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Review: Korean traditional dance at Asia House

Peter Corbishley reports on last week’s dance event at Asia House

Thanks to some unusual traffic your reviewer arrived late enough to get a front row seat for this unique performance of seven of eleven traditional Korean dances. ‘Exciting’, ‘beautiful’, ‘unexplored but most interesting’ were some of the words and phrases used to introduce this production by the Korean Traditional Music Association at Asia House Wednesday 18th July 2007.

SanjoMi-Ja Won first danced ‘Scent of a woman’ moving up from the ground and finally returning to the floor focused first on a series of intricate counter tensioning upper body movements before taking up a fan and rising with a more insistent musical accompaniment to dance through the available stage, sometimes with the back turned to the audience remaining in the corner of the available space in an introverted but self-sufficient drama.

Soon-Im Hwang next presented ‘Peace’, one of the full attire court dances. The background music now provides a heavier drum sound to a dance which takes up even more of the available space although now with fuller movements, greater speed of rotation, in spinning shapes creating an embroidered volume of colours, red black, white, gold. The foot movements remain hidden but the flicking movements of the extended sleeves again present a total volume of space set beyond and outside of the mere boundaries of the body.

Taep'yongmuIn contrast Kil-Soon dances the third dance ‘Ip Chum’ in much simpler clothes of pastel contrasts. The brochure suggests that this dance form represents the core of traditional Korean dance, certainly the folk and shamanistic origins seem clearer here than in the previous performance. Now the take up of the volume of space is extended by the release of the drum sounds, a more obviously heavier breathing and a much more direct eye involvement with the onlookers. The body and drum are in a pas de deux in the variety of sounds made with the drum, the gentle and clacking use of the drum sticks, and even using the floor itself as a sounding board. The intricate movement of the feet is now readily apparent, the twirling use of the central space is established, as is the movement across and within the whole of the floor, with the crossed drum sticks above the head reaching up into the space occupied by the arm flags of the previous dance. Korean Jazz. And now the applause is even warmer. A clever dance, and my second favourite of the evening.

Gil-Jae Yang’s fan dance is lighter, more melodious to my Western ears, and, dare it be said, with a more Chinese sounding background music that returns us to the colours of the court. The bigger fans take up the volume with yet a different pace, more like that of taking a walk. This twirling variation allows the double skirt to bloom out while simultaneously the fans above the head like butterfly wings provide the most colourful dynamic and expansive images of the evening. Parallel to the ‘Scent of a woman’ the dancer returns to earth in a final bow.

Mi-Ja Won returns to dance with a two headed hour-glass shaped drum. The dance builds up speed, the drumming intensifies, stops, returns to slowness in a red and black drama which generates the most applause so far.

SalpuriDance six, the Salp’uri, follows a clear rhythm and pattern of steps, with the individuality in the shimmer and shade of the performance. Now we find Kil-Soon Yang dressed only in white, carrying, draping, embracing, twirling, flicking, dragging a long white scarf symbolising, perhaps, all the experience of a Korean woman, including han. My favourite.

In the final dance of the evening Soon-Im Hwang brings the drum into play almost as part of her own body. The emphasis is on her own pleasure rather than the drum, although the sounds of this drum and these sticks have more solidity than those of the earlier dances. Confident, strongly self affirming drum play highlights a sensitive display bringing the loudest applause of the evening.

An evening of beauty, grace and fluidity that together with the additional impact of Korean music with its non-Western instrumental sounds and rhythms provides a total experience that according to those overheard in the Korean après-dance dinner queue would bring people back for more. Although perhaps next time a structuring of the sequence of dances by social, religious or geographical provenance would reduce the ‘culture shock’ for those who are new to the dynamism, excitement and beauty of this emblematic form of Korean culture.

Note: If there are any readers out there who have any photos of the event they could share, please send them in. I’m half-hoping for some of the official photos of the event, but I’m not sure when or if they will arrive. In the meanwhile, this post is decorated with generic Korean dance images plundered from the internet, which I will replace with something more relevant should the genuine article ever arrive. Ed.


  • More photos courtesy of Indiana University East Asian Studies Center

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