Northern Ballet's Hamlet is set in World War II: a dark dance version of a dark play pushed into the darkest moment of European recent history. Paul Clarke picks the brain of the dancer Kenneth Tindall over what makes this ballet version in Leeds special. Tindall is playing Hamlet's scheming uncle, Claudius.
Paul Clarke: For those of us who aren’t dance aficionados how on earth do you transfer a word heavy text like Hamlet into dance?
Kenneth Tindall: That’s a great question. Actually in a lot of forms it is very difficult, but in dance - for me - it is easier because it’s through the body. You can use the body movement to really tell the story, and if you watch any good actor it’s not just the words they say, it’s also the body language which brings the story across.
So with music and lighting ,and the body you can tell a story very clearly and that’s what we do well. I think Hamlet is an obvious choice for us to take on.
Paul Clarke: I understand that unusually Patricia Doyle, who’s the co-director and has done stints at the RSC, worked with the company on some drama training to reinforce the dance work you are doing. How’s that worked?
Kenneth Tindall: We’ve been working with Pat for quite some time on various projects, but Hamlet the first time round was one of the big ones. It is very difficult for a dancer, and very different at first, because we sit down with Pat and we script read with her. Then we do scene work as well and the material we use is always in some way linked to the project.
It was a very strange experience at first because we were really not used to using our voices. But the one thing she really works on is taking a scene, maybe a scene that co-director David Nixon has choreographed, and we’ll dialogue the steps. Instead of just doing them as dance we’ll speak about the steps first, and speak about where the intention comes from which then lead onto the dance steps.
Paul Clarke: There’s obviously no dialogue in the ballet so it’s going through the text to see how you can interpret it with your body?
Kenneth Tindall: Exactly, and also to make sure we're clear on where our characters are coming from, and we're not just out there doing any old steps. There’s a vocabulary that very specific to each character.
For example one of the SS officers has very sharp, swastika like movements, and he’s an aggressive character, so all of his work is very tight and sharp. Then you have the more romantic pas de deuxs between Hamlet and Ophelia which, combined with the music, has a completely different vocabulary.
So it’s really interesting working with the characters with Pat (Doyle) and then David (Nixon)coming in obviously having researched all those scenes and putting them into steps. It’s very cleverly done.
Paul Clarke: Northern Ballet has a reputation for pushing the envelope. Setting Hamlet in Nazi-occupied Paris is a very bold step.
Kenneth Tindall: Very, very provocative you could say. The production is very provocative and very dark. It was very intense doing it the first time round. There is a lot of very dark scenes in it. It's very sexual and very passionate.
Obviously there is the tension and terror there would be in occupied Paris at that time. We actually did a scene with Pat where we set up a train station scene, and we had SS officers guarding the platform. We had people playing the Jewish people. It was very tough and very moving.
It is a very strange thing to take on, I guess, but when you go to the theatre I think you want to be moved and this production of Hamlet will definitely move you. It’s a little scary at times.
Paul Clarke: One of things that’s been said is that this is a big boy’s ballet with not a tutu in sight. Are we in Michael Clark territory here?
Kenneth Tindall: I guess if you’re coming to see a traditional ballet then it’s definitely not what you are going to expect. It’s definitely a big boy’s ballet, but it’s not as far along as Michael Clark because the vocabulary is still based within the classical style. However, it does goes as far in the subject matter - it doesn’t cut any corners.
Hamlet is a dark play and they haven’t tried to shy away from anything in the dance, which I don’t think you should. It means a powerful piece of theatre has been produced.
Paul Clarke: What would you say to traditional ballet fans - why should we spend money to see this Hamlet?
Kenneth Tindall: Just like any good ballet, Hamlet has lots of pas de deux and all the stuff you’d expect from a ballet company. It has high technical standards, huge jumping, men fighting men and then there is material you don’t always get which is the reason why people should come.
We have interrogation scenes, which is where you really get to see the power of the dancing and acting together. You’re not just playing a sugar plum fairy, which has been done for a very long time. Everyone knows it is fantasy. Here you are playing what could essentially be real people.
You see the human side and you really connect. You’re going to see all of the technical aspects and great dancing, as well as the humanity. Put together it's very powerful - maybe the future of dance.
Paul Clarke: You’re playing Claudius, the villain of the piece. How’s that been for you?
Kenneth Tindall: It’s been very interesting. The good guys, Romeo and the others, are always fun to play, but to me they always feel slightly one-dimensional. The bad guys are always more complicated when you take a look into their past and see what they've done.
Working with David Nixon on Claudius has been wonderful because he is a fantastic actor as well as a choreographer. Claudius is an older man, he’s a smart guy and he's kind of creepy. He gets Hamlet’s mother and he gets what he is after. He’s a great character to play.
Paul Clarke: So to sum up?
Kenneth Tindall: Hamlet as a production is timeless and so deep and so dark. To combine that with the dancers behind it and the movement and the score makes for an almost operatic tragedy.
Performances at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds: Fri 9 September – Sun 15 September - Evenings – 7.15pm, Matinees: Sat 10 and 17 Sept - 2pm. Tickets: £20 - £30 (Discounts, concessions and group rates available) from the WYP Box Office on 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk
The pictures are from a previous Nothern Ballet production of Hamlet.