Festival visit: Ahn Eun-me Company – Princess Bari

The most widely used press photo of the Princess Bari production, showing the opulent design. Photo by Youngmo Choi
The most widely used press photo of the Princess Bari production, showing the opulent design. Photo by Youngmo Choi

In reviewing the amazing work of Ahn Eun-me I am always faced with a problem: how to convey in words the extraordinary visual and musical experience that is so unique to her. When writing about her Chunhyang in 2006 I was at a loss for words. Trying to convey the intensity of the visual and aural experience was nigh on impossible. Music, choreography and costume combined to create a unique piece of theatre.

The dancers sometimes seemed dwarved by the size of the Edinburgh Playhouse stage - the UK's largest working theatre. But the power of the production was more than a match for the space. Photo by Youngmo Choi
The dancers sometimes seemed dwarved by the size of the Edinburgh Playhouse stage – the UK’s largest working theatre. But the power of the production was more than a match for the space. Photo by Youngmo Choi

Although I was reasonably familiar with the Chunhyang legend, I wasn’t sure how what I was seeing in front of me related to that story, but it didn’t matter because there was so much to enjoy that the story was secondary. All I knew was that I wanted to see it again to re-experience the rich sensations and maybe make more sense of the story the second time round.

Princess Bari himself. Yes, she was played by a male singer/dancer. Photo by Eoin Carey
Princess Bari himself. Yes, she was played by a male singer/dancer, Lee Hee-moon. Photo by Eoin Carey

Fast forward five years, and my reaction is exactly the same, in respect of Ahn Eun-me’s Princess Bari. For me, it was without doubt the highlight of the Korean performances at the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, and I can’t remember when I was so bowled over by a theatrical experience. Yes, I was puzzled by how what I was seeing on stage related to my sketchy knowledge of the Princess Bari legend, but that didn’t matter at all. I sat open-mouthed throughout at what I was seeing and hearing.

Bold polka-dots and odd socks featured prominently. Photo by Eoin Carey
Bold polka-dots and odd socks featured prominently. Photo by Eoin Carey

The reviewer in the Telegraph confessed to being baffled as well, but again she didn’t seem to mind. The extraordinary range of colours, movements and musical sounds were more than enough to occupy the mind without the need for a story to provide structure to what you were seeing.

Princess Bari sets off on her journey. Photo by Youngmo Choi
Princess Bari sets off on her journey. Photo by Youngmo Choi

The music itself, by Jang Young-gyu, pretty much defied description: creative gugak with a heavy infusion of Steve Reich perhaps captures part of the flavour. Gayageum, haegeum and piri together with changgo provided the traditional Korean instrumentation, supported by a western drum kit that you would expect to find in any pop band. Pansori to rock and much in between, many genres found their way into the unique soundtrack. The musicians sit behind a semi-transparent full-size curtain at the back of the stage, where they can see what is happening on stage while remaining largely invisible to the audience.

Ahn Eun-mi's opening solo. Photo by Eoin Carey
Ahn Eun-me’s opening solo. Photo by Eoin Carey

Ahn Eun-me has two riveting solos at either end of the production, but otherwise does not appear on stage. In the first, she is dressed in a simple loose-fitting white shift, while towards the end she is in a more colourful shaman costume. In both, she hardly moves across the stage at all, relying more on hand gestures, rather like a fast-tempo salpuri.

Ahn Eun-mi's second solo. Photo by Youngmo Choi
Ahn Eun-me’s second solo. Photo by Youngmo Choi

The still photographs provided by the Edinburgh International Festival accurately reflect the costumes, props, and some of the set pieces (I assume they were taken in Seoul), and Eoin Carey’s capture some of the atmosphere and energy of the performance. Some videos are also available on YouTube. The first is an official trailer for the Edinburgh performance…

… while Ahn Eun-me is interviewed for the Edinburgh Festival in the following video:

… and below is a trailer for a production in Korea:

A performance danced or choreographed by Ahn Eun-me is an experience in its own class, and is not to be missed. Make sure you seize the opportunity should you get it.

Links:

Eoin Carey photos used with permission from Eoin at www.eoincareyphoto.com and E3Photo.
Youngmo Choi photos kindly provided by Edinburgh International Festival.
Sponsored by Pinsent Masons.
Supported by Korea Arts Management Service and Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. With additional support from Korean Cultural Centre UK and Korea Tourism Organisation.

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