Simon Starling: At Twilight

If curators at The Japan Society were seeking to communicate the perfect example of a cross-cultural fusion in arts, they could not have made a better choice than hosting Simon Starling’s project.

Starling took ”At the Hawk’s Well”, a dance play composed by Irish poet W. B. Yeats one hundred years ago amidst the horrors of World War I, and re-imagined it for us, contemporary audiences.

The exhibition/installation unfolds in two parts. These photos are only a few examples from the first gallery where masks and costumes, made in collaboration with Yasuo Michii and Kumi Sakurai, are placed in a darkened room in front of a screen. The masks represent fictional or real characters whom Starling has connected with ”At the Hawk’s Well”. On the screen at the background, one can watch a newly choreographed version of the climactic ”Hawk Dance” from the original play. The ”Hawk” headpiece stands next to the masks and the dancer’s costume can be seen (and touched) in the second gallery, before walking into a larger room with displays featuring those Western Modernist and traditional Japanese Masterworks that inspired Starling’s designs, with notes about each character or object and the role they played in the project.

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Nancy Cunard

Born into the  British upper class, Nancy Cunard was a writer, publisher and political activist who, through her vibrant intellect and characteristic style, became a muse of artists and writers such a Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, James Joyce (both Pound and Joyce were in the audience of ”At the Hawk’s Well”) and Louis Aragon.

Noted for her passion for African artefacts, she was often photographed wearing typically flamboyant bangles and necklaces – a style that became known as the ”barbaric look”. Nancy, whose capacity for alcohol and affairs became legendary, felt the need to dress in disguise when she went out wearing costumes of her own making. Once she was arrested for swimming at dawn in the Serpentine, emerging before the authorities drenched in a homemade outfit of velvet, chiffon, ribbons, feathers, spangles and artificial flowers.

Ezra Pound first met Nancy at her mother’s home in Cavendish Square as Pound and Yeats were preparing the performance of ”At the Hawk’s Well”. She was astonishingly beautiful and elegant regardless of what she was wearing. From the beginning Nancy found Pound physically and intellectually appealing. Later, when she became critically ill, Pound remained at her side, and their long love affair began.

W.B. Yeats

Between 1913 and 1916, Yeats and his fellow poet Ezra Pound (”a stimulating yet irritating friend”) spent three winters together in the Sussex countryside. Pound, twenty years his junior, was nominally Yeats’ secretary but as well as teaching the elder man how to fence, he was in large part responsible for introducing Yeats to Japanese Noh theater. In February 1916, Yeats began work on ”At the Hawk’s Well”, the first of a number of Noh inspired ”dance dramas”, which tells the story of a young Celtic warrior and his search for the well of immortality.

Michio Ito

Michio Ito, a Japanese dancer and choreographer with little formal training, arrived in London from Paris at the outbreak of World War I. He gained notoriety for his work at the Coliseum Theatre in 1915, creating a ”furore” with his hybrid European/Japanese dances, inspired by the Ballets Russes and Nijinski. He attracted the attention of a small group of avant-garde artists and writers and was asked by Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats to recreate a semblance of a Noh performance. After the war, Ito moved to New York, where he established a career in both commercial and avant-garde dance, most notably working with Martha Graham between 1923 and 1925.

Ezra Pound

Vital to Yeats’ initiation into the ways of Noh theater was Pound’s fearless or perhaps foolhardy involvement in the completion of the American philosopher, art historian and economist Ernest Fenollosa’s groundbreaking work Noh, or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan (1916), which was entrusted to him by Fenollosa’s widow following her husband’s sudden death in 1908. It is clear that Pound’s knowledge of the Japanese language and of Noh plays was extremely limited when he started on the manuscript that Fenollosa had left. Pound himself wrote: The Vision and the plan are Fenollosa’s. In the prose I have had but the part of literary executor; in the plays my work has been that of translator who has found all the heavy work done for him and who has but the pleasure of arranging beauty in the words.

Old Man

Arriving at the Well of Immortality, the young warrior Cuchulain finds a withered old man who has been waiting some fifty years on the desolate mountainside for the waters to rise from the dry well. This obstructive old man (the waki, or supporting actor in Noh plays), who like Cuchulain was young in mind and body when he was blown there by what seemed like a lucky sail, has been constantly frustrated in his attempts to drink from the well, which only releases its life-giving waters when he falls asleep. In part out of self-interest, in part out of pity born of hard-won experience, he warns the confident young man about wasting his life in the vain pursuit of immortality.


*All captions are excerpted from the brochure accompanying the exhibition.

I found ”At Twilight” a stimulating experience, successful in bridging cultures, artistic styles & languages, history & mythology, merging impeccably the wisdom of ”then” with the urgency and creativity of ”now”.

Still on for a few days until Sunday January 15th, 2017.

The Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
New York, NY 10017

January 06th, 2017

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