Ballet Austin’s ‘Hamlet’ is a dark, surreal wonder

Ballet, by its very nature, is dramatic. It’s pure emotion given form through movement, light, and music. This makes “Hamlet”, perhaps the most dramatic of Shakespeare’s plays, a perfect choice for a ballet, as Stephen Mills has proven through his world-renowned production. Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet” is a dark, sumptuous journey through Shakespeare’s tale, bending and at times breaking the original narrative to create moments of intriguing texture and fiery emotion.

A certain knowledge of “Hamlet” is in many ways essential for true enjoyment of this ballet. The action is loose, symbolic, and esoteric, straying from the path of the original play in places, so a general grounding on the actual story is paramount to following the narrative. There’s still plenty of dark wonder on display here for those who aren’t “Hamlet” experts, but those with knowledge of the bard’s piece will have a much better appreciation for the performance.

Any performance of this play hinges upon the strength of the actor playing “Hamlet”. Indeed, many performances have been led astray due to the performance not having the right charisma or presence to take on the lead character. Luckily, dancer Frank Shott is more than up to the task, bringing a boldness and flair to the role, as well as some of the best technical skill in the piece. He has amazing chemistry with most of the other performers, in particular Ashley Lynn Sherman, with whom he creates a bevvy of beautiful moments.

One performer who truly captures the surreal qualities of Stephen’s direction and choreography is Ashley Lynn Sherman, who takes the role of Ophelia to bold levels. The scene of her death is one of the most shocking, disturbing, and awe-inspiring moments of the ballet, and perhaps of the season. Mills and Sherman take those symbols that so signify Ophelia (water, flowers), and magnify them to stunning extremes, creating a darkly beautiful display that ends in the body of our lead actress hovering over the rest of the cast, cast in the beautiful flair of light, courtesy of the inspired lighting design of Tony Tucci. It’s the highlight of the piece, and the fact that it’s presented after a curtain fall makes it all the more surprising and powerful.

Ballet Austin continues to be one of the most adventurous and unique companies in town, thanks in no small part to the dark genius of Stephen Mills. Gorgeous and dreamlike, Ballet Austin’s “Hamlet” is a thrilling journey through Shakespeare’s story, given frenzied, fractured treatment that heightens the emotion, even as it shortens and intensifies the narrative. It’s one of the most original takes on Shakespeare’s play, and a stunning example of what Austin’s ballet community has to offer.

Photo Courtesy of Anne Marie Bloodgood

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