Dance Review – Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet

Given the fact that ballet audiences are notoriously conservative, Karen Kain has taken a huge chance on Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet. In particular, composer John King’s original score is of the snap, crackle and pop variety, much like Thom Willems’ music for William Forsythe. The choreography is relentlessly contemporary ballet, filled with flexed feet and angular arms. Nonetheless, the opening night audience seemed to be exceedingly positive, especially toward Guillaume Côté in the title role.

O’Day is American so Hamlet must have been on his high school curriculum somewhere. On the other hand, he did dance with Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, and since 2002, he’s been artistic director of Mannheim’s National Theatre Ballet so he will have soaked up German influences. In fact, this work was created for Stuttgart Ballet in 2008, a home for contemporary ballet on the edge if ever there was.

I deliberately did not read the scenario, waiting to see how the ballet would unfold – in other words, to find out how well-defined a storyteller O’Day is. His Hamlet shows that he clearly knows Shakespeare’s characters and their relationships. There is no revisionism when it comes to the conversion of the tragedy to dance. To get around the band of actors, he cleverly transforms the troupe into Two Travelling Dancers (Elena Lobsanova and Dylan Tedaldi) to re-enact the story of the murder of Hamlet’s father.

One other innovation is the eight-member corps de ballet who when they are not courtiers, don veils over their faces to become omens of death, or furies within Hamlet’s conscience, or agents to spur on revenge, or symbols of tragedy. Their impact is too little, too late, and they are a weak link in terms of theatrical effects. For example, during the final duel scene, they form a clump on the upper gallery and perform a slow march the length of the tier while Hamlet and Laertes (McGee Maddox) are engaged in a life and death struggle below. At first they are distracting, and then they become invisible as one’s attention focuses on the fight.

As for the choreography, O’Day (whom himself was a star with Twyla Tharp and well-acquainted with her choreographic challenges), has created a bravura role in Hamlet. Any male dancer is going to look like a stand-out given the physical twists and turns he must negotiate. There are three long solos that are all a gymnastic/acrobatic tour de force. O’Day seems to love slow lunges and elongated stretches that lead into fast turns and showy jumps. Out-thrust limbs propel the body in multi-directions, asking the dancer to bend like a contortionist. Côté has the technique to pull the choreography off smartly and the acting skills to nuance character. For example, his first solo is almost that of a spoiled brat having a tantrum, sitting by his father’s grave, hugging his knees, and then letting his arms and legs flay about. His rage is palpable – he is a man torn between duty and will.

The partnering looks dangerous which is always a crowd pleaser. In Hamlet’s pas de deux with Ophelia (Heather Ogden), the poor girl is lifted overhead with split legs, to fall upside down – a favourite manoeuvre of O’Day’s to the point of excess repetition. Yet O’Day is able to build in emotional differences. A tender first duet with Ophelia, followed by one of Hamlet’s rejection when he feels she has betrayed him as a spy for her father Polonius (Jonathan Renna) and his uncle Claudius (Jiri Jelinek). With Gertrude (Stephanie Hutchison), there is warmth between mother and son, albeit strained. The dances between Gertrude and Claudius, on the other hand, are brimming with sexual undercurrents.

O’Day has also created two showy roles for both Claudius and Laertes, and in both Jelinek and Maddox, he has exceptional dancers. Jelinek is sophisticated and sexy, and cuts a commanding figure on the stage. He radiates control and O’Day has given Claudius strong, bold moves to reinforce that persona. Maddox’s Laertes has all the exuberance of youth with superfast spins and jumps. Yet his grief over the death of both father and sister rings true. Both dancers are also excellent actors.

Ogden is a strong technical dancer, yet she manages to submerge her strength in Ophelia’s frailty, which is not an easy thing to do. O’Day has her execute some strange things, such as punch her head into Hamlet’s stomach in the rejection pas de deux, which we take to be her desperation to find his love again. She is certainly tossed about by Hamlet, both in affection and rejection, with overhead cartwheels and awkward flexes in her body, but she radiates vulnerability throughout. Her suicide scene is quite poignant.

Hutchison’s Gertrude shows the woman’s weaknesses, attempting to walk that fine line between lust for Claudius and mother’s love for Hamlet. Her choreography is reactive, a feather in the wind, giving in to both lover and son. Hutchison has always been a very intelligent dancer, and she once again shows her ability to understand what is required of her in terms of Gertrude’s personality.

Horatio (Brendan Saye) is an interesting role. He has to show a strong presence as Hamlet’s companion, plus perform the final solo of the ballet which could be anticlimactic. Saye is certainly someone to watch. He seems to be a dancing actor of keen intelligence as well as possessing a flawless technique. Horatio’s choreography is one of formality and correctness, but Saye is never stiff. His Horatio is eloquent in his concern for his friend, and after Hamlet’s death, noble in his grief.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Robert Stephen and Christopher Stalzer) are the fun roles, full of spice and vinegar – jokesters of a dangerous type. Renna’s Polonius is upright and correct, yet always in the moment. As for the Two Travelling Dancers, they have to be sprightly, energetic and very technical which Lobsanova and Tedaldi are. Tedaldi is another one to watch. Kevin D. Bowles has fun drumming bone on skull as the comic relief Gravedigger, and it’s nice to see Peter Ottmann on stage as the stately Osric, the referee of the Hamlet/Laertes duel.

Tatyana van Walsum’s set is very stark. The lower walls are a burnt orange, while the stage itself is surrounded by a meshed upper gallery accessed by two steel staircases. Both the upper tier and the lower stage have concealed doors in the blackness. O’Day has elected to place various characters in the upper gloom to foretell of things to come, like Polonius and Claudius spying on Hamlet. Or else they are dimly lit behind one of the upper doors as a symbol of doom. In fact, I find Mark Stanley’s lighting design too dark over all, and I doubt if audiences in the fifth ring are going to be able to see specific staging details. There are also two exceedingly ugly drops, a see-through puce green scrim at the front, and a clearer-coloured one at the back. Both have some weird kind of design that look like cow hide colouring. If there is some kind of design symbolism, it eludes me.

As for van Walsum’s costumes, she has opted for a smart contemporary look. Hamlet, of course, is in black, with a very attractive mesh sweater top and slightly baggy trousers. The other men wear much the same design but in different colours. The women are in short dresses or skirts. I do have one complaint, however. Claudius’ burnt orange costume is similar to the colour worn by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. I realize it shows they are on the same side, but it means that Claudius loses his distinctive presence on stage, while Laertes’ gray and Horatio’s blue stand-out amid the crowd.

As for King’s score, which is part recorded and part live, it mostly comes in short bursts of electronica sounds, or brief spurts of orchestral chords. One does begin to feel over time that it would be nice to have a flow, a continuum, a run of music, no matter how dissonant the noise. It feels that the music never gets really started before it stops. Conductor David Briskin comes up to the plate in pulling the live and recorded forces together. One of the trombonists gets a special bow for, presumably, his blasts on the horn. The best part of the score is the disco beat of the court party when the Two Travelling Dancers appear.

So, on a first go round, how does Hamlet fare? The ballet has some great roles, particularly for the men. It’s a North American premiere which makes it unique to the National on this side of the Atlantic. While Hamlet has eye-catching, edgy choreography, it does, unfortunately, suffer from repetition, especially in the first act. One can, however, live with the score because the choreography is relatively strong. More to the point, Hamlet shows off the company well. It should have a shelf life because it does demand repeated viewings, which is always a good sign. I left wanting to see Hamlet a second time (as opposed to never again).

Hamlet, National Ballet of Canada, choreographed by Kevin O’Day, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2012.