In 'Doggie Hamlet' Performance On Dartmouth Green, Local Sheep Steal The Show

Jun 29, 2017

As the old saying goes, you haven't truly experienced Shakespeare until you've experienced it performed outdoors by tightly choreographed Vermont sheep and herding dogs. And indeed this is what you'll experience at Doggie Hamlet, which has its world premiere on Dartmouth Green.

Doggie Hamlet is loosely based on the book The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The novel transposes the plot of Hamlet to rural Wisconsin.

"Loose" is the overwhelming feeling of this performance arts piece. Four dancers move around a large open field donning sheep skins draped over their shoulders.

A flock of freshly sheared sheep and obedient border collies zip around them. A dog trainer floats around the scene, using a shrill whistle and making commands.

"That'll do!" she yells every few minutes.

Doggie Hamlet is interpretive and earthy, combining sign language, choreographed dance and improvisation. Ann Carlson, the choreographer of Doggie Hamlet, has been conceiving the piece since she read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle about four years ago.

Now Carlson furiously scribbles notes sitting in a pick-up truck bed as she watches a rehearsal of the performance.

"Good, good, good. Yeah, yeah, yeah. They're attempting to scatter," she says softly to herself, watching actors prance towards sheep.

"Beautiful. Get them away from that edge!" Carlson continues, seemingly dissatisfied with how the tableau played out.

Carlson is known for using non-performers to actualize her work; dancers have been fly fishermen, nuns, corporate executives, janitors.

"I really enjoy the everyday gesture, the movement of the everyday in the body, in the bodies of the animals," Carlson explains emphatically. "And that's I think what propels me to work with a lot of different types of performers and a lot of different types of people."

But the stars of the show are the local flock of roughly two dozen sheep, from Strafford, Vermont.

Local sheep from Strafford, Vt. are some of the stars featured in the show "Doggie Hamlet," which has its world premiere on the Dartmouth Green.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

They are not performers by training, and yet some of the most exhilarating moments are when the sheep take 3-foot leaps off the ground like trained ballerinas.

"And they're real sheep, but they're also symbols. And the performers obviously are real human beings and they are symbols of ourselves," Carlson explains, one eye on the performance, one eye on her notebook.

"Also you don't think of them as jumpers," she points out about the sheep.

As the sheep move around the field as a pack, occasionally one or two break ranks, leaping up over one another. 

"They jumped because for them there was an invisible pressure, a line between these performers and the pelts that were on the ground. And so they had to jump over that spatial pressure – because they feel the pressure of us standing up high here, they feel pressure in their bodies. That's why the dog moves them so quickly," Carlson explains from her perch on the beige pick-up truck.

"The performers put pressure on them; the audience will put pressure on them. I don't know how that feels, but that's a lot what we're seeing too," Carlson says, adding that it is one of the things she looks forward to understanding more as audiences see the performance.

This wildly choreographed, somewhat unpredictable show premieres on the Dartmouth Green on Thursday, June 29, put on by the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

After that, Doggie Hamlet will be performed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. 

Disclosure: The Hopkins Center is an underwriter of VPR.