K-music review: Darkness Poomba at The Place, Euston

Modern Table: Darkness Poomba

For the final event of K-Music 2016 we were introduced to the first UK visit of Modern Table headed by the multi-talented Kim Jae-duk, who choreographed the work as well as being an integral member of the dance troupe, though much of the time he was also front of stage singing or playing various wind instruments. Eight dancers, dressed in black, on a darkened stage made even murkier by fog: the scene is set for something dramatic and atmospheric. The cast, all male, and wearing costumes that could almost double as office attire (perhaps in a trendy advertising agency): everything you saw before you made you think of Laboratory Dance Company’s pulsating work No Comment by Shin Chang-ho. But with Modern Table the atmosphere is gentler. We start with the dancers lined up, end-on to the audience, moving as if to perform a Chinese dragon dance without the colourful costume, with sinuous movements of the arms and body as the dragon seems to twist and turn.

Modern Table: Darkness Poomba

We then move to a series of duets – dialogues between pairs of dancers – accompanied by double bass and viola. Thus far the music has if anything been western classical in style. But now, one of the dancers picks up a microphone and starts singing short phrases that sound as if they come from the Korean folk tradition. These phrases are fed into an echoplex, enabling the singer to layer the phrases into something more complex. Is this the Poomba of the title? We don’t know. As is often the case with visiting Korean performance troupes, information about the work and the traditions on which it is based is pretty scant. We have to take what we see at face value without knowing anything about what some of the cultural references might mean.

Modern Table: Darkness Poomba

I later learned from a Korean friend that a Poomba is a song that a beggar used to sing in a country market. Other commentary suggested that the work fused pansori (presumably in its more general usage as covering any pre-modern folk song) and shaman traditions with rock music. Yes, because although we started with western classical string instruments and then moved to Korean folk song, about half way through the work a drummer and two guitarists took up their positions backstage, picking up the echoplex rhythms of the vocalist and giving them extra propulsion.

Modern Table: Darkness Poomba

Another tradition that the performers had brought from Korea was the piercing of the fourth wall – though thankfully unlike many other Korean performances no-one was dragged up onto the stage. Instead, on one side of the audience two vocalists / instrumentalists performed in the aisle as they watched the dancers on stage, while the aisle on the left was occasionally invaded by other performers bounding up the steps and making the audience feel a little uncomfortable.

Kim Jae-duk

One has to admire the dancers for their athleticism: strenuous bouts of movement were interspersed with moments of calm, giving the dancers a brief opportunity to recover their breath before launching into the next outburst of energy. And overall the combination of dynamic movement and varied music made for a highly satisfying and enjoyable performance, even though at the end of it all you did not quite know what you had just experienced. It is something we would unhesitatingly recommend to others.

All photos courtesy the KCCUK. Modern Table performed Darkness Poomba at The Place, Euston, on 24-25 October as part of the 2016 K-music Festival

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