International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Brooklyn Youth Chorus in conjunction with American Opera Projects
Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater
Brooklyn, New York
November 3, 2015
by Michael Popkin
© 2015 by Michael Popkin
“Your doubt is sad and mortal, there is no deceit with us,” intones the angel played by Wendy Whelan to the fisherman played by Jock Soto during the denouement of “Hagoromo.” While it’s the voice of contralto Katalin Károlyi (doubling Whelan’s character in this chamber opera/ballet) that actually sings the lines, the two characters are bargaining over the return of a magic scarf (literally “the Hagoromo”) that has fallen from heaven and thereby upset the balance of the cosmos. The fisherman eventually agrees to give it back to the angel, but only if she will dance for him first.
Photo of Wendy Whelan in “Hagoromo” © Julieta Cervantes.
Reunited here to dance this contemporary dance-opera adaptation of a Noh play, Whelan (who retired from New York City Ballet at just this time last year) and Soto (whose legendary partnership with her ended with his retirement a decade ago) performed with a quiet luminosity that perfectly suited the drama’s moonlight theme. Despite some kitsch moments in the adaptation, the two of them made the experience a pleasure.
“Hagoromo” is a Japanese classic but little known to mainstream western audiences. Yet the play was translated by Ezra Pound; and the translation was the vehicle that bought it to the attention of David Michalek, the contemporary media artist who adapted and staged it here. As Michalek also happens to be Whelan’s significant other, he involved both her and Soto in a project that turned into a further collaboration. Sung by 20 members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, to music provided by the International Contemporary Ensemble (a group of five musicians ranging from contemporary woodwinds and violin to percussion), with a contralto (Károlyi) and a sonorous tenor (Peter Tantsits) doubling the characters of the two dancers to provide the operatic performance, the music as a whole was conducted by Nicholas DeMaison.
If this is not enough in itself to digest, the work also involved an original score by Nathan Davis; sound designs by Jody Elff; period Japanese costumes by Dries Van Noten; two life size puppets of Whelan, along with a large puppet cat and an origami dog, all manipulated by five puppeteers; choreography by David Neuman; a libretto by Brendan Pelsue; lighting by Clifton Taylor, and a sleek set designed by Sara Brown. Still not enough artists involved? Add dramaturgy by Norman Frisch and you arrive at probably the most elaborate enumeration of a theatrical collaboration this viewer has ever seen in a playbill.
Amazingly, a project with this many moving parts looked very simple on stage. The musicians and singers (all costumed in Japanese robes) stood on a narrow platform above the theater’s rear. They looked down upon a plain natural wood set inside the proscenium. At the rear wall of the set (under the musicians), a pair of doors framed a window containing a moon; and black clad puppeteers either opened the doors (to show the moon in light) or closed them (to show the moon eclipsed during the time the Hagoromo was lost). The magic scarf itself was a very pretty piece of reddish gold fabric that stood on a small rack in the middle of the stage during the first scene in Heaven, with the scene here representing a shrine in the angelic world.
Whelan entered dressed in a grey leotard and held one’s attention by doing very little except pacing around the stage and looking serious. She was very good at this, being a dancer with weight who holds one's attention, and the simple practice clothes suited her beautifully. The two puppets that doubled her character (though it never really became obvious what function they served by being there) were interesting effigies of her with life size arms and legs, masked faces, but armatures for bodies that were manipulated by two puppeteers each.
When the magic scarf fell to earth and was lost, as a result of an elegant puppet cat and origami dog battling over it, the scene shifted to an enchanted island in the Japanese sea. Here the marvelous Soto entered, reminding us of the otherworldly dramatic substance and gravitas he always danced with and – like Whelan in the first scene – he held the stage with a few basic motions. Finding the scarf he became fascinated, first stretching it before him and eventually biting it with his teeth. When Whelan entered he did not at first want to return it to her but agreed to do so after her weakness and imminent death – dramatized by her in a halting and progressively more angular solo - stimulated his compassion.
The negotiation over the scarf was concluded during a balletic pas de deux that contained some arch dance quotations from both the “Agon” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” duets (by Balanchine) that Whelan and Soto used to dance together.
Whelan then performed “the dance of the moon” for Soto. As the score here became a wall of sonorous sound, the projected text of the poem had the angel revealing a cosmogony to the fisherman: “This is the dividing of the body / The sky is a golden gateway that seems to touch the earth / “Angels are the hem of the robe of sky” . . . etc.. But with the puppets again dancing alongside her, Whelan’s actual choreography here was again very basic, a few tremulous arabesque balances and some diagonal transections of the stage. She then exited back to heaven with the scarf and the drama ended with Soto alone looking towards where she’d vanished.
In back of this action throughout, the music was a soundscape of clicking sticks and occasionally booming percussion accompanied by a steadily variable drone of woodwinds and strings. As indicated the score built to crescendo for the revelatory final scene. The two singers vocal lines were essentially recitative, based on the verses of the poem. The whole theatrical event was therefore highly stylized in its set, props, music, dance and action. It gave a pleasure that was mildly ethereal: Zen-like in being minimal, quiet and subdued.
Interestingly, where Michalek in his program notes states that “Jock and Wendy embody elemental opposites: earth and sky, solid assurance and airy grace,” the spectacle on stage demonstrated just the opposite. Seeing them together again after ten years, one realized just how earthy both dancers are, Whelan just as much as Soto. A paradox of her career was that, as a leading ballerina, she was necessarily often cast as an airy creature; but in essence she is a weighty, real woman dancer and her brilliant impression depended on her being herself. It’s why she made her mark in the Balanchine repertory and this work curiously exploited that talent, despite its professed intention of doing the opposite, and succeeded precisely because Wendy Whelan real woman is consistently fascinating to watch.
Additional photos: middle top, Jock Soto in Hagoromo © Julieta Cervantes; middle bottom and bottom, both Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in Hagoromo © Julieta Cervantes.