The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
August 18, 2019
The Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., does an excellent job showcasing Korean performing artists through its OnStage Korea program. As a dance critic, I particularly appreciate that dance companies are not overlooked. Based on what I’ve seen, it appears that Korea has a thriving contemporary dance community, and Choe Contemporary Dance Company, which was founded in 1992 by Sang-Cheul Choe, is part of it. I suppose it’s not surprising that Choe debuted as a choreographer in New York City in the 1990s while he was studying there. New York has been and continues to be a global hub for contemporary dance.
Choe Contemporary Dance Company presented two works, one choreographed by Choe, called Chaos, and another called Liar, choreographed by Jung-Hoon Kim, one of the company’s principal dancers, who also directs, choreographs and dances with the Cadance Company. The visually striking Chaos is the more successful of the two works. In Chaos, Choe uses small flat wheeled scooter boards. The work opens in pitch black darkness to the sound of gongs. Naked male bodies, face down, slide slowly and eerily across the stage. The arm toward the back of the stage is bent, creating a triangle pointing upward, while the other arm is extended straight past the hip, and the legs are closed tightly together to form a single line. The figures appear to float just above the floor. Somewhat later, one of the dancers actually moves an arm forward as if to swim. The procession of dancers gliding from stage left to stage right in two rows, one in front of the other, is mesmerizing.
Chaos contains many other memorable images. A dancer wearing clingy red, including fabric covering her face, circles around and around while seated. Is she someone’s conscience, or a devil keeping tabs? Other dancers cloaked in a dark pencil shade resemble monks. Standing in smoky lighting, they rotate as a group in a circle on hidden wheeled platforms, ominously hovering, as the music deeply groans. Yet another memorable image reminded me of a Samba dancer. A male dancer wearing almost nothing but a huge white feathered headdress with a red dot in the center, nods his head almost imperceptibly, causing the feathers to hypnotically flop forward and backward. The dancers may have emerged from dreams or nightmares, but it seems the piece is connected to present-day life and the daily stressors we face (the program notes indicate that Chaos is “an exploration of human existence in an increasingly divided world”).
Most of the dancing is unhurried and fluid, creating an atmosphere of mystery. Yet somehow, despite the strangeness and wonder of it all, it’s perfectly relatable. A dancer standing outside a rectangle of light on the floor stops short of entering the “door,” and then subsequently sticks a foot inside. The hesitation is familiar and completely human. In multiple sections, various groupings of dancers in different costumes introduce new ideas. Women with their hair in topknots wearing long skirts that are bustled in the back walk on relevé and also shuffle their feet, rolling their toes beneath them. Bare-chested men in long white skirts make interesting shapes as they stretch their arms and tilt their torsos. Toward the conclusion of the work, the dancing grows a bit faster and more lively, with martial arts like spins and kicks. Although somewhat meandering, overall I enjoyed Chaos.
Between works, to give the ten dancers (six men and four women) time to breathe and change costumes, a promotional video showing excerpts from Choe Contemporary Dance Company’s other works, including some humorous pieces, was presented. The video gave a sense of the company’s history and breadth, which was valuable to an audience that was most likely filled with people utterly unfamiliar with this company or Korean contemporary dance.
Liar, a chair piece, closed the evening. I’m generally not fond of dances with chairs because I’ve seen so many of them, and chairs as a prop, to me, aren’t very compelling. One glowing exception is Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, which I love, and so forgive his use of chairs. I can’t explain why choreographers keep wanting to dance with chairs, but perhaps it’s because chairs are inexpensive and readily available? Anyway, young choreographer Jung-Hoon Kim’s Liar doesn’t replicate the thrills of Minus 16, but that would be a tall order. Liar, does, however, have one thrilling moment, one that induced gasps from the audience.
In Liar, Kim manages to pull off a magic trick of sorts. A central spooky character wears a mask that distorts his facial features and makes him appear bald. At one point, this character exits the stage, only to have the same character re-enter the stage from the opposite side almost immediately thereafter. What? It’s a fun illusion, made possible by two men who have the same mask and costume, and the same body build and height. The best part of Liar is the interaction of these creepy twins. At first they touch each other repeatedly, as if to confirm the existence of their double. Then they engage in some entertaining back and forth, some amusing and goofy swaggers and distinctive waddling. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but it’s a treat to watch.
The rest of Liar features a smattering of white chairs and dancers in matching white pantsuits. They look like gangsters. The chairs don’t enhance the choreography at all, but I guess they add a little to the set design. The sound design has crowd noise, applause, and something I couldn’t quite make out that might have been the background of a horse race or some other form of gambling. Some of the quick firing notes reminded me of gunshots. According to the program notes, Liar “critiques our modern society in which people’s lives are characterized by deception and those who deceive are themselves deceived.”
The chorus of chair dancers, whose expressions remain largely blank and cold, communicate disaffection. The grotesque lead figure gestures wildly and seems to be trying to earn the adoration of the crowd, but they aren’t especially receptive to him. He responds with nervousness and paranoia and self-deception. At times the dancing is quite acrobatic, with leaps and rapid jolts from slumped on the floor to standing upright, and there’s even some moonwalking and breakdancing. For me, though, the work loses momentum midstream. Liar simply doesn’t sustain the initial suspense.
I’ve been thankful to have been a guest at several OnStage Korea performances, and I look forward to the rest of this season. Of course, I also look forward, specifically, to seeing more Korean dance in the future. Remarkably, tickets to the OnStage Korea performances are free, which is a deal no one should pass up.