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Hamlet

choreography: Stephen Mills
music: Philip Glass
scenic concept: Stephen Mills
scenic design: Jeffrey A. Main
costume design: Christopher McCollum

lighting design: Tony Tucci
 


World premiere of Stephen Mills' Hamlet, Ballet Austin, October 27, 2000, Austin, Texas. BalletMet premiere, September 28, 2001
These notes compiled by Paul Collins, BalletMet Columbus, October 2001

 

 

Turning the Play into a Ballet


 

"I had done three full-length ballets before I started on Hamlet," Stephen Mills says, "and they were all very classical - The Nutcracker, Cinderella, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was interested in doing something in a more contemporary fashion, both in design and choreography, when the opportunity came to do this ballet.
"I've known the story of Hamlet since I was in college," Mills notes, "and I've always been drawn to it. I love the story of Ophelia in particular; it's really a very touching story. And finally - the main reason - being able to work with the music of Philip Glass. I'd never been in a position to be able to do that."

Shakespeare's plays "are as beautiful as his sonnets in their wording, of course," Mills says, "but I love the ingenious ways in which he links several stories that all converge and work themselves out at the end. You have no idea where these are going - and then all of a sudden you realize the brilliance of it." Mills adds, "There's so much drama in Hamlet that it's extreme. With him, of course, you have to leave things out; you simply can't tell everything, because if you try, it gets confusing for the audience. The difficult challenge for me was deciding what not to use, so as to keep the storyline clear, and determining what is the essence of Hamlet.

"To me, the story is of a man revenging the death of his father," the choreographer says. "You start to cut things away, and immediately you lose Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and we don't need the gravedigger - there's a lot you don't need once it's distilled down to a revenge story. Hamlet has murder - many murders - revenge, insanity, incest - (he grins) what could make for a better evening at the ballet?"

While the story of Hamlet is one of the world's best-known, Mills says, "I do it a little differently, in that we start at the end, when Hamlet has been wounded with a poisoned blade - and he is dying. It starts there, and then goes into a flashback in which he remembers the events that have brought him to this point, where he fights Laertes."
Hamlet, Mills says, "seems to be one of those stories you can update very easily, so we brought it into the 'here and now': the men are dressed in clothes similar to Armani's suit designs, and the women wear cocktail dresses."
Hamlet's starkly striking set as designed by Mills and Jeffrey A. Main, of Ballet Austin, whose Tony Tucci created the lighting. Christopher McCollum, who designed the costumes, "has done a lot of work in Germany with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass' collaborator," Mills says. "He normally does scenic design, but I asked him to design the costuming for Hamlet; his influence was very European, very avant garde."

The first of the two acts is "very, dark, somber, black," Mills says, "with some pinks, purples and peaches. Overall it's very stark. While it's not set in a castle, there are Plexiglass scene elements that are 'columnesque,' and scenes - dreams - are played out within them, with lots of smoke and lighting effects. There's a central platform that's used for various purposes: it's a stage for the traveling players who perform at the court, for example, and it serves as Gertrude's bed. "In the second act, after Ophelia has lost her senses and then drowned, there's a funeral," Mills says. "The scene has reversed completely, and everything is completely white. Hamlet's is the only color - red. It's symbolic; he's killed Polonius, and he has blood - figuratively - on his hands."

Dance, the choreographer says, "is about projecting images, so I focused on those - I looked for imagery I found powerful and effective throughout the play. And I tried to approach the acting in a more realistic fashion than we generally do with the mime in classical ballet."

The music is by Philip Glass, a compilation of different music, including some from his Violin Concerto and his film scores. "Either you love Glass or you hate him," Mills says. "I'm a Philip Glass freak, and Austin [Mills is Artistic Director of Ballet Austin] has a really big contingent of Glass fans."

"When you pair music with movement, it changes things; this story has a strong point of view that's expressed to the audience, and they get drawn in partly because the music is so very dramatic. It's just amazing what happens.
"I choose music for many different reasons," he says. "For Hamlet, I don't quite know how the idea came - it just came. I've always loved Philip Glass's music, but then I was in a period where I was listening to a lot of his music, and there was one moment where it just clicked for me that this would work well for Hamlet. "With a ballet, if you have great music and a great story you can't fail."

