Hagoromo. Ballet. Dir. David Michalek. Music Nathan Davis. Libretto Brendan Pelsue. Choreography David Neumann. Dancers: Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto. New York: Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2015.

            review by Caitlin Hurst


rsz hagoromo whelan large


Set to Dazzle the Serious Future Ages: Hagoromo Recomposed


At New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music last November, the Noh play Hagoromo was performed as an 80-minute chamber dance/opera/puppet show. David Michalek, who conceived and directed the hybrid performance, “rediscovered Hagoromo several years ago in a book of Noh plays translated by Ezra Pound” (Program notes). He envisioned a Hagoromo animated by the contrasts between ballet dancer Wendy Whalen, recently retired from a 30-year career at the New York City ballet, and her former dance partner, Jock Soto. Playwright Brendan Pelsue adapted the tale into a libretto that is sometimes a direct citation of Pound’s words, acknowledging his “biggest debt is to the work of Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa,” though he also consulted translations by Arthur Waley and Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai. Avant-garde percussionist and composer Nathan Davis’s score, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, coupled Western and Eastern instruments: bass flute, guitar, bassoon, violin, dulcimer, gongs, woodblocks, a drum struck with knotted rope, hand fans that mimicked beating wings. Contralto Katalin Karolyi and tenor Peter Tantsists provided a voice for “the Angel” and “the Fisherman,” Hakuryo.

Fenollosa and Pound’s translation of the one-act play Hagoromo, first published in the October 1914 Quarterly Review and later included in Certain Noble Plays of Japan (Cuala Press, 1916), describes the players as a tennin (“an aerial spirit or celestial dancer”); a fisherman; and a priest named Hakuryo. “The play,” Pound asserts in his headnote, “shows the relation of the early Noh to the God-dance.” Fenollosa had emphasized the ancient God-dance as a primary source for the development of Noh. This sacred pantomime was performed in Shinto temples by a solitary dancer wearing a mask. For Fenollosa, this origin made the development of Japanese Noh significantly distinct from early Greek drama, in which “the chorus danced, and the God was represented by an altar” (“Classical Drama” 455). If every Western art was, as Pound complained in 1912, “dammed and clogged by the mimetic” (Selected Prose 42), Japanese drama could offer a freeing alternative. In the masked figure of a dancing god, Fenollosa celebrated a disinterest in the mimesis of human action.

Michalek’s production, which uses face paint rather than masks, shows an interest in the “inhuman” qualities of the spirit’s dance by having life-sized puppets dance alongside Whalen. The choice to call the tennin an “Angel” seems indicative of an effort to make the figure quickly legible to Western audiences, rather than any substantive Christianization of this moon spirit. More significant is the production’s elision of the priest figure. This elision reproduces one quietly made by Pound himself in the 1917 edition Noh or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan. Here, Hakuryo, a “Priest” (and also a “taker of fish”) in earlier appearances of the text, is now described only as “chief fisherman.” If this shift in names between Pound’s translations made the distance between the world and the gods a little wider, Michalek’s Hagoromo replaces the pathos of this distance with unambiguous opposition. This Hakuryo is not a potential mediator between spirits and humans; in Pelsue’s libretto he becomes, as the final act of the play makes clear, allegorized and chastised as a figure of material greed.  

This shift is echoed in the choice to split Hagoromo into more than one act, creating a structure that insists on the division between sky and earth, spirit and material, even as it orchestrates an encounter between the two at the level of narrative. The performance begins with an act in a dark “celestial” space, preferring to show us the unearthly beauty of the Angel’s ritual dance before the loss of her feather-mantle, the hagoromo. Referencing the traditional Noh stage, set designer Sara Brown constructed a simple stage of pale wood, with a round door in the back that opens out into a dim moon and high risers around the sides to hold the orchestra and chorus above the action. At center stage a shimmering gold cloth is draped over a ceremonial stand. The spirit enters in a slow walk, throwing huge shadows on the walls of the stage. Whalen manipulates the hagoromo in such a way that her shadow appears winged. Her face, painted white and kept strictly immobile, is possible to mistake for a Noh mask. Her costume in the first scene - a black body suit that fades to white as it blends with her arms and legs - tricks the eye into believing the ballerina’s famously long limbs have achieved a nearly inhuman extension. The chorus and singers are clothed in kimonos, as Whalen will be in her reappearance in Act Two. But the minimalism in Whalen’s costuming in the first scene compels a focus on movement; the body suit asks us to set aside, temporarily, questions of appropriation or authenticity in dress. This slow dance “that turns the moon” is sturdy yet ethereal, with careful pause given to every small flexing of the foot or lift of the arm.

