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At "Doggie Hamlet," The Play's The Thing (And So Are The Sheep)

Britta Greene/NHPR

The scene is a fenced-in enclosure, tucked away in the hills in southeastern Vermont. Inside, choreographer Ann Carlson leads a rehearsal with four dancers, a flock of sheep and a border collie.

The dancers drape sheep pelts over their heads, then wave the pelts in front of their bodies like bullfighters — but instead of red cloth, it’s pieces of the animals’ own skin that they’re waving. 

The sheep, it seems, couldn’t care less, until the border collie comes running up. Then, they stop munching the grass, look forward, and run, too. 

The team is rehearsing for "Doggie Hamlet," a performance piece by Carlson that will have its world premier at Dartmouth Thursday. They’re working one scene in particular — a “play within a play,” Carlson called it. It's one of the moments in the performance that has the strongest narrative, the most obvious storyline. The dancers appear as characters, putting on a show for the sheep. 

Credit Britta Greene/NHPR
Dancers rehearse a scene in which they appear to be performing for the flock of sheep.

Most of "Doggie Hamlet," though, is not like this. It’s loosely based on a novel titled “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” which references “Hamlet” and “The Jungle Book.” But it doesn’t tell any of these stories. 

“'Doggie Hamlet' is more about the presence of a story, as opposed to telling a story literally,” Carlson said. 

But "Doggie Hamlet," like many more abstract works of art, has not been immune from public skepticism. In December, just before the first major rumblings that President Donald Trump would move to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts, a conservative-leaning website published a critique of the performance.

“Taxpayers Foot Bill for ‘Doggie Hamlet,’” was the headline, continuing, “Actors in federally funded show yell and run at sheep in field for ‘postmodern dance.’”

Then, in April, an art critic with The New York Times pushed back. She argued the work instead explores important social and environmental issues, and noted that it did not directly receive National Endowment funds. Doggie Hamlet did, though, benefit in other ways from federal arts funding. Dartmouth, for example, put National Endowment funds toward staging the production at the college. 

Margaret Lawrence, the force behind bringing "Doggie Hamlet" to Dartmouth, is unfazed.

“I think probably anyone who wants to say anything about art they don’t understand is going to say it,” Lawrence, director of programming at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, said.

And, said Carlson, leaving viewers uncomfortable is part of the point. “Perhaps a more porous experience creates more potential to see your own story,” she said, adding that viewers often respond based on their own life experience — whether that’s with animals, land use, or even the experience of watching someone perform. 

“And that, of course, is how everybody comes to art — whether it’s contemporary dance or a painting on the wall,” Lawrence said. She encouraged anyone who is curious to head to the green at Dartmouth on Thursday. The world premier of Doggie Hamlet is free and open to the public. After that, the production will go on tour to several cities across the country. 

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