Review triple bill: the 2019 Festival of Korean Dance

When Kim Jae-Duk’s Modern Table last performed at The Place, it was to close the 2016 K-Music Festival. This year the eight-strong all-male troupe was selected to open the 2019 Festival of Korean Dance at the same venue. With a piece entitled Sok-do (Velocity) the audience perhaps had a hint of what to expect. And more than once, sitting in the front row, I felt a brisk breeze on my face generated by the dancers speeding around the performance space like a whirlwind.

Modern Table perform Sokdo (photo © KCCUK)
Modern Table perform Sokdo (photo © KCCUK)

But there were also welcome moments of calm: early on, a quartet of dancers generated some quiet a capella vocal effects with microphones; and regardless of the energy expended in the dance moves, Kim Jae-duk himself displayed impressive vocal control in the middle of the piece by singing a folk song from the rear of the stage, where two ajaeng players and a percussionist provided the instrumental support aided by a prerecorded track. There were traditional Korean percussion rhythms blended with music much more recent, moves which could have been a farmers’ dance as well as the power poses such as those pictured in the publicity photos. The hour-long performance seemed to pass in an instant leaving you breathless.

The second evening of the festival brought a double bill from Art Project Bora. First an impressive solo by Kim Bora herself entitled A Long Talk to Oneself. Accompanied by words from a Korean adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, her upper body constricted in a see-through plastic top, the dancer makes slow, jerky progress, almost like an insect controlled by an invisible puppeteer1, towards a solitary microphone placed almost out of reach at the front of the stage.

Kim Bora performs A Long Talk to Oneself (photo © KCCUK)
Kim Bora performs A Long Talk to Oneself (photo © KCCUK)

The dancer’s alter ego appears in a black and white movie projected onto the back of the stage, telling of a trauma from her childhood, when her grandmother was killed in a fire in which her clothing fused with her skin in the terrible heat. Meanwhile fluids like mucus or saliva drip from the dancer’s mouth or trickle down her legs as a down-tempo version of Knocking on Heaven’s Door plays over the sound system. The piece ends as a man comes on stage, lovingly dries the dancer’s legs and the stage floor, and carries her offstage, rigid as a shop mannequin.

The final moments in A Long Talk to Oneself
The final moments in A Long Talk to Oneself

It is an emotional piece, one which Kim Bora herself only performs when on tour, and one which would merit a second or third viewing.

The second item in the programme featured six dancers from the company, in a piece choreographed by Kim Bora to music written mainly by her husband (and Modern Table founder) Kim Jae-duk. The piece centres around movements of the pelvis, and in the Q+A afterwards Kim Bora talked about the duality of that part of the body – performing necessary human functions such as childbirth and expulsion of waste, while also being the object of a lustful male gaze. The piece starts with dancers drawing attention to that part of their body, with long elastic stings attached to their upper thighs. Their costumes, an attractive natural ramie fabric, and backlit stage, made for a pleasing sight.

In a central section rather reminiscent of the memorable scene featuring Catherine Zeta Jones in the movie Entrapment, one of the dancers, having first had much of her costume cut off by her colleagues, gracefully dodged a series of laser beams that criss-crossed the stage like a hi-tech burglar alarm. The piece came to a false ending, encouraging people to applaud, before changing gear into a coda featuring traditional music played on the geomungo.

The piece, entitled Somoo, certainly has a feminist angle but can be appreciated without knowing any of its backstory solely for the beauty and variety of its movements.

Each of the first and second evenings were memorable in their way, and for its sheer variety of visual style the second evening would be the one I would undoubtedly want to experience again. It was hard to see how the third evening – a triple bill of three different companies – could live up to the promise of the first two nights, but if possible it was the most enjoyable and satisfying of all.

The programme was assembled like a Haydn Sonata: a refreshing, lively first movement, a slow, mysterious slow movement and a rondo finale.

Choi Min-sun and Kang Jin-an perform Complement (photo © KCCUK)
Choi Min-sun and Kang Jin-an perform Complement (photo © KCCUK)

The opener was a feast for both eye and brain. To a sound track that was midway between a ticking clock and a set of woodblocks, duo Choi Min-sun and Kang Jin-an interacted with each other in jerky movements as if they were clockwork toys, while a third member of the troupe filmed them on a hand-held camera for the duration of the piece which lasted about five minutes. The footage was then played back on a video screen as the duo reperformed the same piece, again being filmed by the third cast member, and the process repeated. With each reperformance the camera angles became more daring, more eccentric, while the live performance changed, at first almost imperceptibly but then increasingly wildly, veering off course in a manner that seemed to be governed by the eccentricities of the camerawork in the previous performance. The piece was a whimsical fantasy which kept the brain fully engaged trying to puzzle out the connections between the live performance and the video footage. And some of the younger audience members chuckled as the male dancer dropped his trousers. Altogether this was a hugely stimulating opening to the evening.

If the opening movement was stimulating, the middle movement was jaw-dropping. To a throbbing, abstract soundtrack, and the only light on the stage coming from a small LED contained in his face mask or in his grin area, Choi Young Hyun creates a slowly moving sculpture of his naked upper body, making infinitesimally small adjustments to his posture and well-defined musculature.

Choi Young Hyun aka Noname Sosu performs Silentium (photo: Tae-min Cho)
Choi Young Hyun aka Noname Sosu performs Silentium (photo: Tae-min Cho)

With awe-inspiring control the dancer had the audience totally mesmerised as the lights started flashing out of phase with each other and his hands clasped his upper body as if they belonged to someone else. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife as the audience watched this strange body as if it was a monster from the deep. Slowly another performer joined Choi on stage, hidden behind him and with only her arms emerging into the light so that now Choi seemed like he had four arms; and in a final optical illusion by cleverly borrowing a leg from his co-performer Choi appeared to levitate.

Goblin Party – Once Upon A Time (photo: KCCUK)
Goblin Party – Once Upon A Time (photo: KCCUK)

After a performance of such gripping darkness and intensity, what was needed was a bit of lightweight fun, and that is precisely what was delivered by the trio Goblins Party. It was the sort of performance which would go down well at the Edinburgh Fringe, full of visual gags (fans doubled as a ballerina’s tutu, butterfly’s wings and as a parasol) the music comprising of percussion snippets from an Arirang and a Ganggangsullae as the performers capered around stage, sometimes playing, sometimes jumping on their drums. It was the perfect end to a festival which seemed to get better and better over the three evening performances.

Modern Table Dance Company – Sok-do (Velocity) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
Double Bill – Art Project BORA SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
Choi X Kang Project / Goblin Party / Noname Sosu SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

The 2019 Festival of Korean Dance was at The Place, Euston, 31 May – 7 June 2019. Thanks to The Place, the Korean Cultural Centre UK and the Korea Arts Management Service for a superb festival. Looking forward to next year already.

  1. in answer to a question from the audience Kim Bora confirmed that the movements were inspired by Butoh. []

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