Review: Kingston Welcomes Korea performances at the Rose Theatre

One of the many posters advertising the festival in Kingston
One of the many posters advertising the festival in Kingston

Kingston Welcomes Korea is hopefully the first of several annual events at which Kingston will seek to welcome various foreign communities in a festival that combines cultural and business interaction. Korea was the obvious first choice to be welcomed in this way, given that ethnic Koreans represent around 10% of the borough’s population, and also given the track record of past cultural events in Kingston and elsewhere in the London area.

The big question that observers were asking during the course of the festival was: did the local Korean community show any sign that they wanted to be welcomed? I say “community”, but actually “communities” would be more correct: as a population grows it becomes less surprising that there is more diversity and less cohesiveness. For whatever reason, the Korean representation among the audience was a little disappointing.

A scene from Brush
A scene from Brush

I hear that at least the Korean Catholic community turned out in force for two of the concerts at the church – though needless to say that was for the performances by the Korean Catholic Church Choir. Even the events which targeted the thriving multi-ethnic K-pop audience in the London area, namely the DJ sessions planned for every evening at the Rose Theatre, had to be significantly scaled back and moved to Han Restaurant in New Malden. Even there, where LKL went for 2차 after some post-performance drinks in Kingston, we only spotted around half a dozen or so punters who had come just for the DJ. Maybe it got livelier later on.

The Babbling Comedy team do their Abbey Road impersonation in Kingston
The Babbling Comedy team do their Abbey Road impersonation in Kingston

At LKL we couldn’t possibly get to all of the events. For one thing, they were carefully planned so that it was physically impossible for one person to do so. For example, you had to choose between Colette Balmain’s fascinating talk on the Vengeful Ghost in Korean film, and Hyelim Kim’s wide-ranging daegeum recital with saxophonist Melanie Henry. The exhibitions, too, were tricky to get to if you had a day job. Instead, we focussed on the big-name performances at the Rose, of which we got to see three of the five. And we didn’t mind too much missing the other two performance groups because both of them were familiar names from performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere. (reviews here: Ongals in Babbling Comedy | Theatre Haddangse in Brush). But we were certainly glad to have gone to the other three.

Im Nam Soon and the Institute of Korean Traditional Culture

Im Nam-soon with her dancers
Im Nam-soon with her dancers

This performance was a rare visual treat. We started, sensibly, with the more sedate court dances. One assumes that Joseon kings didn’t like too much leaping about in their entertainment: the most violent motion used in these dances was the flick of a long streamer-like sleeve; otherwise the movement complemented the slow, sinuous lines of the music.

Im Nam-soon company performing a mask dance
Im Nam-soon company performing a mask dance

We were treated to a mask dance to ward off evil spirits (Choyong-mu); a Chunaengjeon (dance of the spring nightingale), and dances with castanets and gourds. But in each the emphasis was on control and grace rather than speed and agility.

Im Nam-soon Company perform an Arirang dance
Im Nam-soon Company perform an Arirang dance

From that point on we moved outside the royal court and began to move into the realms of more popular and modern dance, via shamanism. Im Nam-soon herself danced a salpuri and her own Hwangjini dance, and the full ensemble performed an Arirang interpretation before the full complement of dancers and musicians came on stage for some nongak – always guaranteed to send the audience away on a high note, particularly when some near-compulsory audience participation is involved.

Im Nam-soon - the grand finale with audience participation
Im Nam-soon – the grand finale with audience participation

Art director: Im Nam-soon
Producer: Go Yong-han
Dancers: Im Nam-soon, Yun Yean-hee, Song Min-suk, Yoon Ji-na, Na Yun-joo, Jang So-young, Byeon Sang-ah, Ko Woo-ri, Park Hyun-mi
Musicians: Kim Seong-hoon, Shin Seung-kyun, Lee Ho-youn, Kim Song-yun, Kim Jun-ho.

