Celtic legend meets Japanese Noh theatre in dance directed by Hiroshi Sugimoto
The artist and photographer joined forces with fashion designer Rick Owens, choreographer Alessio Silvestrin and electronic composer Ryoji Ikeda for his first production at the Paris Opera
Hiroshi Sugimoto, the renowned Japanese artist, has directed a dance production of At the Hawk’s Well for the Opéra National de Paris, adding to his already diverse repertoire. The 40-minute piece is a new interpretation of a one-act play, written by the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats almost a century ago.
Yeats’ original, in which immortal water is the subject, blended Celtic esotericism with the six-century-old Japanese tradition of Noh theatre and its parallels to shamanic rituals. Although Sugimoto wasn’t particularly familiar with the world of dance, the idea of reinterpreting Yeats appealed immediately when he was approached by Aurélie Dupont, dance director of Opéra National de Paris.
Within the quintessentially European surrounds of the Ópera Garnier, the distinctively Japanese hair and make-up in Sugimoto’s production immediately stands out. ‘They are clearly a Noh reference. And it works! I myself am amazed,’ reflected Sugimoto right after the general rehearsal. The costume design, meanwhile was entrusted to Rick Owens, who Sugimoto was quick to praise. ‘Rick attended a Noh presentation and looked through original costume sketches for the first presentation of At the Hawk’s Well in 1916.
The great thing is that in spite of this research, his design was not literally influenced by Noh costume, but a reconsidered version.’ Owens has dressed the character of the old man in silver metallic briefs and a humongous origami-like coat. Cuchulain, a young hero from Celtic mythology, wears a version in gold. A third key figure, the Hawk-Woman (or ‘Guardian of the well’), appears in a red bodysuit with geometrically placed holes, paired with a metallic red bolero, exaggerated in form and proportion.
The performance is directed by the Japan-based Italian choreographer Alessio Silvestrin, a former collaborator of William Forsythe. It marries contemporary dance and Noh movement, characterised by nodding, posing and sometimes stomping. Throughout the show, what the audience hears is not necessarily ‘danceable’ music but instead, abstracted electronic sound composed by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda.
‘The awakening gong-like sound in the very last scene is actually a Tsuzumi (a traditional Japanese percussion instrument) tapped by a wooden fan, which Ikeda recorded and digitalised. This is more than a sound effect, but an expression of ma. It’s excellent,’ Sugimoto enthused. (Ma can be roughly translated as interval, referring to the Japanese aesthetic ideology of subtle timing that breaks silence.)
Conceived by Sugimoto himself, the stage design is all about lighting and offers the perfect showcase for acclaimed photographic work. In the backdrop, a slightly curved line symbolises the horizon, a view from the isolated island where the well is situated. Meanwhile, bright red or blue round shapes emerge to evoke the burning sun or the infinite sea.
The only prop is a wooden platform set in the middle of the stage, where Noh master Kisho Umewaka appears for the finale. ‘The show does include real Noh elements, but it’s not the narrative; it’s far too different from its authentic form. Noh might make you doze off. This show doesn’t!’ laughed Sugimoto. §