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“Sea of Troubles” through a New Lens

Kenneth MacMillan created the short expressionist ballet “Sea of Troubles” in the late 1980s. The work draws on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and its central theme is Hamlet’s mental state following the suspected murder of his father, the King. As in many of MacMillan’s creations, an exploration of darker aspects of the human psyche underpins the ballet, whose nine scenes chart Hamlet’s journey as he becomes consumed with the desire for revenge and questions about guilt, morality, death, and what is true and false.

Dane Hurst as Hamlet and Oxana Panchenko as Gertrude in “Sea of Troubles.” Photograph by Pierre Tappon

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MacMillan choreographed the work for Dance Advance, a group of six ex-Royal Ballet soloists, and intended it to be performed in smaller regional theatres. Since its premiere at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts), Brighton, in 1988, the ballet has been revived just a few times: by Scottish Ballet (1993); a group of English National Ballet dancers led by Adam Cooper (2002, 2003); and, most recently, Yorke Dance Project (2017), who presented it as part of the Royal Ballet programme to mark the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s death.

MacMillan gave “Sea of Troubles” a unique dimension in that he opted for his characters—Hamlet, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia and Polonius—to be performed interchangeably by the dancers, each role identified by different props. The ballet was danced barefoot, and had a minimal set and simple costumes, both designed by Deborah MacMillan. In their notes on the work, the MacMillan Estate describe the choreographer’s approach as “filmic—almost Noh-like; the scenes sharply intercut,” so it seems fitting that “Sea of Troubles” is now being brought to the screen in a film version produced by Yorke Dance Project (YDP).

Shot on location at the historic Hatfield House, the film is currently in the editing phase and will be premiered at the Royal Opera House on October 10, World Mental Health Day, as part of the Royal Ballet’s newly announced 2023/24 season. I caught up with YDP’s founder and artistic director, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, on Zoom, to talk about her experience of working on the ballet and translating it for a different medium. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Romany Pajdak as Ophelia in “Sea of Troubles.” Photograph by Pierre Tappon

Looking back to 2017, how did you arrive at “Sea of Troubles” as a ballet that would be a good fit for YDP?

A good friend of mine, Robert Cohan’s biographer, Paul Jackson, suggested that I reach out to Deborah MacMillan to ask her about the idea of YDP reviving the work. This was at a time when, more and more, we were establishing ourselves as a touring company with a repertory that included both ballet and contemporary dance. As “Sea of Troubles” was choreographed to be danced barefoot and designed for smaller venues, it really aligned well with us and how we wanted to define YDP. I spoke at length with Deborah. She was keen for the work to be seen again, performed by a chamber group similar to Dance Advance. She also suggested that we should be coached by one of its original members, dancer Susie Crow, and that we collaborate with Jane Elliot, who recorded the ballet in Benesh notation when it was created.

As you prepared your stage revival, what did you discover about the ballet’s distinct qualities?

Having only watched MacMillan’s ballets, I was not aware, until we delved into the reconstruction, why his work resonated with me so much. It was because there is such a raw emotional connection. The characters in "Sea of Troubles” are all relatable, and the ballet’s particular qualities are the ways in which the dancers connect to the audience and interact with each other through the movement. A subtle look, or the choreography between two characters in a scene, all contribute to the storytelling in understated but important ways.

The ballet is very layered, and that is one thing that struck me as we started to unravel the work. I thought this is not going to be a straightforward revival; it is going to require a lot of understanding, not only of the style of movement and the the musicality, but also the characters. With the exchange of roles, MacMillan wanted the audience to wonder, “Who is Hamlet?” Hamlet has many facets to his character, like us all, and we all play different roles in our lives. “Sea of Troubles” is a unique work in that you can always find something new. I found this to be particularly true when working on the film.

Edd Mitton as the Ghost and Dane Hurst as Hamlet in “Sea of Troubles.” Photograph by Pierre Tappon

Did your experience of presenting MacMillan’s “Playground,” as part of YDP’s 20th anniversary programme in 2019, give you an even deeper insight into how to approach his work?

Yes, working on “Playground” gave us more clarity about how to approach "Sea of Troubles” a second time. MacMillan’s work is emotionally challenging—it requires an honesty in the dancer and the movement. I don’t think as a performer you can try to be ‘emotional’; you have to be completely immersed and believe wholly in what you are doing, otherwise it does not work.

The partnering in MacMillan’s choreography is often very difficult and intricate, for a reason. Understanding this about his work is the key to presenting it. Relationships are not straightforward and can be uncomfortable, and that is what has to be conveyed to the audience. Coaches Susie Crow for “Sea of Troubles” and Stephen Wicks, an original dancer in “Playground,” shared a lot of information about this and the creation of their roles. It is not the dancers’ aim to make everything look beautiful. Sometimes there is beauty in the ugly. It’s about the commitment, letting go of ego and being clear about the intention of the movement.

Dane Hurst as Hamlet, Oxana Panchenko as Gertrude and Edd Mitton as the Ghost in “Sea of Troubles.” Photograph by Pierre Tappon

What were your conversations with the MacMillan Estate regarding interpreting “Sea of Troubles” as a film?

There were many conversations prior to, and during filming, about how to adapt the ballet for the screen while retaining the integrity of the original work. One of the biggest issues we discussed was how to translate the transitions between each section, which were marked by blackouts in the stage version. How could we take the audience on a linear journey, when the ballet does not follow a linear narrative? We decided that to do this Hamlet should be played by one dancer [Dane Hurst], instead of each male dancer taking a turn at portraying the character. This would allow the audience to follow Hamlet’s journey more easily from scene to scene.

Can you describe your rehearsal process for the film, before and during your time on set?

