The play's the thing for Ballet Austin, as it brings back its most celebrated production, Hamlet, to open the 2015 season in dramatic fashion.
Dancers Paul Michael Bloodgood as Hamlet and Aara Krumpe as Queen Gertrude in a previous production of Ballet Austin’s Hamlet.
Exactly how someone transforms Shakespeare’s Hamlet—one of the most respected and forceful masterpieces in the history of Western playwriting—into a wordless ballet is a question that Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, finds difficult to articulate, even though he has done it. Not only did Mills transform the Shakespearean tragedy into a beautiful ballet 15 years ago, but he also turned it into one of the organization’s most prestigious works; his production has been licensed by seven other companies around the country.
Ballet Austin Executive Director Cookie Ruiz believes in this production so much, the company is presenting it for the third time since its debut in 2000, this time as the season premiere. Hamlet will be performed September 4–6, and for the first time with live accompaniment by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which will play the haunting score Mills assembled from Philip Glass’ various works. Austin Way recently spoke to Mills and Ruiz about their history with the production—which will feature stunning sets and Armani- and Alexander McQueen–inspired costumes—and their hopes for this year’s performance.
Ballet Austin dancer Frank Shott—pictured here portraying Hamlet with Ashley Lynn Sherman as Ophelia—will retire next year
Cookie Ruiz:Hamlet has been a defining symbol of [Mills’s] work. I remember Stephen coming to me and saying, “So what if Hamlet is not really in Denmark? And what if it’s [set in] no specific time?” So I could see where he was going with it. But to see it… it’s sleek, it’s elegant, and there’s this incredible way that he has gone into the music of Philip Glass. Stephen Mills: I had always loved Philip Glass, but I had never had the financial resources to use his music. In 2000, I suddenly had the resources and decided that I was going to do something that interested me and something that was as far out as I could think at that time.
CR: How do you tell Shakespeare’s story with no words? But they’re there. the words are there. that’s the thing: If you love the work, all those moments are there. If you don’t know the story, Stephen is such a strong storyteller that in the very beginning you get this idea, at the wedding, that these are people who are really happy. Then Hamlet is not, and there’s death.… It’s really amazing the way all that happens with the use of black, white, and red—color and contrast. SM: It is an audience favorite; it’s something that people ask for. and it’s a work that I like to revisit. as an artist, every time I revisit a work, my knowledge of it grows deeper, and it’s almost like the piece speaks back to me. there are dancers in the company to whom the role of Hamlet is deeply connected. One of those dancers is Frank Shott, who was in the original production of Hamlet but played the part of laertes. Now he’s in the role of Hamlet [as he was in 2009]. I love watching Frank in this role.
“The resiliency of Shakespeare is in the power of the storytelling. Words are words, steps are steps, but the scenes embedded within the story of Hamlet are present today.” —Stephen Mills
CR: There’s a lot there to love, and it’s done so well. And this year it’s being performed in Austin, and also at the Kennedy Center [by the Washington Ballet], and in Augsburg, Germany. For a work that’s been in the repertoire for 15 years, that’s pretty big. SM: The resiliency of Shakespeare is in the power of the storytelling. Words are words, steps are steps, but the scenes embedded within the story of Hamlet are present today. Betrayal, murder…
CR: …Dysfunctional families. SM: And power and fragility in terms of Ophelia: her other self, her internal self, and the way she splits from that. Shakespeare tells human stories of relationships that are still valuable.
CR: We are really blessed in Austin that we have an innovative and curious community, so we will always want Stephen to continue to approach an empty studio with something that’s never been done before. We’re always looking for funding for things that are new. SM: Our hope is that people are making us stewards of their gifts because they believe in the mission of the organization and they believe that whatever project we produce with their gifts will be excellent.