Mrs Hamlet (2006)

Choreography: John Kelly
Music: Arvo Pärt
Costume: James Reilly
Dancer: Julia Tevheen
Produced by the McKnight Foundation
Premiere 2006 at the Southern Theater, Minneapolis


The Minneapolis based dancer Julia Tehven commissioned me to choreograph a solo for her, through an Artist Fellowship from the Twin Cities based McKnight Foundation. When I met Julia, we quickly found some common ground in terms of subject matter; I decided to make the dance based on Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and to show the events leading up to her tragic drowning (which we only hear about in the original play.) MrsHamlet, set to the music of Arvo Pärt, premiered at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis in May of 2006.

Mrs. Hamlet: Log of studio process, January 2006

     Julia Theven, an accomplished dancer in Minneapolis, received a McKnight Foundation commission to hire a choreographer to create a solo dance work especially for her. I was chosen, and we decided that the subject of the dance would be the character Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This experience is a departure for me in that, aside from the work I have created fro my company of dancers, singers and performers, I have never been commissioned to create a work that I was not, in some capacity, performing onstage. In the recent climate of ambivalence over the hurdles of creating and producing work, this came as a welcome respite from the not for profit drill.

Day 1

   I am determined to approach this choreography thing in a different way. I feel that establishing the concept—through the title Mrs. Hamlet, which I assume would be interpreted as Ophelia—but the scorned no longer future Mrs. Hamlet—the disturbed innocent who dies in a freak accident in nature. I had learned the value of stressing that a dancer entering should be like a film edit, in the process of something, of having come from some other place, setting, or state of mind—in this case Ophelia is bringing a lot of atmosphere with her, having traipsed around the woods in her mad state. I’ll have her on her back, pushing herself with her feet, dragging behind her a long and tangled boa of garland.

I was faced with a process quandary, whether to:

  • Have her mirror me as I invent movement on the spot
  • Give her movement which I’ve worked on beforehand
  • Give her images, and have her improvise, though I think she has not had that much experience working this way.
  • Finally, and once I felt comfortable with her, I set up the video camera and taped myself improvising.

Like in the past—I work with music, even though the music may eventually change—I need some—chosen–music to propel me into action.

Day 2

   I went into rehearsal determined to make movement for its own sake and then make it make sense afterward. Worked a bit on the feeling—2 or 3 steps (in the hallway mirror before the rehearsal), then in the studio with her “mirroring” me. I stayed with it and the one thing led to the next and we had a bit, I worked with her—on her body—and tweaked it—and then did it to music. Then did it another time to a different piece of music—taped it on video. Left there feeling it had been an excellent day—we both did.

Day 3

     I am determined to give myself over to the possibility—and the utility—of “chance”. I still don’t now where movement—a movement—comes from. Sure, I can refer to a painting, for instance (as I did in a literal way with Egon Schiele)—and attempt to translate the pose of the figure into an abstracted or symbolic movements that retain the atmosphere of the source. But if I start with a gut feeling, in this case a sense of compassion for the character named Ophelia—I am starting with less of a visual/physical cues (I have pretty much avoided looking at paintings or drawings of interpretations of her character).   I want my relationship to this material to be more direct and “pure; my version of her essence. And if I experience doubt as to the currency of my empathy for Ophelia, I can than bring this process even closer to my core, by finding an equivalent version of her dilemma in my personal life and experience.

I want the diagonal series of moves I create today to have its own music, maybe including some percussive foot stomping and twisting, gestural wringing, led by the elbows, a knarled knotty section, dense and kinetically “frustrated”, but at the same time flowing in its own inevitable course, on its own terms—not asking for, or trying to be anything else. Like a brain tumor, complex, but with its own perhaps disturbing shape.

A difficult start, but a really good day. Went in there with the simple idea of making a long diagonal phrase picking up from where we left off at the upstage left base of the proscenium arch.

Day 4

     I blocked and choreographed the entrance, then put it together with the rest of the material. We’ve been videotaping each rehearsal, which has precluded me making extensive drawings and notes—a mixed blessing. Its also in Julia’s head—still, I normally feel more secure when I have something in front of me that I can refer to more readily. Once we finish here I’ll take a cop (mini DV) back to New York with me—and maybe make drawings from that—kind of backward, but still a way for me to “rolf” the piece.

Day 5

     Today we reviewed the weeks’ work, I took notes and will clarify these so that I have a clear reference without the aid of the video. My plan is to make a rough music collage sketch for the end, so that I can leave Julia with a temporal idea for the end, cause when I leave here in a few days we won’t get back together till late April—more than 3 months from now.

I plan to give her clear images or words to work with so that she can distinguish between the various shifts and moods I want to achieve for the work.

The fact that it is based on a “mad scene” for Hamlet’s Ophelia, the shifts are intentional and intentionally erratic and non-linear in any rational manner. Still, its crucial that these shifts be articulated and distinguished one from the other—not just kinetically by way of the choreography, but also in terms of her relationship to the material and capacity to “own” the movement with the right amount of dramatic inflection, which in this case, is not an emotive type but that of committed interpretation emitting from the clearly delineated shifts within her solid core of ‘intention”.

Once she has the entire movement score memorized, I will then orchestrate this in terms of dynamic, and make adjustments, perhaps lengthening or punctuating certain parts. Its also important that she discover her own relationship to the structure’s inherent rhythmic/kinetic life. Once she does this, it can be performer to silence, or even to entirely different pieces of music. Since none of this is set on the music.

