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Encounters

Hiroshi Sugimoto's graphic ballet

“At The Hawk’s Well”: between poetry and spirituality — By Lou Tsatsas

The Paris Opera is presenting At The Hawk’s Well, a contemporary ballet directed by the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto until October 15. This modern, minimalist creation draws its inspiration from Noh theatre and the work by William Butler Yeats.


At the foot of a mountain, an old man has been waiting fifty years for the miraculous water of a dried-up well to flow again. A young man by the name of Cuchulain, fascinated by stories he heard during his travels, approaches in turn, hoping to become immortal by drinking the magic liquid. But the well is guarded by a hawk-like woman who thwarts the curious seeking to drink the waters by inducing a deep sleep that leaves men greedy and deprived of its precious power. Drawing inspiration from Japanese Noh theatre, At The Hawk’s Well is a one-act play written by William Butler Yeats in 1917. The complex play, a poetic and allegorical tale dealing with power, fate, spirituality and heroism has now been adapted for the Paris Opera by the photographer and visual artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. With the aid of Alessio Silvestrin (choreographer), Ryoji Ikeda (composer) and Rick Owens (fashion designer), his long-standing friends of a unique and indispensable sensitivity”, the artist is staging his first ballet.

Hugo Marchand dans At The Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019
Hugo Marchand dans At The Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

In a pared-down set as everyday as it is disquieting, the performance comes to life. The modern, grandiloquent costumes conceal the dancers in immense textured coats before revealing the bodies of the two men in the play—the elderly male portraying old age with force and fragility, and the young adult with his proud, triumphant sprit—played by Hugo Marchand (one of the Opera’s Étoile dancers) at the apogee of his art. The vast red wings of the hawk-woman guide the audience to the rhythm of the contemporary metallic music which pierces the ears to create a strange, immersive sound space. Living in a world with a constant flow of information, I think that minimalism can only be found by pushing back the limits, says Hiroshi Sugimoto. The dancers of the Paris Opera’s Corps de Ballet swirl around the stage, surmounted by a long platform made of light-coloured wood which leads like a pathway towards the well in the story, a graphic and appealing tableau.

Hiroshi Sugimoto au Palais Garnier, 2019
Hiroshi Sugimoto au Palais Garnier, 2019 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

A panegyric on immobility

If the artist and director now declares that he “sees photography as a secondary activity”, his knowledge of the visual art guides his creation. “My production may be considered avant-gardist today, but in a hundred years, the piece will become a classic” he states. Driven by a disconcerting modernity, At The Hawk’s Well is a panegyric on immobility in an art epitomized by movement. “In this particular context, the inertia is borrowed from Noh. The scene imagined by Hiroshi Sugimoto brings many surprises by working with dimensions, contacts between bodies, and distance from the audience… It’s an entirely new experience”, says Alessio Silvestrin who has immersed himself in research to choreograph a play influenced by Japanese art. First performed in the 14th century, Noh theatre found its source in traditional literature often featuring supernatural beings in human form. In a languor that is both moving and captivating, the actors, dressed in magnificent costumes and masks, advance on stage and share their stories.

It is the culmination of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ballet. In a sudden, enigmatic silence, a Noh actor walks along the platform, chanting strange incantations. At the edge of the stage, the young man sits and humbly seems to wait for him. Ultimately, it is through this controlled lassitude that the photographer’s staging seduces. With memorable tension, the exchange between the actor and the dancer—between the supernatural being and the mortal man—enthrals the spectator. In the theatre, the whole audience seems to hold its breath as it watches the performer—a glittering figure in an all but denuded set—advancing towards his interlocutor. “To seek eternal life is the nature of human beings. But what is life? It is a question we ask throughout the piece”, says the director. In the sombre and minimalist closing scene, he attempts to answer it. It is a final act of undeniable visual beauty, an allusion to the photographer’s love for compositions.

At The Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019
At The Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

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