Hagoromo – a Dance/Opera Premiered at BAM, November 3, 2015

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Wendy Whelan as the tennis and Jack Soto as Hakuryo the Fisherman in Hagoromo. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

Wendy Whelan as the tennis and Jack Soto as Hakuryo the Fisherman in Hagoromo. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

Conceived and directed by David Michalek

Music by Nathan Davis
Libretto by Brendan Pelsue
Choreography by David Neumann
Puppetry by Chris M. Green

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
Claire Chase, flute
Dan Lippel, guitar
Jennifer K. Curtis, violin
Rebekah Heller, bassoon
Ross Karre, percussion/dulcimer
Conducted by Nicholas DeMaison
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Dianne Berkun-Menaker, Choral Director

Set design by Sara Brown
Lighting design by Clifton Taylor
Costumes by Dries Van Noten
Sound Design by Jody Elff
Dramaturgy by Norman Frisch
Wendy Whelan  and Jock Soto, dancers (New York City Ballet)
Katalin Károlyi, contralto and Peter Tantsits, tenor

Presented in association with American Opera Projects

BAM’s New Wave Festival, from the effervescent anticipation in the lobby to the usually outstanding, rarely boring activities on its stages, must surely be one of the most upbeat environments one can find in New York. One event among those I attended stood out, because of the particular excitement of the capacity audience: the world premiere of Hagoromo, a  multi-media work combining dance, puppetry, singing, and instrumental performance—all so artfully combined that the rest of the theatrical ensemble, sets, lighting, and costume, sprang into life in a rare way. The performance made itself felt in the audience before it even began. It was a diverse crowd, a bit different from what one routinely observes at BAM, certainly better dressed than usual. It seemed that this performance exerted an equally powerful attraction on fans of dance, contemporary music, and even fashion, lured by the costumes of the designer, Dries van Noten.

Although the organizers—among whom is the indefatigable American Opera Projects— describe the work as an opera, the action on stage, consisting of puppetry and dance, seemed to predominate. The production was first conceived by David Michalek, the husband of Wendy Whelan, whose phenomenally beautiful and measured movements in the central role absorbed one’s attention throughout. She appeared with Jock Soto, who used to be her most frequent partner when both were with the New York City Ballet. Life-sized puppets operated directly by their handlers, formed an ensemble which followed and responded to the dance of the human characters. (Michalek, I later learned, conceived them as extensions of the protagonist, an angel.) Hagoromo would not have had the stature it did without original music of a high order. Claire Chase, Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the most comprehensive, important, and liveliest contemporary music group in the United States, also played a significant role in the concept and enlisted the talents of Nathan Davis, one of the outstanding composers of his generation, who is a member of ICE, both as composer and percussionist, to provide the score. For the performance, members of ICE, the two vocal soloists, Katalin Károlyi, contralto and Peter Tantsits, tenor, and twenty female singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, provided the sonic foundations from a space at the top of the backdrop on stage. Passing over Ezra Pound’s famous translation, which first inspired him for the project, Michalek commissioned a new version from Brendan Pelsue, an MA student at Yale, where Michalek is also established, as lecturer in religion and the visual arts at the Divinity School.