rsz 001 wendy whelen dance bam dries van notenOne of the production’s most visually striking innovations is the inclusion of two life-sized puppets, each controlled by three black-clad puppeteers. The dance is grounded in the economy of a single figure on a wide stage, yet a small crowd of copies – puppets, shadows, even the singers above – trace or comment upon each of the Angel’s movements. The puppets were cast from Whelan’s own body and imitate her movements on stage. Reflecting the play’s interest in resisting conventions of theatrical realism and, I would argue, historical specificity, these simulacra resemble cyborgs or fragmented mannequins. The puppeteers also manipulate the Angel’s body, especially during her sorrow over the loss of flight, making Whelan herself seem part marionette. Yeats was delighted by the discontinuous rhythms explored by Noh dancers. “[T]hey found their movements upon those of puppets,” he explained in his introduction to Pound’s Certain Noble Plays of Japan (158). Perhaps Michalek’s inspiration to work with puppeteers grew out of Yeats’ comments. Ultimately, his decision to join puppet and dancer supports the production’s interpretation of the hagoromo as a symbol of artifice, standing in for value of artistic circulation. Before the play’s guiding metaphors are made explicit later in the performance, to watch this conjunction of angel and puppets without any framing felt like observing something intriguingly unaccountable, even eerie, in its exclusion of “human” motion.

Another allusion of modernist poetry comes to mind: “Angel and puppet: a real play, finally. / Then what we separate by our very presence / can come together,” Rilke writes in the fourth Duino elegy. (25). For Rilke, the possibility of a union between inanimate dolls and angelic beings necessitates the exclusion of human thought, which always divides such forms by making hard distinctions between them. Hagoromo’s first scene is somehow able to suggest the uncanniness of this union of opposites as a kind of self-multiplication. As the spirit dances, the chorus sings in a wild and stuttering language, a layering of phonemes and broken words. These words start to resolve into more distinct sounds: “moon divided,” “one becomes three,” and “ka-la-vinh-ka!” In the Buddhist tradition, the Kalavinka is an undying bird with a human head; it sings in a fine voice even before hatching from its egg (“Kalavinka”). With suggestions of Kalavinka and Yeats’ bird-woman from “At Hawk’s Well” behind her, this Angel might be read less as a Christianized version of a Tennin than as an homage to Poundian allusivity and the ideogrammic method.

While the first dance is beautiful and imposing, the production never again feels as compelling once it begins introducing exclusively puppet and human scenes. The puppets begin to feel more like toys intruding on what should have a been a solitary dance. This decline in intensity after the first scene also stems, I suspect, from the division of a one act play into two acts with a comic interlude between them. The narrative does not build towards the revelation of the tennin’s dance: it shows us her dance immediately, reversing the dramatic crescendo of the original play. Perhaps we are meant to long, in sympathy with the Angel, for her “celestial return.” In a nod to Kyōgen, a more colloquial and comic form of traditional Japanese theater, the moon dance in the first act is followed by an attempt at expository comedy. The music becomes droll and light. A cat and a dog puppet, celestial house pets apparently, appear after the Angel exits and romp around the hagoromo on its stand for a few minutes. At last the mantle falls and floats to earth. The puppeteers’ attempt at cuteness here raised a few scattered chuckles from the BAM audience, but this scene felt flat, introducing levity where none was called for and a providing backstory that needlessly demystifies the appearance of the hagoromo on a pine branch. In Pound’s 1914 Hagoromo, the priest encounters a scene of “mystery”: “All these are no common things, nor is this cloak that hangs upon the pine-tree. As I approach to inhale its colour, I am aware of mystery. Its colour-smell is mysterious” (“Classical Drama” 474). Pelsue uses some of these lines, but the exposition of how the Angel lost her hagoromo weakens the scene of discovery, stripping it of mystery for the audience, who is here wiser than the waki, a figure traditionally aligned with the position of the audience.  A further difference lies in what Harkuyo intends to use the cloak for. In Pound’s text, he declares, “I will take it now and return and make it a treasure in my house, to show the aged” (“Classical Drama” 474). In Pelsue’s adaptation: 


This cloth is treasure
to be brought home
treasure for my house


A poor man’s house –


Thing that people will give gold to see.
Thing that people will give gold to see. (Pelsue 6)

