The current ballet season in Washington, DC is distinctive in its prominent Shakespearean theme to commemorate the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his death. In November, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet presented a new program “Balanchine, Béjart and the Bard” that featured excerpts from George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Maurice Béjart’s Romeo and Juliet. In January, the National Ballet of Canada gave the U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s brand new ballet The Winter’s Tale.
To add to Béjart’s take on the theme of the Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers, in June the Royal Swedish Ballet will bring Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo to the Kennedy Center and in July, American Ballet Theatre will return to Wolf Trap, after a 31-year absence, with Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.
Meanwhile, in March, The Washington Ballet brought its take on Shakespeare to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in a full-evening production of Hamlet – a two-act dance adaptation of the famous tragedy, created in 2000 by Stephen Mills, choreographer and artistic director of Ballet Austin.
In Hamlet, which the Washington Ballet’s cast delivered with youthful zest and sex appeal if not expressive artistry, imagination and dramatic purpose, Mills strips the iconic play of its convoluted subplots and discards several personages, concentrating primarily on six main characters: Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Polonius. There is also the ghost of Hamlet’s father; plus three other Hamlets (listed in the program as Hamlet II, Hamlet III, and Hamlet IV), who trail after the title character from time to time, signifying his split personality.
To give the ballet a modern look, Mills moves the action from ancient Denmark to the present day and gives it a thoroughly modern soundtrack – a medley of assorted compositions by Philip Glass, including his Violin Concerto and his music to Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” He also reduces the whole story to pretty much one subject matter: revenge. As such, this Hamlet is about a son on a quest to avenge the mysterious murder of his father.
The ballet begins where the story ends as the dying Hamlet relives in flashbacks the tragic events of the past, from the time he learns about his father’s suspicious death, to the moment of his fatal duel with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. Swiftly paced and stimulating, this Hamlet is never dull; but it is also rarely emotionally moving, often sliding into the campy and melodramatic.
There is, however, one undeniably compelling personage in this somewhat flat production of Hamlet, and it is not the disaffected and melancholy Danish prince of the title. It is, rather, the quiet and fragile Ophelia, as portrayed by Venus Villa, who ultimately brings an air of tragedy and emotional poignancy to the production. Her pitiful journey from hopeless love to debilitating madness and devastating death are the most memorable moments of the night.
A new name in the roster of the Washington Ballet, the Cuban-born Villa is petite and lissome, with a beautiful child-like face and big expressive eyes. (She reminded me of the effervescent Xiomara Reyes, a former principal ballerina of American Ballet Theatre, who as a guest artist graced the stage of the Eisenhower Theater last year in Septime Webre’s production of Sleepy Hollow, just a few months before she retired from ABT.) Villa’s Ophelia was like a breath of fresh air: sincere, uninhibited and highly emotive. It helped that the choreographer gave her the most visually and viscerally thrilling scene of the entire ballet, which happens at the end of the first act and involves a pool of water and imaginative movements and designs.
As Hamlet, Brooklyn Mack moved through the actions with the same anguished expression on his face the entire time. Thoughtful and intelligible pantomime is not yet the strongest suit of this young and talented dancer; and if his solos looked technically and physically impressive, his acting lacked poignancy and dramatic weight.
The other four characters: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Francesca Dugarte), his uncle Claudius (Gian Carlo Perez), Ophelia’s father Polonius (Corey Landolt) and Laertes (Samuel Wilson) were mere sketches, never having a chance to develop theatrically and come to life; and the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Luis R. Torres) looked like nothing but a cartoon.
Created 16 years ago, the production itself looks rather dated and in a need of serious upgrades, particularly the overly simplistic lighting effects and lackluster costumes for the supporting cast.