This weekend, Atlanta Ballet will be presenting “Hamlet” at the Cobb Energy Center, and, once again, Shakespeare leaves us a stage filled with dead bodies. “Hamlet” is a difficult play to present as a ballet, as it is extremely cerebral and dependent on the language to express abstract ideas (such as Hamlet’s decisions, which are explained in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Act III of the play). Choreographer Steven Mills has done a masterful job in making the conversion, but at times it helps to refer to the libretto!
The music is by Philip Glass and is a participant in the action rather than supporting it from the background. Throughout the ballet, the lovely Atlanta Ballet Orchestra seems to engage in conversations with the dancers, a relationship that is rare and a treasure for both the dancers and the audience.
One of the devices the choreographer uses in the ballet is multiple, consecutive repetitions of specific gestures, often in concert
with repetition in the music. I think this may be because we are watching Prince Hamlet flashback to various events as he lies dying, and he is focusing on things that, in retrospect, are particularly relevant to those events. They are often intensely dramatic gestures that help the audience understand the emotional state of the character at that point in the action.
Several scenes are especially outstanding. A sequence between the three ghosts and Hamlet is filled with quick directional changes and sharp angles juxtaposed against curved lines and flowing movement. There is a scene in which the women are seated on stools; their spatial design and movement seems as though they have stepped out of Ailey’s “Revelations.” Later, there is a dazzling moment in which Ophelia, danced by Tara Lee, mourns in the river, filled with actual water, while shiny raindrops fall behind her. The sword fight between Hamlet (danced by John Welker) and Laertes (danced by Heath Gill) is one of the best-choreographed, most-believable fight scenes I can remember. Some of the finest choreography includes the full cast; the movement in the group sequences is intricate and requires full attention.
The décor and costumes have a contemporary feel, but the costumes seem to have been inspired by a variety of historical periods, sometimes within the same scene. The costume designer’s intent may have been to create timelessness rather than placing “Hamlet” in a specific time period, to emphasize that the human emotions examined in the ballet could happen now or any time in the past, but I found it distracting. For the most part, the set is abstract, simple, and effective, although high-tech glass towers and strobe lights are used to highlight the appearance of the ghosts.
The Atlanta Ballet dancers, for the past three years, have all been very impressive in their abilities to dance a myriad of styles and to move from one to another quickly–this ballet comes only three weeks after the company’s last challenge,a mixed repertoire performance. But this year, audiences should pay special attention to John Welker, the veteran Atlanta Ballet company member who has danced a variety of extremely demanding roles, each one artistically better than the last. He is becoming more and more adept at portraying complex, tortured characters such as Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet” and this weekend’s “Hamlet.” Hamlet’s descent into madness is both disturbing and poignant; in this iteration, Welker’s Hamlet is a multi-dimensional character painted in shades of grey instead of the frequently seen two-dimensional, black and white character. In between, Welker has offered up technically proficient performances in classical and contemporary pure dance ballets.