In Pound’s version, economic value is not at issue. Perhaps Pelsue is reading a later Pound into the concerns of the early work. But, in 1914, Hakuryo’s desire to make the hagoromo a treasure represents the mantle as “a rare thing”, “a thing respected,” a thing “to show the aged,” suggesting rather that sight of the tennin’s cloak, a proof of mysteries beyond this world, would be uplifting to aging mortals “in this downcast age” (“Classical Drama” 474).

rsz hagoromo jock sotoJock Soto’s solo dance as Hakuryo is less captivating than Whelan’s first dance (perhaps as deliberate marker of the difference between the spirit and the fisherman), but Peter Tantsits’ limber tenor (as the voice of the Fisherman) and the successful eclecticism of Davis’ score add new interpretive texture to the story. “Like the Angel and Fisherman,” Michalek observes, “Jock and Wendy embody elemental opposites: earth and sky, solid assurance and airy grace” (Program notes). It’s true, but the choreography here felt slack (and the choice to clothe Soto in Hawaiian shorts and socks was an odd lapse into kitsch).  One wonders what might have been if Soto was given leeway to draw on some of his balletic abilities to reimagine the pedestrian grace of the Noh fisherman.

What the Hakuryo scenes do offer is a reinterpretation of themes in the Fenollosa/Pound translation in economic terms. The exchange between spirit and fisherman, a dance given as payment for the return of a magic cloak, is still central. But this Hagoromo is more vividly a drama of shipwreck, a hazard tied to the fisherman’s desperation, as well as a tale of poverty. Act Two opens with a rising storm. Davis’s score is tense with warning. The percussion isn’t in a subsidiary position of accompaniment. Like a force of nature, it often overwhelms the more “human” voices of the other instruments.  As the chorus describes the quickly-changing weather (building slowly from “A calm. A hush. A gently parting mist” to “A sudden wind with sound unearthly . . . All boats return to shore!”), Hakuryo makes it clear that he cannot afford to value his own safety over a day’s catch. The storm hits. The puppeteers shake a huge black cloth across the stage to suggest a disturbed sea. The singers “ululate freely and unaligned” (Davis 66) as the woodwinds careen and the percussion imitates thunder. 

The indigent Fisherman is swept out to sea, lands on an unfamiliar island, and discovers the golden hagoromo, which is now repeatedly compared to the gold of currency. Re-entering in a multi-colored kimono and a headdress of flowers, Whelan now appears in the guise of an island-enchantress, rhymed with Calypso or Circe. Another memorable moment in the score follows the Angel’s painful attempts to have her mantle returned to her (through Károlyi, she seems to lose the power of human speech, or to stutter and confuse words out of illness) and her experience of what the chorus, following Pound, calls “the chain of weaknesses” in its absence. Virtuoso flautist Claire Chase, who forces her bass flute to gasp for breath and chirp with alarm, seems to vie with Károlyi as a fitting voice for the Angel.

Pelsue’s libretto departs most noticeably from Pound’s text in the choral commentary on the Angel’s suffering and her dance on earth. Some of the new lines, which tend to repeat rather than develop, veered towards the sort of lyric clichés that the earlier texts of Hagoromo are so refreshingly free of. Without her mantle, the chorus equates the dancing woman with a sad flower: “She is a flower weeping. She is a small bird. She is a flower. She is a flower, a flower weeping. She is a small bird, a small bird wilting . . . Flesh of flowers wilting. . .Oh she is the flesh body weeping of flowers wilting.” Throughout this song, the Angel repeats: “I am only flesh” (is she no longer a spirit at all?). Her mantle restored, the chorus rejoices, again with much repeating, as Whelan dances: “She unfolds, she unfolds like a flower.” Perhaps Pound was guilty of similar images in the early work. But part of his attraction to the study of Chinese and Japanese poetics was a desire to cure Anglophone poetry of precisely these kinds of lines. “The moment we use the copula,” Fenollosa thought, “poetry evaporates” (CWC 57). Set alongside this new version, the sorrow of loss so acutely conveyed in the Pound/Fenollosa translation at this same moment in the narrative still makes a good case for the virtue of an omitted copula and the lyricism of concrete observation.  In the 1916 text, the spirit mourns: “A Tennin without her robe / A bird without wings / How shall she climb the air?” (100). As she suffers, the chorus describes the fading sound of birds:

Hearing the sky-bird, accustomed and well accustomed, hearing the voices grow fewer, the wild geese grow fewer and fewer, along the highways of air, how deep her longing to return! Plover and seagull are on the waves in the offing. Do they go? or do they return? She reaches out for the very blowing of the spring wind against heaven (“Classical Drama” 475)

A brief commentary by the chorus before these lines describes the state of the tennin herself: “the flowers that decorated her hair drooping and fading, the whole chain of weaknesses of the dying tennin can be seen actually before the eyes. Sorrow!” (“Classical Drama” 474). The larger part of the chorus’s commentary, however, describes nature in detail: the birds, the mist, the weather, the scent of pine in the wind. These surrounding details carry emotion, and convey so well a longing to return and a loss of hope, first, because they evoke a richly described world within a deliberately bare setting, and also because they create a relationship between the tennin and details of the natural world that are also facets of the sacred.  

