There is room to explore between the lines, says Côté, and dance is very good at evoking emotions and atmospheres that can rival the power of words.
Hamlet is one of dramatic literature’s most complex and challenging roles, which likely explains why classical actors dream of playing him. Not just actors but dancers, too; including the National Ballet of Canada’s ranking male principal and international star, Guillaume Côté.
It’s just been announced that Côté will perform the title role next April at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre in the world premiere of a full-length adaptation of Shakespeare’s celebrated play, co-created by Côté and Quebec theatrical wizard Robert Lepage. It’s a co-production of Côté Danse, a platform for his own work formally established by Côté in 2019, Lepage’s Quebec-based Ex Machina and local impresario Svetlana Dvoretsky.
The show already has a subsequent May engagement in Romania that, Côté hopes, will be the start of an international tour. “I don’t make work to sit on the shelf,” he observed.
But a danced “Hamlet,” you ask? A play without words? It is a reasonable question, given how cerebral and self-reflecting a play “Hamlet” is, packed with Shakespeare’s typically brilliant word-play and layers of meaning. Fair enough; but as Côté points out, there is room to explore “between the lines,” as he put it, and dance is very good at evoking emotions and atmospheres that can rival the power of words.
Moreover, Côté is far from the first to take a shot at transposing Shakespeare’s intentions from words to movement.
The first recorded instance of a dance version of “Hamlet” dates to a Venetian production of 1788. There have been many since then including one made for Stuttgart Ballet in 2008 by American choreographer Kevin O’Day that Côté got to dance when it was presented by the National Ballet in 2012. He said the work never quite added up for him, but it did whet his appetite to explore the role further.
Côté, 42, and Lepage, 65, forged a professional partnership and personal friendship when they worked together on “Frame by Frame,” a strikingly imaginative tribute to groundbreaking National Film Board animator Norman McLaren, given its world premiere by the National Ballet in 2018 and again in a revised version last June.
By then, Côté and Lepage were well advanced with their “Hamlet” project, which was ready to be presented in July in what Côté described as a “first draft” version at the summer festival he directs at Saint-Sauveur, Que.
“Every director is at some point interested in ‘Hamlet,'” said Lepage. “It’s like a bottomless pit. You can keep digging and digging and digging; it’s such a rich play. The psychological complexities of the character and the intrigues are amazing. It really has everything.”
Ironically, Lepage has yet to direct a straight-forward stage production of “Hamlet,” although his 1995 one-man-show “Elsinore” was an audacious, multimedia exploration of the play’s themes and characters. Lepage knows “Hamlet” inside out.
“It’s the kind of play you know you’re not going to do just once,” said Lepage. “You have to wrap your head around it.”
Which is how Lepage and Côté, along with a nine-member cast that includes former National Ballet star Greta Hodgkinson as Hamlet’s mother, Gertude, and two local contemporary dance mavens, Robert Glumbek as Claudius, the usurping king, and Natasha Poon Woo, cast interestingly as Horatio, launched into the project with a series of exploratory workshops.
“I’m trying to guide the dancers in a dramaturgical way,” Lepage explained, “but Guillaume has great experience of playing characters in a lot of literary adaptations. He’s a very good guide; so our work is very compatible.”
And then there is Lepage’s production company Ex Machina with its now legendary gift for creating theatrical magic, often from the simplest of elements.
“What’s amazing is how he’s kept it so simple; three tables, some curtains, swords, chairs,” Côté explained. “There’s as many people behind the scenes as onstage. The tables move. Scenes change swiftly. Everything is quite magical.”
“Hamlet” also comes with an original score by Toronto composer/performer John Gzowski that, like the costuming, has historical references but is essentially contemporary in style. That said, and much to Côté’s delight, the score includes the sounds of an instrument with which Shakespeare was likely familiar, a hurdy-gurdy.
“Hamlet” is at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St., April 3 to 7, 2024; Tickets on sale Dec. 6. See showoneproductions.ca.
Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for the Star.