A lowering cloud forms the set for Beijing Dance Theater’s production of Hamlet, which performed one single night on Friday at the Winspear Opera House its fiercely contemporary ballet that reimagined Shakespeare’s tragedy as a breathless full-length piece.
The first time Beijing Dance Theater performed as part of the TITAS Command Performance two seasons ago, I was riveted. They returned for last year’s spring gala, performing brilliant stand-alone works. Those were small steps made toward the grand sweep of inviting the ten-year-old company for a full-length program that premiered with us.
Choreographer and artistic director Yuanyuan Wang collaborated on Feng Xiogang’s 2006 film, The Banquet, which transposes to a Chinese dynasty the politico-personal clashes of Hamlet’s Danish monarchy. From this project came this creation, her own Hamlet.
Commissioned music by Dirk Haubrich, a German composer, opens with an air of menace. Searing electronic music is the norm for Beijing Dance Theater, which eschews, in this ballet also, any assumptions about ballet. The company members dance with ruthless precision, wielding technique like a psychological scalpel, often seeming poised between ecstasy and collapse. The effect is exquisitely dramatic.
Against this backdrop, the play’s main characters take shape. Hamlet is unruly in black. Queen Gertrude and her son’s duet is danced with ferocity and pathos. The new King ushers in martial steps.
The apparition of Ophelia, who becomes in Wang’s imagination a Floral Spirit, is one of the most unsettling visions I have seen, second only to the mute and ravaged Lavinia in Julie Taymor’s gruesome 1999 film version of Titus Adronicus, her Lavinia transcendent in suffering as her mouth spills blood, not words. Wang’s Floral Spirit, the only dancer en pointe, appears like a fragile, ghostly ballerina. Pouches she holds invisibly in her hands mete out a fine red confetti that bursts and crowns each poignantly elongated gesture. The petals, like red droplets, make her look like a bleeding swan. In the pas de deux, each arabesque becomes a shower of red. Beauty and darkness are, for Wang, entwined.
Music, as always in Beijing Dance Theater works, plays a major character. Strings are plucked so ferociously at one point, they seem to threaten to become unstrung in a sequence where the Queen exposes her neck with vulnerability, her head thrown back, the shapes she describes sinuous and regal. Ominous electronic distortions signal the appearances of the elder Hamlet’s ghost. Elsewhere, music-box tinkling enhances a macabre dance.
The company is almost unnervingly good at playing mannequins. Costume choices were masterful—strings dangling from suited wrists—in a sequence in which the company’s affect-less faces and limp arms describe a pantomime that suggests that Hamlet—or the universe—is toying. The theme of red, ushered in with the Floral Spirit, gathers strength.
The second half begins with dancers cloaked in black, lugubriously pacing. Hamlet becomes more and more wild and lost. Dissonance unchained: the music is more a-tonal. And even the most spellbound audience could become impatient with the tortured gyrations that seemed to lose focus after a final pas de deux with the Floral Spirit, this time showering petals that flit and filter down in bone white.
But the intensity is earned. The moment when Hamlet stands in a funeral pose, his feet covered in roses, the tilting cloud descending, seems to come too soon. For Wang, the journey of Hamlet’s tortured prince is a spiritual one, a struggle to reconcile opposing impulses, all under the set that hovers like a low-hanging cloud or rocky outcropping, light flickering across its surface, as though it were animated by supernatural lightning. Her powerful interpretation keeps you riveted for the duration.
Someone asked, in a Q&A after the performance, where Wang would locate the “to be or not to be” speech in the piece. There is no singular moment; it is the question pondered during the entire ballet, she answered. I would tend to agree.
I am also relieved, incidentally, that the partial government shut-down was lifted in time for the set to make its way through customs at the dock in San Pedro. There is the transcendent—and then there is the necessary mundane.