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RESHAPING BRUTALITY: Beijing Dance Theater shows tragedy of ‘Hamlet’ in new ways

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Beijing Dance Theater elevates “Hamlet” to a new viewing experience.

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“Actions speak louder than words.” It’s an old adage, for sure, but one most people have heard or have felt the meaning of in some form or another. Actions we all partake in our day-to-day lives carry more weight than any rambling statement of love, or pointed proclamation of hatred, or genuine apology. Sadly, we humans are cursed (and blessed) with a self-awareness to create and propagate our own hells—wherein our actions are not a product of us but instead a reaction to us. We are our own worst enemies, and no better is that on display than within the tortured tale of “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s story based on the tragedy of a melancholy and malevolent Dane.

Photos by Melissa Randall

I have seen numerus staged productions and films based off of “Hamlet” before, and I’ve been a part of a production of “Hamlet.” Hell my first review for encore was on a local production of “Hamlet.” So, to say I know the plot of the much popular tale of revenge rather well is something of an understatement. In essence, the story has been told ad nauseam—even taught, translated and re-imagined through time and across lands. It’s a classic and possibly, outside of “Romeo & Juliet,” Shakespeare’s most famous play. The story can take on so many forms and still hits the core of the human spirit just as hard—no matter from where viewers hail.

Last night I was very lucky to bear witness to what may have been the most unique and completely mesmerizing adaptation of the story I have ever seen. Through the combined talents of the world-renowned Beijing Dance Theater, the words of the Bard are reshaped into sharp, vibrate dance moves. With only three cities on their tour throughout the States—the other two shows being staged in Dallas and Houston, Texas—Wilmington should count itself lucky to be able to attract and bring in talent of this level. It truly elevates the arts scene of our fair port city.

Set in no particular time or place, Beijing’s undertaking is a deep existential exploration of the title character as he navigates his panicked actions and doomed reactions. Adapted by the incomparable choreographer Wang Yuanyuan (inspired by her collaborative work with Feng Xiogang on his 2006 film “The Banquet”), here Wang has taken the core concept and more well-known characters of play to choreograph a wickedly quick mixture of robust modern dance and tranquil ballet; and it slices like a butterfly knife across the stage.

Her interruption plays less with a Hamlet who is stuck in limbo of how to carry forward with his mission of revenge but into one who is finding a sadistic glee in approaching the endgame. And use of the word “limbo” is not accidental; the show has a timeless castaway feel, as if all here are lost, trapped and waiting to move on—like they’re all in limbo themselves!

A lot is left up to a stunning amount of self-interruption, which—with a seamless partnership with the set, lighting and music design—brilliantly balances the peculiar nature of David Lynch flicks while maintaining a traditional story setup by Shakespeare. It also leaves room for Hamlet to climb a Jacob’s Ladder-like structure, which I for one never saw within the story before, so that’s cool.

The set/lighting design by Han Jiang even plays into the odd limbo theory; a gray cloud sky wrinkles over the entire stage like an angry ocean. Furious and looking as if it’s going to crest at all times, a stunning lighting design is wired within it to fill a monstrous sea with seductive chaotic reds and manipulative calming blues. Though in the center of the sky, there is a perfect circle. Does it represent the simple parting of the clouds or the mouth to hell, which the flawed cast of characters have been falling down? The breathtaking work plays so well into the show’s concept and for its simplicity is to-a-“T” perfect.

At the top, the curtain silently rises and the audience is met with faceless beings. Who are they, what are they? The subjects of Denmark? The populace of the damned? Before answers can be reached, they slowly begin to advance, and like a quiet rumble of thunder in the distance, the music begins and the fallen King appears. Magnificent yet ghastly in appearance, his crisp yet paced movements set the perfect tempo to inspire actions of his brooding son, the awesomely leather-clad Hamlet (Jie Zheng)

The company rotates through the roles (which speaks to the overall incredible talents of every single member of the troupe). Zheng’s Hamlet is quite a good fit; he gives extra sinister, facial expressions that only adds to what he brings to the role. His ability to take full control and command of the stage is outstanding. Just as subtly, he becomes emasculated by his usurping uncle Claudius (Yuanbo Zhang). Zhang’s silent, heroic strength infuses Claudius so well I truly believe him to be an innocent victim to his nephew’s madness. The number shared between Zhang’s Claudius and Xiaochuan Gu’s Gertrude is hypnotic, perfectly telling the story of seductions. Washed in a warm pink hue, it paints a different story for the two usually despised lovers. Or maybe it plays into the trapped-in-limbo of past sins.

At the top of the second act Zheng opens it to the great play-within-the-play scene. Magically choroegraphed, the number is my favorite of the night. The entire trope is framed and dressed as marionettes, each only moving when Zheng wreaths around them to give them motion. Sometimes, even, he picks up members, moves them, and places them in elegant combination of strength and grace. Its flawless work from everyone and pitch perfectly shows the role of Hamlet, a puppet master weaving his web and trapping all within it. I could watch the number over and over.

Featuring ferociously slick modern movements, sweet Ophelia (Wuyue Zhao), who literally drips of red flower pellets whereever she prances, is the one who embraces the full ballet style. As always, she is a beacon of innocence and purity to Hamlet and the world he inhabits; even her costume styling mirrors as much. Her graceful movement shows the frailty of character better than an actress can with words. Events shift around, with her death coming much early in the ballet’s plot. It creates an interesting new element when her ghost returns to haunt Hamlet’s guilt-ridden mind.

Again, Han Jiang’s lighting design is all-encompassing, and the Wilson Center perfectly allows for its power to illuminate and jump between delicate captured moments of spotlight. At the finale, Hamlet finds himself center stage, basking in the booming bathes of light, yet another empathic number. He stands stoic and gasps for air as the troupe begins to lay roses at his feet. The pile grows until he seems to sprout from the mound of roses himself. He appears to be at the foot of his own grave even. He looks up smiling, as the blinding bright light shines down and grows brighter. It was a rousing moment that, when paired with the score, builds epic proportions. The audience will have goosebumps from the angelic image. And then … the curtain drops. The end. It’s a moment of high, a moment of awe when, as an audience member, I know I’ve seen something special.

To be honest my favorite readers, I’ve never been to a ballet until last night. I wasn’t sure what the evening would hold. I knew the story I was walking into but how would it translate into a different art form? What would that even look like? How long is it going to take to dance this whole thing out?! I mean The Bard’s shows take a long time to normally stage, so a sort of fear and loathing set in upon my entrance. Though, at a brisk and well-paced 70 minutes, and morphing verbal emotion masterfully into a physical emotion by the end, I found myself wishing I could see it again.

The ballet may have been far out of my comfort zone, but it absolutely broadened my horizons. And that is a sign of true art, when it opens up a world of something new. In a bizarre way, Beijing’s show could very well be a sequel to Shakespeare’s original, as four leading characters replay their past flaws until they can learn from them. It’s quite beautiful, truly brilliant to watch, and even better after the curtain closes, as it leaves a lot to be contemplated and digested.

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