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Brooklyn Academy of Music

HAGOROMO is one of those all-encompassing, genre-defying blends of dance, theater, and opera that finds its most congenial home at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Conceived by multi-disciplinary director-artist David Michalek, Hagoromo was inspired by Noh drama and an ancient Japanese legend and stars two former New York City Ballet principal dancers, Jock Soto and Michalek’s wife, Wendy Whelan. It was brought into being by a lofty creative alliance: composer Nathan Davis, dramaturg Norman Frisch, librettist Brendan Peisue, choreographer David Neumann, and puppeteer Chris Green. Added to this were costumes by Dries Van Noten, set design by Sara Brown, and lighting design by Clifton Taylor. Such an ensemble made it a magnet for the BAM crowd, some of whose members awarded it a standing ovation at its premiere at the Harvey Theater on November 3. 

Others, including this critic, remained in their seats at the curtain call. But as an opera lover who somehow never got the dance gene, perhaps I was not its ideal audience. I find myself in most dance performances thinking, “Gee, this is nice. I wonder when it’s gonna' be over.” Hagoromo was no exception. Fortunately for me, it lasted a mere seventy-five minutes—which already seemed a tad long. 

Nathan Davis’s music was an intriguing blend of Asian sonorities and pleasing polyphony, particularly well handled by five musicians and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The latter was asked to sing in otherworldly vocal arrangements reminiscent of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Choir, which made a big international impact in the 1980s and ‘90s with a series of discs called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The musicians and chorus were placed on a platform upstage, where they were joined by singers Katalin Károlyi and Peter Tantsits. Károlyi intoned Davis’s rangy score nicely with her fluid mezzo but sang Peisue’s words with a heavy Hungarian accent. Tantsits impressed with a forthright, clear high tenor that occasionally went into heavy falsetto for specific effects. His diction was admirably pure; at times a bit pretentiously so, especially with his affected, overly-liquid “L”s. 

The plot can of Hagoromo be summed up in a few sentences, though a lot of very slow choreography dragged matters out. The sacred mantle called the Hagoromo falls down to earth from the shoulders of an angel and is found by a poor fisherman; the angel journeys to earth to reclaim it, but the fisherman agrees to return it to her only if she performs a celestial dance for him. She does so, and returns to heaven, leaving him humbled and ashamed for having demanded this favor. Whelan, now forty-eight, and Soto, fifty-one, naturally do not have quite the physical ease and freedom they once did, but that did not seem to matter to their fans. Whelan was somewhat unnecessarily shadowed by two life-size puppets, an effect which seemed ho-hum for those of us who had seen Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly or Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute at the Met.

Sara Brown’s set design was Noh-style spare, leaving Dries Van Noten’s lovely costumes and Clifton Taylor’s lighting design to provide most of the atmosphere. —Eric Myers 

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