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At the Hawk’s Well : between tradition and modernity

Noh throughout the ages

By Antony Desvaux 27 September 2019

© Ann Ray / OnP

At the Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019

At the Hawk’s Well : between tradition and modernity

For the premiere of At the Hawk’s Well, a ballet staged by Hiroshi Sugimoto and choreographed by Alessio Silvestrin, the Paris Opera welcomes two exponents of Noh, Tetsunojo Kanze and Kisho Umewaka, who share the stage with the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Their participation in this production seems the ideal opportunity to look at one aspect of this piece: its traditional Japanese dimension.

Both officially nominated as “preservers of important, immaterial cultural wealth” and as such considered as “Living national treasures” of Japan, Noh actors Tetsunojo Kanze and Kisho Umewaka are taking part, alongside the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, in this rereading of W.B. Yeats’ eponymous Irish drama by Sugimoto and Silvestrin. In the 1916 stage play, the Japanese, danced dimension was already at the heart of Yeats’ aesthetic. In the symbolic story of At the Hawk’s Well, a well of miraculous water that has mysteriously dried up is guarded by a hawk-woman. With her cries and her dancing, which resonate with the tempo of the slow, haunting gestures of Noh, she plunges anyone who dares to approach into a strange, trance-like sleep, the “hypnotic pact” that Paul Claudel speaks of. With the friendly aid of Ezra Pound whom he met in 1908, Yeats extended his knowledge of Noh at this period and took inspiration from it for his dramatic writing. It was, by the way, a Japanese dancer, Michio Itio (Yeats admired his “genius for movement”) who played the role of the guardian of the well in the first production. Stemming from the pantomimes performed during the grand ceremonies of the era known as the Heian period (794-1185) and fully developed in the course of 13th century, Noh takes the form of a codified, hieratic dialogue between two principle actors who are also dancers and singers.     

Kisho Umewaka  | Tetsunojo Kanze
Kisho Umewaka | Tetsunojo Kanze © Shin Suzuki

A secret symbolism underpins the gestures and psalmodies which present the spectator with as many signs and enigmas to decipher. Wearing masks of lacquered wood, with expressions that are calm or horrified by turns, the actors move like shadows gliding slowly across the stage. By their great mastery, acquired during their apprenticeship with renowned masters, Kanze and Umewaka, both Shite Noh actors (those performing the principal roles), and from families that have given Japan other great Noh actors honoured with the title of national living treasure, belong to this remarkable heritage. Performing in France for this premiere production of At the Hawk’s Well in a setting imagined by Sugimoto, and interacting with Silvestrin’s choreography performed by the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, Kanze and Umewaka illuminate on the stage of the Opera one of the most beautiful traditions in a timeless fashion that transcends Yeats and Japan.

At the Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019
At the Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Ann Ray / OnP

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