Literary breaks

The Secret Time

At the Hawk’s Well

By Hélène Gaudy 22 October 2019


© Ann Ray / OnP

Audric Bezard (Le Vieil Homme), Amandine Albisson (La Femme-Épervier) et Axel Magliano (Le Jeune Homme) dans At the Hawk’s Well, Palais Garnier, 2019

The Secret Time

They are young, supple, gracious. They are dancers, men and women, sometimes barely past adolescence. Every evening, they don their costumes and slip into the skins of their characters. He is the young man, the old man. She is the Hawk-woman. One after the other, they all become the imprint left on the photographer’s lens, the memory engraved in the mind of the marvelling spectator. In taking up the play by W.B. Yeats, Hiroshi Sugimoto has invited the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet to voyage between two worlds and two centuries. From the rehearsal studio and the auditorium, the writer Hélène Gaudy has explored the interpretations of these artists, Irish poet and No actors by turns, dancers always.

It was her mouth, and yet not she, that cried. It was that shadow cried behind her mouth; W.B. Yeats, At the Hawk’s Well

She has a tattoo on one ankle, leather soles that squeak on the smooth floor. Her bones protrude above her breasts, she bites her lips during a long pirouette, she wears a scarf around her waist, a single black leg-warmer above a pink ballet shoe, no costume, no character yet, just the ordinarily clad nudity of her body, the dross of the outside world – a chain around her neck, earrings that dangle, the memory of the noisy streets, the dark corridors, the iron lift, the bowels of the Opera which form the other side of the décor, of its sunny façade, rising up proud over Paris.
This evening, she will become an ageless creature with no past, white like an empty screen, disencumbered of laughter, experience, memories so as to let herself be permeated by the sentiments of others, the sensations of others, the bodies of others, and what will then be missing, what will remain invisible, is what peoples her own body, her life suspended, infinitely secret.
She will advance. Raise her arms. Her legs taut, slender, beneath the vibrant gong of the electronic music. A rumbling first, a cavernous droning. A breath, an open mouth. A sigh, now inaudible. The precision of her hands, her fingers stretched, her eyes cast down, legs lifted, light. Blade-like legs, points. The bones of her spine snaking down her bare back. Her face turned as if offering her cheek to be slapped, or to the sun.
She will launch her body into space and she will dance, snatched out of the dark of the stage by beams of light.
She will become the bird-woman, with heavy opaque eyes, the guardian of the source of life eternal. She who places her wing on our foreheads and plunges us into sleep at the very moment we are about to reach the secret time.
She is, however, a young girl, still almost a child, like the other dancers who, this evening, lend their bodies to the old man, to the young man, to the members of the chorus who encircle the well. For the moment, they are fooling around, boys and girls, a troop of young people disciplined by desire, a hand guides a hip, corrects the angle of a neck, slides up to the chignon and cradles it in a palm, imprints its movement on another body, gives it direction.
They are eighteen years old, twenty maybe. They practise, they experiment, leaving the perfection of a movement to crystalize in a laugh, there are raised eyebrows, shoulders still tanned from the summer now drawing to a close, the soles of feet placed flat on the floor, a jump, a dull thud, skilfully smothered, and this boy here, spinning, solid in his black tee-shirt, soft-voiced, a little hair-slide on the top of his skull. Sometimes they seem to be gazing into the distance, at a point only they can see.

This evening, once the lights have dimmed, they will all be ageless. They will be expectation and hope, movement, sleep. In the dance and the light, in the music that twists space, they will attempt to halt time.


They will be the old man who waits, on an arid mountain-top, a deserted island, for the waters of immortality to finally well up. The aged father, loosely costumed, his body stiff, bearing all the burden of waiting. He who loses his life in the hope of prolonging it, he who prays, beside the dried-up well, for the miraculous water to come, for the stones to be drenched with it. He who grows old from waiting, from denying himself sleep, from never giving up – if he falls asleep, if he lowers his guard, he will miss the secret time, when all is revealed, when at last he will be at one with himself. But scarcely has his ear perceived, in the distance, a sound resembling that of water, than silence descends.
They will be the man who lets the years pass by him without seeing them, who abandons the cool shade of trees and the sweetness of children, who forgets that it is only in the moments when sleep takes hold of us, or forgetfulness, oblivion, that we succeed in grasping what escapes us. They will be the mask that clothes his face, the sounds that emerge from his mouth, his hands that grow gaunt, his eyes that film over.
They will be he who tears at the flesh of birds to keep from starving to death, who drinks rain water to keep from dying of thirst, who devours grass by the handful.
They will be he who, if ever he closes his eyes, lays down his body, will find, on waking, the stones still wet from the water that welled up without him.
They will be the young man, the hero of legend, whose bodily warmth boils water, melts snow. They will be strength, youth and obstinate courage, desire, blindness. They will be these two men, the old and the young, each wanting before the other to drink the fabulous water.