My main focus during rehearsals on set was to maintain the movement we’d worked on in the spaces we were filming in, some of which were very narrow. In the studio, we’d marked out the measurements of each room so we could work the material to fit. Once we were on location, though, things changed dramatically. The movement started to look as if we had staged it for the theatre—very front-facing given where the cameras had to be. Deborah was there on our first day at Hatfield House, so we talked to her about what needed to change.

With Hamlet as our main focus, we found it was impossible to tell his story if we kept all the movement in shot. It made more sense to zoom in on what Hamlet was looking at and was engaged with. This means that some of the movement is not seen, or is only visible in the distance, rather than everything being in sharp focus. When we looked through the camera monitor, if it wasn’t clear where the story was, or what the intention of the scene was, we decided we must change the angle of filming or where the dancers were in the space.

The film’s director, David Stewart, and the camera crew don’t have an extensive background in screen dance, although you’d previously collaborated with David to make the film “Lockdown Portraits,” featuring the choreography of Robert Cohan. How was it collaborating with David on “Sea of Troubles” in terms of your respective backgrounds and approaches?

David is known for his documentary films and for getting to the heart of a story, so his approach chimed perfectly with the work of both MacMillan and Bob Cohan, two choreographers who I think shared an honesty and humaneness in their work. David’s main priority for “Sea of Troubles” was ensuring the audience understand each character and what they are trying to express. He was very open to suggestions and we were very respectful of each other’s positions and different experience. I would tell him if I thought a certain shot could not be filmed in the way he had set it up, because it would not work for the dancer aesthetically. He was very accepting and immediately worked on a new angle.

Romany Pajdak as Ophelia in “Sea of Troubles.” Photograph by Pierre Tappon

Deborah MacMillan’s set and costume designs for the 1988 ballet were very pared-back. How did the location for the film, the splendid Hatfield House, which could be a character in itself, impact your creative choices and the film’s structure?

The set for the stage version was just one arras, so transferring this aspect of the original design to Hatfield House was straightforward. We had a new arras made, because it needed to be twice as big given the size of the main room we were filming in. The costumes [black trousers and white shirts for the men; pale grey dresses for the women] remained the same, except shoes were added for the women and the King's coat was embellished for a greater dramatic effect. Like in the original ballet, different props are used to designate the characters; for example, a chaplet of daisies for Ophelia, and crowns for Gertrude and Claudius. In the film, like in the stage version, each female dancer takes a turn at playing Ophelia and Gertrude; and each male dancer plays one of the male characters, except for Hamlet.

Hatfield House gives the film an incredible atmosphere, thanks to its huge marble halls and the gold-leaf ceiling in one of the rooms, which seems to glow. The grounds were ideal for several of the scenes. A huge fountain within a walled garden creates a beautiful setting for the drowning-of-Ophelia scene, although it was challenging for the dancers as they needed to cover four times as much space as they would on stage.

Two of the six dancers [Freya Jeffs and Edd Mitton] had performed in your 2017 stage revival, but the remainder [Romany Pajdak of the Royal Ballet, Oxana Panchenko, Dane Hurst and Benjamin Warbis] were new to “Sea of Troubles.” What was their experience of adapting their dancing for the camera, and yours in directing them?

All these dancers had performed in YDP’s revival of “Playground,” so they had an understanding of MacMillan’s style; and Romany has extensive experience of his work as a soloist at The Royal Ballet. This meant there was not the same intensity of learning that the dancers went through when we first revived “Sea of Troubles.” I think there was an adjustment for all of them once we were on set. Until we watched a scene through the monitor, neither David nor I knew exactly what would be required dramatically from the dancers. This was something I had to work on with them; they had to trust me and what I was asking of them. Often they felt as if they were overplaying their roles. Of course they could not see themselves, so a lot of confidence in me was needed. I know they felt very uncomfortable at first, but then this new style of presentation became easier.

The film will be premiered on World Mental Health Day, and we’re approaching Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK (May 15-21), whose theme this year is ‘anxiety.’ Given its subject—Hamlet’s fraught state of mind—how do you want “Sea of Troubles” to impact audiences? Did you have a guiding intention when making the film?

I want this film to appeal to everyone and not just dance audiences. My intention has always been for viewers to have a visceral experience watching this interpretation, and for them to be able to relate to the film. I’d like them to connect to its themes in some way. We can all relate to anxiety—that sensation when life feels overwhelming. Our perspective changes and reality can become distorted. The fact that Hamlet’s journey is played out through movement is just another way of sharing his particular experience. Hopefully viewers will not even be aware that this is a dance film specifically, but rather a film about how Hamlet’s mind is affected because of what he goes through.

Securing backing can always be challenging, especially for smaller companies. How are you funding the filming and editing, and what are your plans for the film’s distribution?

The costs for film are greater than for the stage, so fundraising has been an enormous challenge. We secured enough money to shoot the film and create a trailer, but are continuing to raise funds from private donors and fundraising events to complete the editing and add sound [the ballet’s original score by Anton Webern and Bohuslav Martinů]. It’s all incredibly stressful, but I believe so strongly in what the film can achieve that I am reaching out to as many people and companies as possible.

We’re working with the mental health charity Mind and will be running educational workshops in tandem with the film’s release. After it premieres at the Royal Opera House, we’ll screen it in theatre venues and cinemas across the UK. We’re also planning on showing it in the US and will submit the film to international film festivals.

Rachael Moloney

Rachael Moloney is a UK–based editor and writer covering the arts, dance, and design. She has studied ballet as well as modern and contemporary techniques from a young age, and she is particularly interested in the relationship between dance and design. Her most recent dance writing has appeared in Wallpaper* magazine, where she was a senior editor.



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