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Friday, October 23, 2015

Hagoromo—Taking Flight

Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Photo: David Michalek
By Susan Yung

At a recent rehearsal for Hagoromo, Chris Green talks to a group of performers as one man cradles Wendy Whelan, appearing paler than usual and remarkably lank, limbs akimbo at slightly bizarre angles. One of the world’s most beloved ballerinas suffering from exhaustion? Not to worry—Green is the project’s puppet designer, and this Wendy was one of two puppets. And even though the puppets are not in their finished states, the working models feature silicon skins cast from Whelan, including her face, so it’s still a bit unsettling despite the knowledge that it’s a doppelganger.

The show is a new situation for the puppet, just as it is for Whelan, who adds Hagoromo—based on an enchanting Japanese fable, at the BAM Harvey, from Nov 3 to 8—to a growing list of projects that have pushed and pulled her far beyond her admirable dramatic and technical capabilities as a longtime principal at New York City Ballet. These include a guest solo with the Stephen Petronio Company that came on the heels of Whelan’s 2011 Bessie Award for Best Performer for her work with NYCB—in her acceptance speech, she expressed an interest in branching out, and she quickly got her wish. In addition, she has worked on Restless Creature, an evening of four works choreographed for/with her; and a collaboration with the Royal Ballet’s elegant Edward Watson.
Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto. Photo: David Michalek

Whelan, portraying the Angel in Hagoromo, is paired onstage with her perennial NYCB partner of yore, Jock Soto, as the Fisherman. Just as they did 20 years ago at the State Theater, Whelan appears radiant and weightless, like the spirit she represents, while Soto is grounded, warm, and assured. They seem to have a sixth sense for tuning in to one another, as they did in exemplars such as Wheeldon’s After the Rain. In Hagoromo—a story that originated in one version as early as the eighth century and was produced as a Noh play six centuries later—the Angel’s wing cloak (hagoromo) falls to earth and the Fisherman picks it up, happy for the apparent gift. But the Angel cannot ascend to heaven without it. He reluctantly agrees to return the hagoromo in return for a dance by the Angel.

Hagoromo is a collaboration of remarkably accomplished creators, in addition to Whelan and Soto. It is being produced by American Opera Projects, which focuses on iconoclastic chamber operas (for example, As One, presented at the BAM Fisher last year). It was conceived and is being directed by David Michalek, Whelan’s husband and the artist perhaps best known in New York for Slow Dancing, the epic-scale HD portraits that hung in the plaza during the 2007 Lincoln Center Festival and mesmerized viewers for hours at a time. David Neumann, a choreographer of terrific wit, is familar to audiences as a performer in his own work, in theater pieces such as Beckett Shorts, (with Mikhail Baryshnikov, for whom he also choreographed), and as an accomplished director, including The Object Lesson (2013 Next Wave).

Nathan Davis, composer and percussionist, often takes inspiration from nature, and writes for instruments in order to bring out their essential characters. Entwining musical lines serve to emphasize the ethereal aspect of the tale, which deals in part with the meeting and mediation between corporal and spiritual, and the necessity of the body and soul living in harmony. Two singers (contralto Katalin Károlyi and tenor Peter Tantsits), a choir from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and musicians from the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) join the dancers and puppet teams onstage. Costumes are designed by Belgian vanguardist Dries Van Noten, with a libretto by playwright Brendan Pelsue.

As the Wendy puppet is wafted around the rehearsal studio, emulating the buoyancy of the actual Whelan, it conjures the idea of the dancer as marionette. After all, they’re often being told precisely what to do, deployed as diverse colors in an choreographer’s rainbow palette. A quick glance at the real Whelan’s movements, of which the simplest can attain mysterious grandeur and pack a huge emotional punch, negates that. Here is a great artist of our time, fully engaged in projects that expand and further share her gifts.

Hagoromo takes flight at the BAM Harvey Theater November 3—8.

Susan Yung is Senior Editorial Manager at BAM.

Reprinted from Oct 2015 BAMbill.


  1. Too long. Fall asleep because you won't miss anything. Doesn't really use the talent of Wendy Whelan or Jock Soto. Too bad, really. But the music was innovative at times. And the female lead singer was not bad. Her counterpart sounded like a bad broadway show singer. Oh well, hit or miss at BAM.

    1. I disagree This, to me, was a gem. All the elements of the production captured the essence, depth, and simplicity of Noh. It is remarkable that Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto-- who have indeed proven their talent as ballet dancers-- are open to new ideas and discoveries of human movement, and able to bring out in this piece such beauty with a spiritual breath.


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