet first performed it, but it’s hard to imagine the original cast was any finer than the one dancing on Friday. John Welker, in fact, danced the title role in 2003, and on Friday was a brooding and tortured presence. His “to be or not to be” solo was deeply measured and resonant, with controlled drops to the floor and an almost slow-motion quality throughout. The moment when he grabbed the ankles of his father’s departing ghost was both unexpected and riveting.  

 

John Welker and Tara Lee.
John Welker and Tara Lee.

Rachel Van Buskirk was all regal imperiousness as his mother. She has the uncanny ability to play characters older than herself, to great effect, and her technique these days is flawless. Heath Gill shone as a fiery and vengeful Laertes, and Tara Lee pulled out all the stops as the lovelorn and finally unhinged Ophelia — one of her finest performances I’ve seen. Her pas de deux with Hamlet began in a mood of tentative, slightly awkward young love and morphed into a full surrender to Hamlet, only to be cruelly rejected. Her desperate rocking forward and back from the waist — literally coming unhinged? — was heart-breaking.

Many story ballets, Kenneth McMillan’s Romeo and Juliet among them, tend to spend way too much time on their characters’ deaths, often driven by the music. For that reason I was a bit leery about how Mills would handle the final scene with its multiple murders. But again he chose a minimalist approach, aided by the cry of a single, haunting violin that lingered in the mind long after the curtain fell. 

Click here to view more photos. 

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