Hagoromo is the name of a sacred feathered mantle worn by an angel, or tennin in Japanese, an airy spirit or celestial dancer. It gives her mysterious otherworldly powers. The Japanese legend, which can be traced back to the eighth century, AD, tells the story of how a poor fisherman, Hakuryo, found it, took possession of it, and refused to comply with the tennin’s request for him to return it. Without the Hagoromo, she cannot return to the heavens. He sees how he can make money by charging people to see the Hagoromo. He finally agrees to return the garment in exchange for being allowed to see the tennin perform her celestial dance. The Noh play, which has been dated to the early sixteenth century, is one of the most often performed, and is known to westerners primarily through Ezra Pound’s version, which was published in “Noh”, Or, Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan (1916), in which Pound refined work by the American scholar, Ernest Fenollosa. The essence of what Michalek sees in the story is, as he states, “At the heart of Hagoromo is a single message that shines with timely wisdom: only kindness and compassion can tranform greed into giving, and profit into value.” Indeed, the crux of Michalek’s version revolves around the Fisherman’s suspicion that, if he gives the Hagoromo to the Angel, she will leave with it without fulfilling her side of the bargain.  She replies, “Your doubt is sad and mortal. In Heaven there is no deceit.” In shame, the Fisherman returns it. This is a simple, but powerful moral for an age in which exploitation rules human behavior in almost every aspect of life. On the other hand this sort of moralizing can sound a little preachy and hollow, especially when coming from the prominent and the “in.” I didn’t feel too much of that here, absorbed as I was in the extraordinary movement and the subtle, colorful music, but, if certain passages repeated themselves insistently or rambled on, I suspect that the libretto was at fault. I don’t have the text in front of me, and I missed some passages, in spite of the impressive diction of the the soloists and the chorus, but I have a feeling it should have been trimmed and tightened before the choreographer and composer set eyes on it. Perhaps Michalek should have stayed with Pound’s translation, which is very beautiful in itself.

The show itself, as it unfolded, was dominated by the larger-than-life presence of Wendy Whelan…as so it should have been, for her assumed persona, the celestial dancer. Whelan’s body is by no means massive, but her controlled, often virtuosically slow, movements and her grave, sculptured face, whitened and rouged on stage, were mesmerizing. Some of her most powerful sequences, choreographed for her by David Neumann, consisted of, or emerged from a simple walk, here transformed into a solemn, ethereal gait. This gave her something in common with the very different earthly character danced by Jock Soto, also to a foundational of walking. His movements were largely contained within the mundane gestures and activities of a poor man who ekes out his living by physical labor. Every movement reflected a life bound to the material. Yet these, too, reflected art in their own way and were highly expressive, converying the awe and cluelessness of a common man faced with a rare epiphany of the divine. Hakuryo responds as such a man would, seeing material gain in his extraordinary good fortune. Fortunately, for him, he is not rigidly unreceptive and allows the angel to teach him. This process becomes the occasion of a complex drama of gestures and responses, interactions between the heavenly and earth-bound protagonists, itself a rich fabric of human behavior which could have sustained the evening without a sound or a trace of props or costume.

But, as it was, Dries van Noten gave the tennin several costumes, reflecting her various guises in heaven and to human eyes, which were not only resplendent in themselves, but entirely appropriate to the nature and situation of the character. The costumes transcended the merely stylish and were truly beautiful and stageworthy.

Whelen, Soto, and Puppets. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

Whelen, Soto, and Puppets. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

Was the chorus of skeletal, life-sized puppets distracting? Their management was really quite elaborate and ran that risk, but for the most part, the gravity of the handlers and the puppets’ movements remained sufficiently within the spirit of the action to avoid this. Yet, on occasion, I couldn’t help wondering if they were really necessary, at least to the extent they were present. Only later, when I read an interview for Vogue (November 1, 2015), did I understand that Michalek “envision[ed] the puppets, made in part from a mold of Whelan’s body, as ‘manifestations of her character’s superabundance.’” On the other hand one might consider wheter his multimedia agenda may have been somewhat overly consistent in cases like this. “Superabundance” is, in any case, a fruitful concept to bear in mind in relation to Hagoromo.

Wendy Whelan with Puppets and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and ICE deployed behind and above. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

Wendy Whelan with Puppets and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and ICE deployed behind and above. Photo Mark Stephen Kornbluth.

