New Hamlet ballet puts focus on fathers

Hamlet, to make its North American premiere Friday with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, has been reinterpreted for dance by American choreographer Kevin O'Day.

National Ballet of Canada dances North American premiere

Guillaume Côté with artists of the National Ballet in Hamlet, a new narrative ballet choreographed by Kevin O'Day. (Vincent von Tiedemann/National Ballet of Canada)

American choreographer Kevin O’Day lost his father shortly before he decided to create a new ballet based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet, to make its North American premiere Friday with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, is one of Shakespeare’s most-quoted plays and has been famously interpreted for more than 400 years. The young prince of Denmark is tormented by the ghost of his murdered father, and his own indecision.

What resonated with O’Day, now artistic director of Ballett Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany, was the emotional connection of father and son.

"It’s addressing the father that’s within us. Your father that you can’t escape that’s genetically printed on you and in you," he says of the work, first performed by the Stuttgart Ballet in 2008.

"For me, it was kind of a way to release the past...and address the fact that the imprint of a father on me is something — what? Positive, negative, what is it?"

O’Day’s own pre-occupation after his father’s death was how much he had come to look like his parent.

"To me the ghost is actually the memory of the father imprinted on you in these genetic things like voice and body movement and these kinds of things. So there are many allusions to that," he told CBC News. 

The ballet was O’Day’s first narrative ballet, after numerous contemporary pieces for New York City Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Stuttgart Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

The challenge was delivering the drama and emotion of Shakespeare’s play, he said.

"It pretty much flowed. I used the Shakespeare as a map, but I veer in my own directions from it. It is a linear story – it was a very strong map that you could draw from," he said. He has since tried other narrative pieces, including his Romeo and Juliet with music by Prokofiev and yet another Shakespearean work, Othello.

O’Day collaborated with edgy New York composer John King to create the work. King’s music is a raw jazz-influenced soundscape, combining improvised music and computer effects for an intensely emotive score.

This style and O’Day’s choreography allows for a wide range of interpretation, depending on the body type and preference of the dancers.

"My version allows a lot of freedom for the interpreters," O’Day said. "The frame is there — they do the same piece, but the way it is delivered by them, because of the way it is constructed, allows and demands complete spontaneous interpretation from all of them and it changes from night to night."

Set to dance the demanding role of Hamlet – requiring a dancer on stage for more than three hours — are Guillaume Côté, Robert Stephen and Piotr Stanczyk.

Hamlet debuts Friday and will be performed June 1-3 and 6-10 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts  in Toronto.