That said, we both agreed that as she begins to “own” the work, parts will invariably fall on the same point during different run-throughs, and begin to reveal an inevitable relationship. This is good, and can provide for some reassuring anchors, which can serve to more effectively ground the components in a common experience and cause.

Day 7

     Began to “rolf” the sections, also to define the sections so that they could be identified as this, or that. Met with costume designer. It was a difficult day, but ultimately productive, and retrospectively, necessary.

Day 8

     Decided to try different music. There was an immediate, and mutual, understanding that this would be a better choice. But there was now too much material, which forced me to soberly look at what was there, and edit and condense. Also, to heighten and accelerate certain passages.   What could I accelerate, also slow down in contrast, and what movement didn’t “read” as urgent, poetic, or just interesting. Generally, it was a cleaning up process. I also repeated the big movement theme, and have her dancing it on the music, one of the few instances of this. The music repeats, so then does this section. It appears to ground the work to a degree, to give the audience a known entity by way of repetition.

The variety in the music— (Arvo Part’s “Orient & Occident”, “Pilgrims Song”) for strings, men’s chorus, provides enough mystery, and functions more like a soundtrack, though more like typical dance music when the movement coincides directly with its forward momentum. At nine minutes, it is the perfect length. We are both charged by this change.   I still have much work to do in the remaining two days.

Day 9

     We’ve been running the piece, and simplifying. Interesting how exposure to the material allows one to see what has its own inevitable weight, and what has never resonated beyond the initial idea. Those ideas are crucial, though I’m learning not to fall in love with my own ideas.

Throughout this process I’ve been trying to be an exemplar of William Forstyhe’s words. He recently had a solo dancer Brock LaBrenz perform a site specific, and largely improvised, dance work in a soon to be demolished building in New York’s meat packing district (under the sponsorship of Creative Time). The dance would occur 6 hours a day 3 days a week for 4 weeks. Forsythe spoke at the gathering around the initial day of the work, and I stood there and took notes. Though he has been a friend for quite a few years (he had me accept his Dance Magazine Award for him in New York in 2003), I rarely get to see him. So I take what words from him I can—even though these may not be directed at me, I absorb them into my mind, as the words of mentor-like advice—when I can. Some of these seemed specific to this project—others I see as universal and useful:

  • Demonstrate a perception, or a comprehension
  • Nowhere and everywhere at the same time (gravity?)
  • Mine the properties of the present—look at it—develop a system of observational developments, rules: to follow; to set up.
  • Kinds of alignment in time—physical; psychological
  • What is happening right now?   pre-empts ones own experience
  • Don’t fall in love with ones own ideas

I entered the studio I Minneapolis with these words in mind. One very important solution to a staging problem was solved in the studio. Since in the story of Hamlet, Ophelia climbs a tree and goes out on a limb to hang some garland. The branch breaks and she falls in the lake, and drowns. I thought I would devise some way for her to cantilever her body out from the proscenium (one foot still on the floor), for a moment defy physics and gravity, then fall to the floor (really only a couple of feet) as if in the water. I had recently seen a Peter Sellars staging of Bach Cantatas with the mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Leibesohn. She was alone on a bare stage except for the device of the black clad “kuroko”, an “invisible” stage assistant taken from Kabuki. I will use the same practical device, the real and the unreal fused together, have him dressed in black, but leave his head and face bare. He will assist her as a necessary but otherwise unimportant stage non-presence. Realism is not the goal here, and by this point Ophelia’s madness could just as effectively register as some surreal dream state. This device to get Julia off the floor—she could climb on the man’s body as if she were climbing up the willow tree that overlooks the lake. Since her goal is to hang garland on the branches, she will then be manipulated into a horizontal position, as if she were inching herself along a branch.   As the weight of her body would be too much for the branch– at the moment of break—I would have him break his body from the waist in a single abrupt move (as if dipping a dancer in a “fish”, a common ballet manuevure), this way taking her halfway down, abruptly stopping for an instant. The “branch” would then fully collapse under her weight, plunging her into the water (onto the stage floor). The assistant would then retreat.

Once she is on her back on the floor, I had also planned on having body sized pieces of black semi-transparent organza snake along the stage floor from the wings and eventually cover her body, as if it were still visible under a few inches of murky water. To achieve the effect of her dress billowing up with air and keeping her afloat for a while before getting deflated, waterlogged, and dragging her under, I would have her land out of the branch break with her on her back, hips raised, both knees bent, feet on the floor. I would then have her slowly lower first her hips, then very slowly straighten her legs, this would give the illusion of the long garment deflating. Well, in rehearsal the effect, together with the final minimal chords of the strings in Arvo Part’s music, was so effective, that I decided that it did not need any additional theatrical effect, but could stand on its own as a kinetic experience, as dance.

On the final day of rehearsal we did a showing for the costume designer and a local choreographer. One pointed out that he noticed the point at which it—self consciously—became a “dance”. He felt it was a dance from the beginning. From this I learned that I still in my mind distinguish between less technically demanding movement and more technically demanding (and perhaps denser) “dance” movement. Perhaps this is a useless habit that I am finally willing and able to eliminate from my thought process. Maybe it’s a legacy of years in the ballet studio, where it wasn’t any good unless it strictly adhered to the sometime daunting traditional ballet vocabulary. Or could it be that I still hang onto the notion that the “heroic”, (i.e. most challenging) stance is the most important. Sure, struggle resulting from protean effort can be palpable, even interesting. It has certainly taken me to some very intense places. Technical virtuosity can be thrilling, but it is not a given that its “virtue” will extend beyond the momentary thrill.   And it holds no exclusive rights to poetry.

© John Kelly 2006

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