A leading figure of contemporary photography, Japanese visual artist Hiroshi Sugimoto stages a work based on the one-act play At the hawk’s well by William Butler Yeats from 1916, with original music by electronic composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda. At the haw’s well is choreographed by Alessio Silvestrin and it features costumes designed by American fashion designer Rick Owens; it is currently on stage at the Palais Garnier in Paris and until October 17.
I picture to myself a mental image of what I want to see and then I try to get it. A bit like a painting.
“A hundred years ago,” says Sugimoto, “William Butler Yeats got fascinated by his first encounter with noh. The English poet is a mystic, captivated by the Celtic legends and myths, but he perceives intuitively that the device of noh, this Japanese theater of illusion that summons on stage the spirit of the dead can echo with Celtic esotericism. It is the poet Ezra Pound who introduced the first English translations of noh pieces to Yeats. And if Ezra Pound has talked about this theater, it is thanks to Ernest Fenollosa, an American orientalist born in Boston, and arrived in Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century as the country was ending an isolation of more than two centuries and opening to Western civilization.
In their haste to westernize, the Japanese are then on the verge of rejecting their own culture. Fenollosa is known to have made them take awareness of the richness of their ancestral traditions as well as having saved from destruction a number of cultural goods. At a time when the Japanese classical theater was itself also very threatened, Fenollosa begs Minoru Umewaka, a famous noh actor and teacher, to teach him his art. After the death of Fenollosa, his widow will bring the texts of noh back to Boston where she meets Ezra Pound. Yeats, therefore, wrote At the Hawk’s Well under the inspiration of noh.
The theme of the play is as follows: Cuchulain, a young Celtic prince, arrives on an isolated island beyond the seas in search of a well, from which, they say, the water of immortality springs. Close to a dry well, he meets a supernatural being, the hawk-woman, who is the well’s guardian, and an old man who has been waiting for fifty years the spring to spring again. «In fifty years this happened three times,» says the old man to Cuchulain «and every time the hawk-woman has performed a dance that made me fall asleep so that I could not drink the water of immortality.» At this very moment, the hawk-woman shrieks and begins to dance. Cuchulain chases after her while the old man falls asleep again.
The first representation of At the Hawk’s Well took place in 1916 in London in the form of a ballet performed in the reception hall of Cunard, the kings of maritime transport, in presence of a distinguished audience. After the war, the ballet was adapted by Mario Mokomichi on noh music and played under the title Takahime (The Hawk princess).
It took this music a hundred years to go around the world, and these performances at the Palace Garnier is today for me an attempt to bring back on stage the spirit of Yeats thanks to the wonderful dancers of the Paris Opera. Because the well of immortality is located at the other side of the seas at an infinite distance, however, it is unlikely that human civilization can enjoy eternal life.”