The first and most important question about Hagoromo is does it work as storytelling? The answer is that, mostly, it does. This is a simple, ancient Japanese tale, a classic of Noh, about an angel who loses her magical robe, the hagoromo, which falls from the Palace of the Moon to the Earth below where it is found by Hakuryo the Fisherman. She must get it back or she will die and he is reluctant to part with it. There are many elements of David Michalek’s production that were exceptional but it fell short in the choreography where you would least expect it given that it was built around ballet greats Wendy Whelan (The Angel) and Jock Soto (Hakuryo) who had a wonderful partnership at New York City Ballet.
The ambience was perfectly conjured by Sara Brown’s elegant set design. Just entering the theater and seeing the set was a calming experience. It was composed chiefly of bare, blond sheets of plywood with a circle cut out in the rear that served as the moon or the sun, as needed. Additional elements included basic props: long sheets of black chiffon that simulated the sea, a wooden rack that served as a pine tree and a simple cross bar that held the hagoromo. There was an overall clarity and stillness to Brown’s design that was perfectly harmonious with Noh’s minimalist esthetic of storytelling.
Nicholas DeMaison conducted Nathan Davis’ musical composition with libretto by Brendan Pelsue. It wasn’t specified but the libretto was presumably from Ezra Pound’s translation which was referenced in the program notes as Michalek’s source. Musicians from the International Contemporary Ensemble, young women from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and soloists contralto Katalin Károlyi and tenor Peter Tantsits were all very good. Claire Chase’s eerie flute and Rebekah Heller’s sonorous bassoon were especially striking as part of an unearthly ensemble that was placed on a raised tier at the back of the stage.
Chris M. Green’s puppetry added an enigmatic quality. When Whelan’s Angel danced wearing the hagoromo she became three separate entities, two of which were puppets. These were molded from Whelan’s body and seemed to carry something essential of her spirit when they moved with her synchronously. The power of those two puppets was such that I quickly forgot about the three black-clad and veiled operators that were required to make each of them dance. There were also two evocative animal puppets, a celestial cat and an origami dog, which provided comic relief scampering about the Palace of the Moon, ultimately causing the hagoromo to be lost.
David Neumann’s choreography was clearly meant to be true to Noh Theater’s custom of telling a story by dancing slowly and using ritualized gestures to convey emotion. In traditional Noh this is done wearing masks but here Whelan was in white face make up while Soto wore regular stage make-up. In some ways Neumann’s pared down treatment worked but in others it was too traditional and failed to capitalize on Soto and Whelan’s talents. In the role of the Angel, Whelan was iconic. She was required to maintain a mask-like, expressionless face and let her body describe what she was feeling but she was too tightly constrained by the restrictively formal movement. Conveying stillness has always been one of Whelan’s strengths as a performer but in this choreography it became static rather than a source of tension which seems to be what was intended. Soto’s best moments came when he found the hagoromo hanging in a pine tree. With Peter Tantsits singing the words, “I approach, inhale its color and am aware of mystery” Soto’s Fisherman became excited by the sacred object’s beauty and its potential to provide him with wealth. He conveyed his feelings in the way he alternately spread the hagoromo out to admire its mystery and then held it close with covetous possession. The best moments of the show came when Whelan and Soto shared the stage in the confrontation where the Angel must convince the Fisherman to return the hagoromo. Whelan and Soto are able to create dramatic tension just by being on stage together and perhaps more should have been done with that asset. This piece was designed for American audiences and Neumann’s choreography could have used more expression to keep the audience’s interest which was noticeably flagging toward the end.
Wendy Whelan is not going gentle into that good night with her retirement from New York City Ballet. She is proving that there’s plenty of life for older dancers if there are new works that can make use of their special abilities and lifetime of experience. This Hagoromo was quite a good theatrical experience but it fell short by being too preoccupied with adhering to its Noh inspiration.
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