The Stem, The Bud, The Bloom, The Seed

The Stem, The Bud, The Bloom, The Seed - the opening scene
The Stem, The Bud, The Bloom, The Seed – the opening scene

This remarkable performance was the result of a collaboration between Korean musician Won Il, choreographer and dancer Jason Piper (former soloist in the Matthew Bourne dance company), and theatre and opera director Philip Parr. The work was created in the ten days running up to the first performance – when Won Il arrived in Kingston – though obviously much planning and preparation had taken place before then.

The work is described in the programme notes as “a collaborative meditation in dance, music and words exploring our relationship with nature and the world we live in, and the need to find a balance. It is a plea for an understanding of our need to live in harmony with nature, as a partner in natural cycles, celebrating them and not disrupting and corrupting them for our own ends and short term gain.”

The Stem, The Bud, The Bloom, The Seed
The opening act of The Stem, The Bud, The Bloom, The Seed

The work started imaginatively with piles of books scattered around the stage, each performer in turn picking up a volume and reading a passage from the text contained therein. Even Won Il took a turn, reading a poem by Hwang Ji-woo.

Jason Piper’s solo accompanied by Won Il
Jason Piper’s solo accompanied by Won Il

The highlight of the piece was a high-energy duet between the two main collaborators: Won Il centre-stage playing hectic rhythms on the changgo while dancer and choreographer Jason Piper whirled around him like a Dervish.

Jason Piper's solo accompanied by Won Il
Jason Piper’s solo accompanied by Won Il

That episode enough would have been worth the price of the ticket, but there was so much more to enjoy, right down the final mournful chant which set to music the poem composed by the director of the festival, John Elsom:

From the stem, the bud;
From the bud, the bloom;
From the bloom, the seed;
From the seed, the stem.

The finale
The finale

It was a memorable evening, and it is to be hoped that the work will eventually receive more performances than just the two it received as part of Kingston Welcomes Korea.

Alice in Wonderland – Your Media Arts Project

Incredibly lush visuals were a feast for the eyes
Incredibly lush visuals were a feast for the eyes

Possibly the highlight of the performances at the Rose Theatre was the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland by YMAP (Your Media Arts Project), the brainchild of choreographer and dancer Kim Hyo-jin and her husband, the media artist Kim Hyung-su. Their Madame Freedom was performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2013.

When it comes to programme notes, Korean productions tend to be on the minimalist side. For this performance, rather too much was assumed in respect of audience knowledge of the supposedly familiar tale that was being reinterpreted on state. I’m not sure that I’ve actually ever read Alice, (though it’s hard to go through life without somehow absorbing at least some elements of the tale from TV or film adaptations) so a lot of what was happening passed me by. I got the Queen of Hearts, I think. I spotted the Cheshire Cat and some frenetic tea-drinking, but for most of the time I was lost.

Was this the Mad Hatter's Tea Party?
Was this the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party?

Did it matter? Not really. You were totally absorbed by the lush visuals that were being projected onto the screen behind the dancers, and by the movement of the dancers on stage – indeed at times it felt as if you were going to suffer from sensory overload. At one point the screen showed multiple giant recorded images of the dancer performing solo on the stage in front – an entrancing scene as the dancer’s moves were echoed by the recorded images behind.

Alice - the soloist is echoed by the digital projection behind
Alice – the soloist is echoed by the digital projection behind

The whole performance was a powerful collaboration between the digital arts and the traditional performing arts, and it was something you wanted immediately to watch all over again from start to finish.

All photos courtesy of Jeon Hye-jung and Kingston Welcomes Korea

One thought on “Review: Kingston Welcomes Korea performances at the Rose Theatre

  1. Kingston welcomes Korea?
    Lets be honest, Kingston has no idea how to ‘welcome’ Korea. Firstly, the title is patronising, since Koreans have lived here for over 20 years. The whole situation is mind boggling, no research, no idea of how to structure this event to entice Korean community to attend.
    New Malden is where the majority of Korean community live and work and this was their first big mistake.
    Contacting and communicating with community influencers and those who understand and work at grass roots level of community would have ensured more korean co operation. Instead as per usual lets grab the first Korean we can and hope and pray we can pull it off!!! Well kingston failed miserably towards Korean community once again and the proof speaks for itself limited attendance by Koreans !

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