Artists express in choreography "what they've experienced throughout their careers, all their training, all the ballets they've ever danced," Mills says. "I had the good fortune of working with the Harkness Ballet in New York, and we did a lot of classical work, but we also did the contemporary choreographers. Then I went on to work with a modern dance company, Dance Kaleidoscope in Indianapolis, and the American Dance Machine in New York, which was all theater dance. So I'm not just interested in one particular style; I really like to fuse all the different styles that I've learned, and see how I can stretch the vocabulary a little bit."

Ballet Austin "did a lot of outreach work with Hamlet, which gave us a unique opportunity to go into junior high schools and high schools; normally the focus seems to be on elementary-school kids, but Hamlet isn't exactly their subject matter. The older students came and watched the full show. We'd sent docents to the schools beforehand, and we had discussions afterward. Their responses were great. "And they loved the music!"

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Philip Glass


 

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore Jan.31, 1937. In his father's radio repair shop the boy listened to recordings of the great chamber works - plus some "offbeat" music by Beethoven, Schubert and Shostakovich. He began the violin at six, the flute at eight. Still in high school, he was admitted to the University of Chicago; he did part-time jobs while majoring in mathematics and philosophy. He practiced piano, focusing on such composers as Charles Ives and Anton von Webern.

Glass graduated at 19 and moved to New York - and the Juilliard School. He abandoned the 12-tone techniques he'd used in Chicago, and admired American composers like Aaron Copland and William Schuman. By 23 he had rejected serialism, preferring such maverick composers as Harry Partch, Moondog, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson. Searching for his own musical "voice," he went to Paris for two years' intensive study under Nadia Boulanger.

Hired to transcribe Ravi Shankar compositions, Glass discovered elements of Indian music, and renounced his previous style. He researched music in North Africa, India and the Himalayas before returning to New York to apply Eastern technique to his own work.

By 1974 he had composed a body of new music, most for his group, the Philip Glass Ensemble, and much for use by Mabou Mines, a theater company he co-founded. From that period came Music in 12 Parts, a four-hour "summary" of Glass's new music. The 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, is regarded as a landmark in 20th century music-theater.

Glass's prodigious output ranges from opera (Satyagraha, Akhnaten, The Juniper Tree, Hydrogen Jukebox) to film scores (Mishima, Koyaanisqatsi, The Thin Blue Line, Powaqqatsi), to symphonic works (Violin Concerto, The Light, Itaipu, "Low" Symphony) to string quartets (Nos. 2 - 5) recorded by the Kronos Quartet. He has created music for dance (A Descent into the Maelstrom for Molissa Fenley, In the Upper Room for Twyla Tharp) and various theater pieces.

Recent works are The Witches of Venice, a ballet commissioned by Teatro alla Scala; The Voyage, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera; The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five with author Doris Lessing; Heroes Symphony, based on the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno and written for choreographer Twyla Tharp; and a film score for the Martin Scorsese movie Kundun, which garnered a Golden Globe Nomination and an Academy Award Nomination for Best Score; and two collaborations with Robert Wilson, Monsters of Grace and White Raven.

In 1999 Philip Glass won the Golden Globe Award for Best Score for the film The Truman Show.

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Philip Glass's Music



Glass's composition generally features the interweaving of relatively few - but strongly reiterated - melodic elements that create a powerful cumulative effect, as they are subtly transformed in vigorously rhythmic, tonal music. His work has frequently been used by modern choreographers, The Oxford Dictionary of Dance notes: Lucinda Childs used Glass music for her ballet Dance in 1979, Mad Rush in 1981, and Field Dances in 1984; and the New York City Ballet produced Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces in 1983.

 

Hamlet choreographer Stephen Mills says "the main reason" he was initially intrigued with the concept of developing a ballet based on the play was "being able to work with the music of Philip Glass. "It's really dance-inspiring," Mills said. "I was very excited about being able to use that music."

Philip Glass and his music "are always everywhere," The New York Times said in July, 2001, "and have been since the 1980s, when the composer, now 64, met the two conditions that make ubiquity possible. One is popularity, which was not a problem by then. As a founder of the antiserial, anti-academic style generally called Minimalism, he attracted a following of students and avant-gardists in the late 1960s, and reached into the rock audience in the '70s with recordings released by Virgin, then an arty progressive rock label. With the success of Einstein on the Beach… Mr. Glass's audience grew exponentially."

