By Alastair MacAulay | November 4, 2015
A central scene of “Hagoromo” occurs in sustained silence, as Jock Soto, playing a fisherman, toys with a mysterious veil that he has found on a remote island. We know — he does not — that this veil is the Hagoromo, a sacred mantle: we have seen an angel dance with it.
This silent passage is isolated amid the rest of “Hagoromo” at BAM Harvey Theater: A music drama, it combines aspects of Noh theater, opera, dance and bunraku puppet theater. As you watch that fisherman solo in silence, it feels insubstantial. Yet it serves to heighten what follows. When the angel (danced by Wendy Whelan and sung by Katalin Karolyi) returns to the stage in quest of the Hagoromo — whose mysterious powers restore her magic — the situation accumulates a complex polyphony. The 20-voice Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the solo singers — Ms. Karolyi (contralto) and Peter Tantsits (tenor) — and five International Contemporary Ensemble instrumentalists all build pressure, layer on layer.
As dance theater, “Hagoromo” is thin. Probably its makers hope for the strange economy of Noh, in which the turn of a masked face, the movement of a sleeve or the placing of a foot can be a turn of the screw in terms of drama.
With her large face painted white like a mask, and her terrific dramatic concentration, Ms. Whelan at times achieves this; when she tips her torso strangely sideways, opens her palms quietly to the audience, or turns her head to regard Mr. Soto, we feel her magic. At this stage in her long career, she’s chiefly effective above the waist. Here, she can extend a straight leg behind her or in front like a sign, but those legs no longer have great force. She’s barefoot, and mainly she moves on flat feet, too; when she rises onto half-toe at one point, there’s a change in tension, but it leads nowhere.
“Hagoromo,” however, is more than a dance vehicle. Conceived and directed by David Michalek as a Western music-theater adaptation of a Noh drama, it strongly recalls Benjamin Britten’s superlative “Curlew River,” which was performed in New York (with Ian Bostridge as the madwoman) a year ago as part of the White Light Festival. (I hope, too, that New York will see before long Mark Morris’s 2013 staging of “Curlew.”)
Like Britten’s, Nathan Davis’s music here — sung and played on a tier behind and beside the main stage — is a judicious mix of Western and Japanese sound worlds. The percussion and flute, especially, recall Noh sonorities, as do some of the twanging vocal sounds made by Mr. Tantsits, whose singing also rises at moments into the head-register sounds that opera specialists call voix mixte.
But Mr. Davis is not a fine enough composer to turn Brendan Pelsue’s words (which are projected above and beside the stage, as well as sung) into compelling theater. When the angel, missing the Hagoromo that renews her life force, starts to fade, the chorus not only sings but also reiterates the lines: “She is a flower weeping/She is a small bird wilting.” It’s precious the first time; the repetitions multiply its preciosity.
Opera’s way of repeating words, phrases, sentences can be an important part of its drama, driving them into our nervous system like a goading thought that won’t go away but instead gathers force. Here, however, recycled utterances — “Hagoromo” abounds in them — merely decelerate drama. And Mr. Tantsits’s diction, with a tendency to overenunciate, often proves quaint.
Chris M. Green’s puppets have varying degrees of success. The angel is often accompanied by two ghostly figures, like puppet echoes of herself; they amplify the drama’s mystery. But the two celestial animals who play with the Hagoromo at the end of the first scene — a large cat and a small dog — soon become merely cute.
David Neumann’s choreography tends to supply Ms. Whelan with impressive moments rather than compelling sequences. At first, her slow, spectral opening solo calls to mind the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula” in its sense of mysterious mission and its sharp, geometric floor patterns; Ms Whelan danced that role when making her farewell to New York City Ballet 13 months ago. Here, however, the initial interest diminishes.
And Jock Soto, despite his marvelously impassive face, is a tepid presence as the fisherman. Alone with the Hagoromo, he makes no impact. The only image I recall of him is when he’s briefly tilted and turned by two puppeteers. I love slow drama only when (the mastery of Eiko and Koma comes to mind) it sustains tension. Despite a few strong images, “Hagoromo,” which is about 90 minutes long, feels both etiolated and too fancy.