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Doggie Hamlet at Will Rogers State Park. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

People and Animals Perform Side-by-Side in "Doggie Hamlet"

Travis Diehl

Ann Carlson's interspecies dance-drama tackles Shakespearian themes from deception to revenge.

Doggie Hamlet at Will Rogers State Park. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

The absurdity of the concept of a doggie anything was not lost on the right-wing waste hounds who cited Doggie Hamlet’s public support as a perfect reason to defund the NEA. Theirs was not the first article to drape scare quotes around “conceptual art” and “postmodern dance.” And if the piece’s title prompts thoughts of Danish pointers soliloquizing as they disinter a tasty skull, you too will be confused. In Ann Carlson’s new outdoor production, not a word of Shakespeare is heard. Instead—the thin simmer of bird calls at dusk; the burst of paws and clod of hooves on dense grass; the choral munching of two dozen sheep’s mouths tearing, not clipping, green blades from the ground; the shepherd’s commands to her dogs alternately shouted and sharply whistled. Stand. Turn. That’ll do.

The title is silly, but the work is not.

Doggie Hamlet at Will Rogers State Park. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Doggie Hamlet is a dance for one small flock of sheep, three border collies, one shepherd/dog handler, and four dancers that's very loosely inspired—in spirit if not in plot—by the titular classic. The dancers embody a sort of miniature patriarchy—three generations of men, all dressed in blue jeans and red plaid; and one grey-haired woman in a flowered dress. So much for human drama. Absent a phantasmagoric Denmark, the parallel spaces and timescales of different organisms phase into the audience’s awareness like the shadows of the surrounding trees: the grass, totally passive, indifferently grazed; the sheep, nervous and clustered, eating constantly, even when fleeing; the dogs, eagerly and deftly obeying their trainer’s commands; the human performers, more or less self-aware of these layers of artifice in a way that we assume the other species are not. And then, not least, us, the audience—watching all this, mesmerized.

The dancers here seem to access irrational modes between human and worm—alternately wolf- or sheep-like. The four performers carry sheepskins on their backs, gradually crawling into them, then down onto fours. The dead sheep's legs dangle. In these subaltern moments the dancers are lower, even, than the grass of the polo field at Will Rogers State Park. The dancers play the role of living things, subject to growth and death, urges and commands. Revenge, progeny, deception—even a play within a play—Carlson’s Hamlet somehow manages to choreograph many of Shakespeare’s big themes with only the barest of narratives.

For instance: Sheep want to be together. One of this pastoral’s tensest moments comes when a dog cuts the flock in two. To the human eye the groups of sheep are roughly equal, but there it is—to the sheep, some of them are “in” and some are “out,” and the out ones strain, without success, to get past the dog and go home. The shepherd calls, “That’ll do,” the dog runs off, and the flock flows back together. The commands are directed at the dogs, but they move the sheep.

Doggie Hamlet at Will Rogers State Park. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

This Hamlet, too, is a tragedy—stuck, like the human race, on repeat. People die, but they get up again. The old man yells at nothing like he’s haunted, grows feeble, then cowers on the grass under his skin. Part of the reason we sometimes find animals more interesting than people is a well-earned sense of self-loathing. This, even if Donna Haraway isn’t on your nightstand; and this, on some level, even if you’d rather drill here and drill now than sit still for seventy minutes on a bale of hay, watching people act like sheep. The dogs obey their commands: Steady, Stand, There; the people give themselves their own directions: Fight, Explode, Waltz.

There’s history again, after all. There are subjects and objects. Near the end of the play, the four human actors engage in a bit of abstract nationalism; they unfurl a short fence diagonally across the pasture, and address—for the first and only time—the audience directly. When they do, it’s with the humble pretensions of mere players offering their lives for our amusement. They beg for applause. Breathlessly, half crazed, they belt out the Scottish national anthem.

Doggie Hamlet at Will Rogers State Park. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

If there’s a five-act structure here, it’s well buried; Carlson’s composition spreads more chaotically than an Impressionist meadow—that is to say, with a wider sweep than what we can safely agree is art. Instead, Carlson’s piece hangs on the logic of the hunters and the hunted—and those who, like the sheep dogs, are only acting like they’re hunting, tongues out and grinning like beatific beasts, running circles around a wooly, bleating audience that can’t, doesn’t, won’t see the beauty of their dance.

Ann Carlsons Doggie Hamlet was presented at Will Rogers State Park in Los Angeles by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, on February 3 and 4, will play the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts on June 3 and 4, and will tour to New York on dates to be announced.