Piotr Stanczyk has many agonized solos in National Ballet’s Hamlet.
HAMLET choreography by Kevin O'Day. Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen West). Opens Friday (June 1) and runs to June 10, Wednesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinees Sunday (and June 2 and 7) 2 pm. $25-$234, some same-day $12. nationalballet.ca. 416-345-9595. See listing.
Hamlet might seem an unlikely candidate for a classical ballet adaptation. Just how do you translate the most famous soliloquy in the English language - "To be or not to be" - into dance anyway?
According to Piotr Stanczyk, the darkly handsome National Ballet of Canada principal dancer featured on all those promotional posters around town, American choreographer Kevin O'Day has done it using a theatrical combination of music, contemporary and classical movement idioms and an agonized solo (one of many) for the play's namesake Danish prince.
"We don't have many Hamlets in ballet," Stanczyk points out as we chat during his break between morning class and rehearsals at the Walter Carsen Centre. He's physically more compact than you might expect from those heroic posters, and he's soft-spoken, with a charming slight eastern European accent.
"It's a very complex play," he says. "You have to introduce all the characters - they're all important, and the disfunctionalities between them are all important. You can't start skipping stuff if you want to take the audience on a journey. You really have to do it step by step."
It's helpful that O'Day's take on the Shakespearean tragedy emphasizes the theme of fathers and sons and how difficult it can be for a child to escape the influence of a parent.
In this reading, Hamlet's famous internal struggles derive largely from his attempt to reconcile his own analytical nature with the more action-oriented ruling style of his deceased father.
Stanczyk, who shares the role with Guillaume Côté and Naoya Ebe, admits that the theme is personally "very close" to him and will likely resonate with many audience members as well.
"It's about the legacy and imprint of someone who is not even around any more yet is still affecting our lives. It can be really hard to free yourself from that."
Born in Poland, Stanczyk followed his sister to the State Ballet School of Poznan before coming to Canada to attend the National Ballet School as a teenager.
He joined the National in 1998 and was promoted to principal in 2008. He credits his passion for ballet for "saving" him from a life of trouble.
He doesn't go into details about what kind of trouble, but mentions that when the Wall came down, crime and turmoil in eastern Europe went the other way: up.
"I was an ambitious kid back then, and for a long time I didn't figure out the right way from the wrong way," he says. When I ask what he'd be doing if he weren't dancing, he laughs and says bluntly, "I would probably be in Poland. In jail."
Instead, to the great good fortune of ballet fans in Canada, he's proved a reliable leading man, performing major roles in many of the National's most exciting new and newly acquired works: Alexei Ratmansky's Romeo And Juliet, Christopher Wheeldon's Alice In Wonderland and Wayne McGregor's Chroma.
He's fiery rather than flowery, and combines great technique with a smouldering emotional intensity that commands attention.
These innate qualities - and the previously hinted at depths of life experience - should serve Stanczyk well when he takes the lead as the great Dane.
"I can get pretty dark in my personal life," he says sheepishly. "This might have been a factor in why I got cast."