Be-Being (비빙) was the first of the five musical events of the All Eyes on Korea festival on the South Bank and set the scene well for the remainder.
It was an evening of fusion: contemporary music on traditional instruments, with some of the numbers accompanied by traditional mask dances from a variety of traditions. The sounds of percussion with the kayageum, haegeum and piri blended well, and the added pansori style vocals of Lee Seung-hee added melancholy to the sound palette.
One couldn’t escape the feeling though that there was not enough variety in the music to sustain the length of the set, or that alternatively the music would have been better in a supporting role rather than centre stage. The entertainment experience was better when there were dancers or performers on stage which provided some visual interest. First of these numbers was the Saja Chum – the lion dance – from the Bongsan mask dance drama. The two-person pantomime lion with woolly white coat was rather endearing as it pranced around the stage.
The same two performers reappeared as tightrope walkers and dancers throughout the evening, the small stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall perhaps dictating the size of the troupe, and hence also placing a boundary on the ability to generate the required level of visual interest to infuse the performance with enough energy.
In fact the most arresting numbers were where the production relied on video work, in which dancers were projected onto large screens above the musicians thus freeing the performance from the limitations of the stage. Particularly effective was Pijori’s Dance (피조리 춤), part of the 덧뵈기 mask play performed by the Namsadang troupes in which a young maiden’s modesty is threatened by a badly-behaved monk. In this section two dancers performed tantalisingly with their backs towkards the viewer. As they turned their heads slightly you almost caught sight of what you thought were masks, but you could never be sure. It was like a nightmare sequence from a David Lynch movie.
We realise how spoilt we were by Princess Bari, where Jang Young-gyu’s music was in a supporting role for a veritable feast for the eyes in the extraordinary colours and innovative choreography that Ahn Eun-mi presented for us. That’s a tough act to follow, and we only came close where we escaped the limitations of the stage. Maybe with a bigger stage, or with the audience closer to the performers, we would have got some of the energy of the original mask dances. Was it the Health and Safety police, or simple lack of space, which meant the Jultagi tightrope walk lacked its usual edge – the rope being laid on the floor rather than being stretched between two poles? No matter how hard the performers acted, there simply was not the feeling of risk, and of interaction with the audience, that one would get in the real thing. The giant hat never threatened to derail the performance as it would if the acrobat was balancing on a rope six feet off the ground.
In an event which is meant to open the eyes of non-specialists to the unique world of Korean culture, it was a shame that we were not provided with more information on the dances being performed. In between numbers the title of the upcoming piece was projected onto a screen, but there can’t have been many in the audience who were any the wiser by being told they were about to see the Geosa Chum of the Bukcheong Saja-nori. We had to find out elsewhere that the Namsadang Nori folk entertainment – literally “all-male vagabond clowns’ play” – is South Korea’s Important Intangible Cultural Property No 3 and was inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009; and that Bongsan Talchum Mask dance drama is Important Intangible Cultural Property No 17.
Still, the evening was a welcome introduction of some traditional folk performance to a modern audience, who judging by the enthusiastic applause and reception in the blogosphere are eager for more.
Be-Being’s Korean Masque Music Project Yimyeongongjak was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 23 July 2012.
- He also wrote the scores for the Kim Ji-woon films Bittersweet Life and The Good the Bad and the Weird, and for the latest all-star crime caper The Thieves.