The second condition for such widespread acclaim, the Times said, was his receiving "commissions from the musical establishment, which had ignored him until then. By the late '80s, those commissions helped his catalog achieve a critical mass - a combination of volume and variety - that made it likely that on any given day, his music was being performed somewhere."

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The Music Used in Hamlet



The music used in the Stephen Mills' ballet Hamlet was drawn from the following works composed by Philip Glass:

 

 


From Anima Mundi: The Journey
The Ark
The Garden
The Beginning
Living Waters
Perpetual Motion 
   
 From The Civil Wars: Interlude No. 2 
   
From Mishima November 25: morning  
   
From In the Upper Room:  Dance I
Dance VIII 
   
Violin Concerto: Movements I, II, and III   
   

 

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Previous versions of Hamlet as a Ballet



Shakespeare's play has been transformed into more than a dozen ballets.

 

 

       
Title Choreographer Music First Performance
       
Hamlet Francesco Clerico Francesco Clerico 1788, Venice 
Hamlet Louis Henry  Gallenberg 1822, Vienna 
Hamlet Nijinska Liszt  1934, Paris
Hamlet Robert Helpmann Tchaikovsky  1942, London 
Hamlet Viktor Gsovsky Blacher 1950, Munich 
Hamlet Pierre Lacotte Walton  1964, Paris 
Hamlet Konstantin Sergeyev Chervensky 1970, St. Petersburg 
Hamlet Chabukiani Ravaz Gabichvadze 1971, Tbilisi
Hamlet: Connotations John Neumeier Aaron Copland 1976, New York 
Sea of Troubles  Kenneth MacMillan  Martinu and Webern 1988, London
Antic Kim Bradstrup Ian Dearden 1993, Elsinore
Hamlet P. Schaufuss   Sort Sol/Black Sun and Rued Langaard 1996, Elsinore


Helpmann's one-act ballet, designed by Leslie Hurry, was set to Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture. It was premiered May 19, 1942, by Sadler's Wells Ballet at New Theatre in London, and featured Helpmann, Fonteyn, Franca and Paltenghi. It was revived in 1964 for the Royal Ballet in London, and in 1970 for Australian Ballet, Melbourne. Sergeyev's 1970 Hamlet was created for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.

 

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World events around the time of Shakespeare's writing Hamlet



1596
Tomatoes introduced into England
First water closets installed at Queen's Palace, Richmond
Sir Francis Drake died
Galileo invents the thermometer

 

1599
Coffee is introduces into England when English diplomat Anthony Sherley returns from a trip to Persia.
John Alden, a Pilgrim Fathers who came to America on the Mayflower (1620), is born in England.
Edmund Spenser, English author of The Faerie Queene, dies in London.
Oliver Cromwell, English soldier and statesman, is born in Huntingdon, England.
Spain is swept by a new wave of plague that kills thousands in Andalusia and Castile.
A final Armada is assembled in Spain to sail against England - but scattered by storms, it returns to port.
Shakespeare's historical play Julius Caesar is first performed, by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in London.
The wooden Globe Theatre is built.
Shakespeare's comedies As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing are first performed.
Shakespeare's historical play The Life of Henry the Fifth is first performed.

1601
The English Parliament sits, and Queen Elizabeth I gives her valediction.
Italian scientist Giambattista della Porta of Naples describes how a vacuum has been formed when steam condenses.
The first celestial globe showing the southern skies' 12 new constellations is made by Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius.
William Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor is first performed in London.
The tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is first performed.
Captain James Lancaster of the East India Company gives his crew lemon juice and citrus fruits to prevent scurvy.

1602
The Dutch East India Company, chartered to establish bases and fortifications against Spain and Portugal, gets a monopoly on trade in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In Bohemia, physician Florian Mathis conducts the first major successful abdominal surgery - removing a dagger from the stomach of a sword swallower.
Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida is first performed, as is his comedy Twelfth Night.
Sir Thomas Bodley opens the Oxford University Library, now known as the Bodleian Library.

1602-1606
Merchant captain George Weymouth reconnoiters the New England coast.

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Bibliography



The Players, a novel of the young Shakespeare by Stephanie Cowell. W.W. Norton & Company, 1997
"Philip Glass: His Success, Like His Music, Keeps Repeating," By Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, July 8, 2001
The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2000
Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess, Penguin Books, London, 1972
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, New York, 1998

 

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