The King’s Centre was opened last year by Cliff Richard. It’s a multi-purpose venue in Chessington designed for the local community, with facilities for business meetings, conferences and sporting activities. The main users of the space are the Chessington evangelical church. But last Saturday evening there was a multicultural audience of Korean and Korean-British families, plus one or two solo Brits, assembled to enjoy a colourful array of music and dance performance to celebrate Chuseok.
The advantage of the hall is the flexibility of the space: the fixed stage could be taken apart and moved out of the way, leaving ample space for performers to move around. As one comes to expect in Korean events, there’s always a bit of compulsory audience participation, and having the audience and the performers on the same level makes that aspect easier1.
The disadvantage of the venue is, of course, its very flexibility: the flowing lines of the willowy dresses in the flower dance clashed horribly with the multi-coloured tramlines marked out on the carpet (right). Holding a shamanistic ceremony on a basketball court makes excessive demands on both performer and audience in terms of the suspension of disbelief. No matter how convincing and atmospheric the performance, no matter how hard the artists try to spirit you away into a different world, the geometric patterns on the bright blue floor keep you anchored firmly in a mundane reality.
This was a shame, because these were high-quality performers. KOTTI, the Korean Traditional Theatre Institute, are a group of musicians and dancers whose speciality is reinterpreting Intangible Cultural Property #90 – the Pyeongsan Sonoreum-gut shaman rite from Hwanghae province – for a modern audience. You are none the wiser? Nor was I, until I got home to consult one of my reference books. For this was one of those Korean traditional performances which could have done with better documentation as to what was going on. This particular intangible cultural property – originating in North Korea but now performed in Incheon – is to do with cattle worshiping and fertility. Sufficient reinterpretation has gone on to disguise the earthy origins of the performance. While traditional drums, gongs, cymbals and Korean wind instruments were used, other, more multi-ethnic, instruments also made an appearance. Pan-pipes and ocarinas brought a feeling of the Andes to the slightly less mountainous Korean west coast. No matter. It was a colourful and atmospheric performance, even if it was not clear what was going on.
The Choi Sum company gave us some traditional dances, including the Jindo Buk Chum that was danced solo by Nami Morris in the Clare College JCR bar ten days ago, along with the ever popular fan dance and a flower dance. Again, it would have helped to have a little bit of programme information to indicate the history of these dances.
The lack of a programme was felt most of all in the last item of the evening, an extended masque which brought together both performing troupes – the dancers donned masks to act out the characters, while KOTTI provided a rhythmical background. Having asked a few Koreans afterwards what the play was about, they were no wiser than this particular bemused foreigner. It all looked rather fun though.
Bringing over around 30 performers from Korea is no mean undertaking. The event was in part funded by the French Korean residents association and the Cultural Centre in Paris – there was a parallel performance in Paris on 13 September. As with one or two other events of Korean traditional culture I can think of, though, a bit more investment in written materials would have turned an entertaining event into something that was informative as well.
- Having picked myself a good seat for taking pictures for the first half of the show, I beat a hasty retreat during the interval to avoid being part of any performance in the second half