November 10, 2015
Frenzied percussion introduces Nathan Davis’ score to Hagoromo. Heavy representation of angel wings jostles us between flapping feathers – effort behind beauty. Such perspective is appropriate for David Michalek’s dance-opera at BAM’s Harvey Theater. Based on a prominent Noh drama, Hagoromo crams together artists consummate in their own fields to achieve a seamless sail.
Davis generates rich textures from few players. Tenor Peter Tantsits and contralto Katalin Károlyi bring Brendan Pelsue’s libretto to life with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, casting many voices for single characters. Even instruments speak; Claire Chase, juggling large flutes, vocalizes between percussive inhales, nearly upstaging the dancers with her engrossed playing.
Other alternative techniques feel patronizing. Tantsits sings overtones through his bel canto, weakening the effect. Károlyi shudders more like Yoko Ono than actual microtonal singing. Interlocking clapping connotes Reich instead of gamelan. There are no direct appropriations – rather, riffs on established fusions.
David Neumann’s choreography does the same, resembling not Noh, but Cunningham. Wendy Whelan follows right-angle tracks on which she folds her torso with sculpted gestures over unfailing legs. Strict vocabulary traps the angel even in her heavenly domain. Jock Soto’s movement is equally focused as the Fisherman, who snaps into motion from collapsed joints. We see his humanity through private moments; his dance with the Angel’s robe evokes the giddy curiosity of a closeted cross-dresser.
Chris Green’s puppetry adds Bunraku to the recipe. Two groups of three puppeteers control life-size representations of Whelan’s body, surrounding smooth articulation of the inanimate with gruff manhandling from the living. Though kept spatially secondary to the Angel, they do what Whelan herself cannot – float. The puppeteers eventually partner her, but the manipulative function paints the Angel as a distressed damsel by virtue of her organic form, highlighting irreconcilable layers of pretend.
Michalek generalizes the already transparent plotline of the original text. The Angel’s inability to dance is emphasized over the inability to return to heaven, lowering the stakes of the Fisherman’s desire to keep her robe. Consequently, the piece’s criticism of possessiveness dissolves to simply depicting it. The Angel’s despair of losing her robe makes her just as guilty as the Fisherman of coveting it. The Fisherman becomes a hero by returning it, and her dance for him in return is a reward for something he should have done all along.
Auteurs like Graham and Wilson borrowed specific customs from Noh. Decorating suspended disbelief, Michalek asks us to additionally suspend our disbelief that Noh is actually happening, rendering the interdisciplinary mix occasionally self-contradictory. Whelan expresses inability to dance without the robe by dancing. After Soto gives her the robe, he undermines her independence by partnering her.
Michalek notes in the program that art functions best not when owned, but when in circulation, yet the Fisherman’s description of the robe as something “People would give gold to see” applies to the spectacle itself. Selfless performers, Whelan and Soto’s dedication to character only goes so far in a work contingent on their stardom. Circulation must then be the unanimous desire to own, keeping treasures in motion.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews