London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Edinburgh 2022: the first weekend of Korean performances

LKL has a packed agenda at the first weekend of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe.

Edinburgh performers have to put up with all forms of distractions in pursuit of their art. At Dance Base, the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, whose performance opened in quietness to the sounds of Lee Ilwoo’s solo piri, had to imagine away the thumping bass coming from an adjacent studio (or maybe it was music from a nearby pub).

Image courtesy Gum-sul

Elsewhere, outside the Space in Niddry Street, Gum-sul coped with the swirling eddies of wind that disturbed the piles of trash that were integral to their production, but a member of their crew had politely to escort off the stage an over-inquisitive drunk from one of the many pubs across the road who had gone too far in piercing the fourth wall.

Unperturbed, the solo puppeteer-performer Song Eunkyoung manipulated the wizened old woman as she rummaged through the rubbish trying to find the means to entertain a doll she seemed to mistake for a human infant. The performance was wordless, but heartbreaking.

Trunk Theatre Project
The tools of Trunk Theatre Project’s trade

Other performers were luckier in their choice of venue. Trunk Theatre Project had a small lecture room in Summerhall, which was a perfect intimate space for their creative story-telling. The tools of their trade, stored in old-fashioned trunks, were Heath Robinson-like contraptions with flashing lights, simple model space ships, silver gloves which served as glove-puppet space suits and – appropriately enough for the venue – an old-style overhead projector. A simple story, simply told, involving loneliness in space, the pleasure of spending time together in person, and the topical joys of a refuelling station dispensing free rocket fuel.

Noh Eunsil
Noh Eunsil with her turtle and rabbit puppets

Inside the Space at Niddry Street, Theatre Moksung also had a nice quiet venue. Their set-up was equally simple. A solo cellist (Jan Pech) and a narrator-singer-puppeteer (Noh Eunsil) who held the audience’s attention with strong eye contact, humour, deft use of her fan, and of course her ingenious, characterful turtle and rabbit puppets. The story retold the famous pansori tale Sugungga, in which the ailing lord of the underwater realm needs a rabbit liver to cure his sickness. A turtle-physician is sent onto dry land to secure the medicine, but is outwitted by the rabbit. Noh was the creative talent who devised the performance, and needless to say the work suits her many skills perfectly. Well worth a visit.

Seong Jin Cho
Seong Jin Cho. Photo: Christoph Kostlin / DG

Seongjin Cho of course had a professional venue and had no trouble holding the audience’s attention. Having been a less than convinced by his Rachmaninov at the Barbican a few years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of his Emperor Concerto. I need not have worried. There was muscularity when necessary, and plenty of poetic insights as well as amazing virtuosity, all of which mean that I will be less nervous in going to hear him play a big piece next time. But as with the Barbican concert, it was with his encore that Cho blew me away: he delivered Handel’s simple Harmonious Blacksmith variations with breathtaking dexterity, precision and sophistication, unleashing glittering cascades of notes that dazzled like crystal while still letting the main theme shine through. Once again, those few minutes alone justified the price of the concert ticket.

My only disappointment of the brief weekend I had in Edinburgh was Bibimbap Theatre’s Princess Pyunggang, which felt a little rough round the edges – surprising for a show which has come to the Fringe at least twice before. Maybe this was the first time they had attempted to perform it primarily in English, including the song lyrics, though a 2012 Broadway Baby review suggests not. Minor wardrobe malfunctions and less than slick transitions between the scenes suggested that a little more preparation would have been welcome. The audience didn’t seem to mind, though, carried away by more great storytelling.

Edinburgh K-pop Walk
Photo courtesy Korean Tourism Organisation

The surprise highlight of the weekend for me was the Korean Tourism Organisation’s Where Edinburgh meets Korea walking tour. I scratched my head when I saw this event advertised, wondering what sites of Korean interest they might find on the streets of the Old Town (the answer was a brief pause in front of the National Museum where we were told about some of the Korean artefacts inside.) But that was not the point of the exercise. Our lively tour leaders-cum-dance instructors led a group of about 40 Korean culture fans as we danced our way round the streets to a soundtrack of western and K-pop favourites. Tunes by BTS, Blackpink and (I think) Twice were interspersed with numbers such as Uptown Funk and Sweet Caroline. This being Edinburgh during the Fringe, bystanders applauded the bizarre but enthusiastic flashmob as we bounced our way down Chambers Street doing Psy’s horse dance, Gangnam Style booming through our wireless headphones. Thanks to the KTO and especially their energetic marketing coordinator Adam for such a fun event, after which participants were led back to Korea House, the pop-up Cultural Centre situated near the Usher Hall.

LKL passed up on the opportunity of the walk back to Korea House, having already paid a visit earlier in the weekend. Instead, we visited Dovecot Studios for their Dazzle Exhibition, which contained work by Edinburgh-based jeweller Misun Won. Having visited her Open Studio event the day before in Leith we were keen to see more of her work, and were glad we did so.

Back to the Fringe proper, it was the two performances with which I opened this write-up that I most want to see again.

Image credit: Korea National Contemporary Dance Company

It would be good to see both performances again without the external distractions. I’d definitely want to see the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company come to The Place in London to perform their stunning piece. Their performance was visually compelling, with the vibrant turquoise green colour palette of their costumes, as well as musically interesting: coming from Lee Il-woo, a key member of Jambinai, that was to be expected. The choreography, by Lee Kyungeun, combined contemporary dance with street moves. The piece started with the ensemble constrained on stage by invisible walls, a theme which returned towards the end in the form of perspex sheets. But more than anything else this was a piece about breaking from from the constraints of fixed systems and forging your own unique path. Well worth a second or even a third viewing.

Two further dance performances and two music performances come to the Fringe later in the month (details here), plus a dance performance in the main Festival (details here).


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