I dwell on the difference between these moments in Pound’s translation and Pelsue’s libretto not only to contrast different breeds of lyricism. Alongside this focus on making metaphors for the Angel’s body, this new Hagoromo, whether describing the celestial or the earth-bound, seems more attached to “flesh” than spirit overall – in other words, it is more interested in what may be seen and shown directly, rather than in unseen worlds that can only be evoked.  Perhaps this signals a lack of faith in contemporary audiences’ willingness to imagine these worlds for themselves, or perhaps it reflects a contemporary lack of faith in immaterial realities in general. This results in a focus on the body unfamiliar in traditional Noh dance. The heavy fabrics and masks that conceal the bodies of Noh dancers are absent here: these costumes show bare limbs and the outline of the dancers’ bodies. When the Angel begins to fade, the focus is more on her body than on distant birds: she loses the ability to speak and produces halting speech that seems painfully wrenched from her throat.

rsz hagoromo dance encounterThe play still retains the pathos of loss but, if we are to take Michalek’s word for it, now distills a single moral lesson about greed and generosity. Michalek explains in the program notes: “At the heart of Hagoromo is a single message that shines with timely wisdom: only kindness and compassion can transform greed into giving, and profit into value.” I read this note after the performance and wondered why the single message didn’t reach me during the bargain between the Angel and the Fisherman. To demand that a dying being perform a complicated dance in order to get back something that rightfully belongs to her doesn’t set a very high bar for object lessons in kindness. The emotional crux of the text, whether framed by Pound or Michalek, is the Fisherman’s shame, not over first denying the cloak to the suffering spirit, but in recognizing his mortal tendency to suspect deceit in the words of others. The Angel tells Hakuryo she needs her cloak to perform the dance. He worries that she will fly away to heaven, breaking their deal as soon as she has the hagoromo in her grasp. In Pelsue’s text, she responds: “Your doubt is sad and mortal. There is no deceit with us” (10). In Pound’s text: “Doubt is of mortals; with us there is no deceit” (“Classical Drama” 475). This fragment of Hagoromo surfaces in the Pisan Cantos, offering a glimpse of an alternative ethics, of uncorrupted promise: “‘With us there is no deceit’ / said the moon nymph   immacolata” (Canto 80, 500). Hakuryo’s reward for learning this lesson is to observe a mystery, to learn part of the “dance that turns the moon.” Soto’s character remains somewhat abashed and in awe during the Angel’s dance, sometimes following and performing the movements, sometimes standing back. Their pas de deux pales in comparison to the full dance performed by the angel herself in the first act, hinting that the mortal cannot fully grasp what is being given.

Ultimately, Michalek’s message for his audience is meant to serve less as a plea for kindness above greed than as a reminder of the value of living art:

Through a poor fisherman’s return of a magical Angel’s robe, we are reminded that works of art are most essentially valuable when they remain in circulation. The fisherman could have kept the robe, removed it from its cycle of angelic use, and transformed it into a source of his own private capital. But he didn’t and so the mystery and magic of the garment survives and so, too, an Angel’s dance (Program Notes).

This tension between cycles of “angelic use” and “private capital” in Hagoromo is a new invention, and a resolutely materialist interpretation of a play that has stretched far from its sacred origins in the god-dance. The note has a loosely Poundian inflection in its economic vocabulary and positions the new work within a Poundian genealogy (“with a debt to Pound,” as Pelsue put it).  The libretto may fall prey to a few “don’ts” and the ambitious eclecticism of Michalek’s vision can dilute, at times, what might have been a leaner intensity.  But there is an interesting novelty here, a brave mixing of modes, worthy of interest. In his first ur-Canto, Pound wondered, “What’s left for me to do? ... Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on; / Who wear my feathery mantle, hagoromo; / Whom set to dazzle the serious future ages?” What gifts might Pound still have to offer to poetry, to experimental theater, to dance, to opera, to music, even to puppeteers? A full century after the publication of Certain Noble Plays of Japan, the question remains open and alive. Pound’s hagoromo is being kept in use.



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