If the dance and costumes fascinated me in the moment, the rich musical score has remained with me longer and grown in memory. I associate Nathan Davis’ music mostly with richly evocative instrumental pieces of moderate duration. Through melody and color, he can concentrate a vast realm of experience into a few minutes, something, say between ten and twenty minutes. And he is one of the rare composers who can write lyrically for percussion. An air of nostalgia pervades some of his compositions enriching them with a Proustian time-dimension. Davis’ instrumental pieces are especially apt examples of the truth that in listening to a piece of music we are entering the composer’s time-world. It doesn’t matter whether the work lasts fifteen minutes or an hour. There is only the time set by the composer on the stave. In writing Hagoromo, Davis has taken a new departure in writing a score in “real” time. In this case, unlike that of Le Nozze di Figaro or Götterdämmerung, the time occupied by the dancers in telling their story anomalously coincided, so it seemed, with the time spent by the first-night audience in the Harvey Theater. Perhaps this strong presence of the audience was a product of the performance as a world premiere, perhaps also its nature as an event involving many elements which did not, in fact, coalesce into a real Gesamtkunstwerk. This should by no means be considered a defect or a failure. It may just not be a part of David Michalek’s personal aesthetics.

For Nathan Davis it was a new departure, a new adventure in creating not only atmosphere, mood, and a musical vehicle for the narrating and responding voices, but a sense of location both in a heavenly world and the earthly maritime world of the fishermen. In this Davis’ command of sonority and color powerfully conjured these realities, making them plastic through the sounds of the instruments and electronics. In addition to this writing for various flutes, including Claire Chase’s beloved “Bertha,” a double-bass flute, violin, bassoon, guitar, and percussion (including dulcimer), there was eloquent vocal writing for the two soloists, Katalin Károlyi, contralto and Peter Tantsits, tenor, and twenty female voices from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. (The score is complex, enough to require a conductor,a function more than ably filled by Nicholas DeMaison and brilliantly played by the ICE musicians.) Davis’ strategies included scintillating counterpoint and a lyrical hommage to Benjamin Britten, the western composer best known for his adaptation of a Noh play in his Curlew River. On the basis of a single hearing, I’d say that Davis’ approach to narration was centered more in establishing the particular mood and atmosphere of a particular scene with his finely tooled, sonically resplendent writing rather than taking the story in hand in the Wagnerian way and using the orchestra as a story-teller. And there is nothing wrong with that. This is narrative writing more in the spirit of The Rake’s Progress than Wozzeck. That impression may well change, if I have an opportunity to hear the score again.

Although there was a certain backward orientation in this production, since much of the audience was clearly motivated by the opportunity to see Jock Soto and Wendy Whelan, both recently retired from the New York City ballet, dance together again, but everything else, from David Michalek’s long-gestated concept to Nathan Davis’ music, was of the moment. Above all the taste for adapted Noh theater, which has enjoyed only sporadic vigor, once in the early twentieth century, through Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, and again in the 1950s, when Britten and William Plomer transposed an actual Noh model into a Christian parable, seems especially of the moment, a juncture when these outstanding talents in dance, puppetry, music, and fashion could come together—not to mention David Michalek’s particular approach to art. This very fragmentation in a multimedia work which does not strive for the cohesion of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk—not that Wagner’s side ahas ever been fully realized—is a signature of our current taste, or mode of approaching art, either as creator or public.  On none of these occasions did the creators attempt a literal recreation of a Noh play, but to borrow the content as the substance for work within their own, Western style. As librettist Brendan Pelsue has said on the BAM blog, “The dance-opera version of Hagoromo we are creating for BAM does not attempt to recreate those Noh techniques––we’d come up very, very short. Instead, our work, to my mind, has been to take our expertise in fields ranging from dance, to new music, to contemporary visual art, to puppetry, and stretch it over the simple scaffold that has made Hagoromo so enduring.” In this operatic methods and tastes are veering sharply back to the French baroque opéra-ballet, which we have learned to appreciate again over the past generation. One had the sense of lightning having struck—which is a typically unique, unrepeatable event. The choreography, costumes, and music of Hagoromo, on the other hand, are of such exceptional quality that one would like to see it enjoy an afterlife. It could easily flourish as a cantata or instrumental suite. At this stage of their careers Whelan and Soto are unlikely to continue to dance it again more than a few times, but other dancers equal to its rigorous demands could make a success of the performance as a whole—with some dramatic tightening and simplification, of course. The event itself should be remembered as a vibrant manifestation of the cultural trends our own particular time and place.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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