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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On the Hagoromo story, new and old

Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in Hagoromo. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
By Brendan Pelsue

Hagoromo is one of the most popular Japanese Noh plays, performed frequently in Japan, lauded by modernists like Pound and Yeats, and often used as the representative Noh text in theater history surveys. 

Famous as Hagoromo is, its story is simple, an anonymous 16th century adaptation of a folk tale first recorded 700 years earlier: a fisherman steals an angel’s sacred robe (or Hagoromo) and then, moved by her purity and her suffering, finds the good grace to return it. In exchange, he witnesses the Suruga Mai, an angelic dance that accompanies the waxing and waning of the moon.

This plotting is spare even by Noh standards; it is, in the words of Noh theorist Kunio Komparu, “barely enough for a skit.” But the play’s bare scaffold of a story, combined with its potent thematic dualities (the human and divine, the fleeting and the eternal, the greedy and the gracious), may be the key to its endurance. It is one of the few Noh plays that can be slotted into four of the five genre categories that constitute a traditional full day Noh cycle. It is considered a god play, a woman play, a madness play, and a demon play––everything but a warrior play. It is, again in the words of Komparu, “an excuse for the music and dance.”

This “excuse” may sound trivial, but it isn’t. Noh is a performance form where prescribed music and movement come together to create a sense of yugen, the sorrowful and “profound sublimity” that exists beneath hana, or surface beauty. To achieve this meditative state, mundane perceptions of time and event must be stretched, altered, or suspended. The simpler the story, the more room the form’s techniques have to work.

The dance-opera version of Hagoromo we are creating for BAM does not attempt to recreate those Noh techniques––we’d come up very, very short. Instead, our work, to my mind, has been to take our expertise in fields ranging from dance, to new music, to contemporary visual art, to puppetry, and stretch it over the simple scaffold that has made Hagoromo so enduring.

Hopefully, that will allow us to create a contemporary piece that lives up to another lofty thought from Kunio Komparu: “A Noh play… is not the telling of a series of events but an exploration, an evocation, and indeed a song of praise.”

Brendan Pelsue's libretto for Hagoromo comes to life November 3—8 in the BAM Harvey Theater.

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