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Hamlet en pointe

Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan packages the madness, grief and rage of Shakespeare's prince of Denmark into a dance drama all her own

Wang Yuanyuan first collaborated with renowned filmmaker Feng Xiaogang in 2006, choreographing dance sequences for composer Tan Dun's music in Feng's film, "The Banquet", an adaptation of Hamlet.

"It's an alternative work compared to my other films," Feng told Wang on the set, referring to his departure from the comedy films he was known for. "It fulfilled my long-time desire to interpret traditional Chinese aesthetics." Sharing the same understanding for traditional Chinese aesthetics, Wang choreographed several dance pieces for the actors, including Zhang Ziyi, Zhou Xun and Daniel Wu.

"Both of us enjoyed our collaboration very much," Wang recalls.

The two were keen on the idea of developing the dance pieces for The Banquet into a complete ballet. But they had to wait until the time was right.

Over the past seven years, Feng has made films of different genres and returns to comedy this year. He was also too busy directing the 2014 CCTV Spring Festival Gala to attend Wang's press conference for her new show.

Wang founded Beijing Dance Theatre with veteran lighting director Han Jiang and set designer Tan Shaoyuan in 2008, looking for artistic freedom in contemporary dance. The same year, she choreographed for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, collaborating with director Zhang Yimou, whom she had worked with on a ballet version of "Raise the Red Lantern" in 2001.

Her works such as "Haze" and "Golden Lotus" have toured around the world, making her one of the most pioneering choreographers in China.

It wasn't until last year that Wang picked up the Hamlet idea again. After a year of preparation, the modern ballet dance, "Hamlet", premiered in Beijing last week and will be heading off on an international tour after the 2014 Spring Festival.

"The idea has been lingering in my mind for years but I was looking for the most appropriate way to interpret it through modern ballet dance," says Wang.

Unlike film, dancers don't talk onstage, so the choreographer must use physical movements, stage design and music to display the characters.

Wang says that over the years, her idea of choreographing a dance adapted from Shakespeare's Hamlet has evolved greatly. The historical story gets a modern edge in Wang's bold new ballet, far beyond the dance pieces for "The Banquet", which have a strong traditional Chinese style.

Wang tells the story through the eyes and inner world of the melancholy prince, who struggles with the dramas of power, family, revenge and love.

"I took away all the extraneous parts and came more to the essence of what I was trying to focus on the character, Hamlet. All other characters function as a mirror to him, reflecting how he is eager to have revenge, how he wants to take power, how he is hesitant to love, and how he loses himself," Wang explains.

Han Jiang, the scriptwriter, producer and lighting director of Beijing Dance Theatre, initially gave Wang eight versions of a script, each telling the story of Hamlet from a different perspective.

"It's difficult to turn such a classical story into a ballet. Our imagination for the story is unlimited," Han says.

Once Wang decided on the script - a version emphasising physical power and close to the original story of Hamlet, she called Feng, who was eager to be the artistic supervisor for the production.

"One day I took several drafts of the stage design to his studio, and he chose one with a simple but strong visual impact," says Wang. "I was very happy because we think along the same lines."

The plan picked up by Feng was designed by Tan Shaoyuan. On a black backdrop, white colour gradually concentrates into one point and finally disappears, which Tan describes as desperate and ruthless, like "a black hole absorbing all the light into darkness".

Instead of using the whole version of Tan Dun's music, Wang invited young Chinese composer Wang Peng to join in. Tan's music, she says, was for those dance pieces in Feng's film and she wanted music for the ballet that was coherent and complete.

The production is a celebration of the Beijing Dance Theatres fifth anniversary.

Wang describes the choreography for Hamlet as her most exhausting and torturous work ever, the first time she has told a story through a man's perspective.

"I pretended to be Hamlet and then I thought about how to deal with hatred and how to deal with women," she says. "Every day I had complicated emotions in my head, which was an energy-consuming process but it's also enjoyable."

Born and raised in Beijing, Wang studied choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy and later was trained at the California Institute of the Arts' school of dance in Los Angeles. In 1998, she was named resident choreographer for the National Ballet of China. The following year she premiered "The Butterfly Lovers" at the Great Hall of the People for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the National Ballet of China, as well as a Chinese version of "The Nutcracker".

Beijing Dance Theatre is a private troupe and has no financial support from the government. Wang was concerned about the money in the early years. But now, as they tour more than 20 countries every year, Wang worries less about money but hopes to attract domestic audiences.

"Hamlet will be a good start since the story is familiar to audiences both in China and abroad," she says. "I feel proud to show worldwide audiences how a contemporary ballet dance troupe from China depicts a classic from the West. I also care about what the Chinese audiences think of it."

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