They will be the memory of what one is no longer sure of having experienced, the lively and confused dance of what one will be and what one has been, of the old man in his grey garb, of the young man in his suit of gold, of him who has waited long and of him who now begins to wait. And between the two, all our secret time is held within their dance.

They will be the young man who says: I am not afraid of you, bird, woman or witch. But when the old man retreats, in his costume spotted with ancient memories of gold, when he walks to the back of the stage, the young man will follow him closely, barely a few steps behind, in his still gleaming attire, his body still full of life, and when the old man disappears, swallowed by the darkness, the young man will in his turn be taken, and nothing will remain of him but the noise of his coat dragging on the ground, soon to be soaked up by the luminous screen – the dried up spring, the vast image.

They will be the photographer who can only capture a moment already past, since desire is always faster that the finger that presses the shutter – an image, then, is also, is always the sign of regret and of what it retains of expectation, desire, hope.

They will be the Japanese dancer and the Irish poet who, somewhere, remote in time, watch a bird through the bars of a cage, who gaze at its warm body, at the paler feathers on his breast, the basalt grey covering its wings, who attempt to capture its dance, losing themselves in the speckled gold of its eyes with their texture of glass marbles, globe-like, in order to capture the essence of its movement, the depths of its gaze.

I cannot bear its eyes, they are not of this world.

They will be the poet who tries to translate the flight of the bird into words, the dancer who desires to feel its movement penetrate her body so as to transform herself, on stage, in her turn, into a hawk woman.

They will be these two men that something always separates from the mystery whose depths they try to unfold and to offer, on stage, to their spectators – for they will see if the dancers have the grace and if the poet finds the words, to open the gulf that separates us from things and makes them so desirable.

They will be the wanderer whose eye longs to preserve the landscapes, to seize the sea in the four corners of the globe, he who spends hours, suspended, between the immensity of the sky and of the sea, until finally, every shore, in his eyes, resembles every other, forming a single, stark line that cuts the world in two, that abolishes time and space, taking from them a fragment containing all others.

They will be he who looks at his face in the mirror and wonders who is there.

They will be the child who discovers that the moment when he felt himself exist so intensely is already behind him, and who then clutches at the next instant, who tightens his fist to hold on to it – how does one accept that one moment when one felt so alive can be replaced so quickly by another, that also creates the illusion of its eternity?

They will be the tree of supple wood, with leaves that form caverns and, when they fall, choke the dry bed of the spring, crackle under the feet of children on the way to school and whirl in the wind, leaving the trunk bare until spring.

They will be the light that burns the film when the shutter remains open too long, that blinds the dancer and obliterates faces, eyelids lowered, and eyes wide open, the movements of a hand pushing back hair, and leaves only an empty hall with deserted rows, the impression of a presence.

They will be all that cannot be captured, all that dies if it is caught – what is an image if not a spring that has already dried up, a stone already parched when one touches it?

They will be all of us who try to capture the moment and seize the heart of it, who prefer to watch rather than to sleep.


She will advance, her laughter left in the wings before going on stage. She will become the hawk-woman. She will gaze at us with heavy eyes, that no longer contain any image. Unmoistened, unfaltering; they are not the eyes of a young girl.

In the darkness of the auditorium, we will try to capture her, to capture everything. The body of the bird. The movement too quick for our retinas to seize its trajectory. Images not lived but presaged in a gesture, a memory, a look. The instant the water wells up, when time stops, when the body moves through the air, when the light hits the film, prints a silhouette, effaces the rest.

We will not see her fly. In the twinkling of an eye, she will already have landed, lightly, on the ground. She will have laid her wing, red with fever, upon our brows, leaving us as if haunted on awakening – a dream lingers there, on the brink of consciousness, the film is misty, the image lost, the spring dry, the body of the dancer already fallen to earth and yet, the memory of flight. All will be experienced without leaving any trace, or stigma, or memory, just the breath of what has taken place in the shelter of our gaze, of which only dance leaves a trace.

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