Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
July 20, 2023
So … in the course of overdosing on ballet classics, I decided to try something completely different. My opportunity was the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre, which performed a limited, 3-performance engagement at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, next door to where ballet classics were being performed. It was an eye-opening demonstration of culture clash at its best. The opportunity I took advantage of has now passed, but if the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts production returns, it’d present an interesting cultural exposure for others as well.
One Dance is the title of the program presented by the SK Group, a South Korea conglomerate, as part of a comprehensive program (one component of which will be on view until August 27), including a concurrent outdoor Lincoln Center celebration, that it believes fulfills, in part, its corporate social responsibilities by promoting the cultural heritage of South Korea to the world. More on that continuing program below, but if One Dance is an indication, the quality is very high.
Choreographed by Hyejin Jung, Sung Hoon Kim, and Jaeduk Kim, all under the overall direction of Kuho Jung (who also designed the production’s vibrant costumes and eclectic lighting), One Dance is not like your usual dance performance – but dance it definitely is. The program provides a glimpse of ancient South Korean ceremonial performances, but its focus is on updating these dances to reflect contemporary sensibilities – or, as described in the program, “contemporary works that embody the spirit of tradition.” They’re still ceremonial dances, but far more visually compelling. In effect, the program’s title, One Dance, represents, literally, the fact that all the dances on the program emanate from and in one way or another are connected to a single ancient dance.
In a sense, what the company is presenting is a variation on western classical music themes and variations, but instead of mining a musical phrase to create a variety of complementary sounds that use that phrase as a base, One Dance, which premiered in May, 2022 at the Sejong Grand Theater in Seoul, relies on movement rather than musical themes and variations, from largely ritualistic and relatively static to high-velocity stage action, including movement of bodies in space with the speed and precision execution appropriate for the home that Balanchine built, culminating in a splendidly vivid, and comparatively explosive, concluding dance.
My only criticism is that the 70-minute program, which is divided into Acts and Scenes, is not always clear as to when one theme or variation stops and another begins – but that’s probably my problem more than the production’s.
Describing the dances in purely Korean cultural terms would not be helpful here to the average reader. Where possible, I’ll use mostly (but not exclusively) general terms instead.
The original title of the program was “Ilmu,” which means a dance performed by a group of people in a line during ancestral memorial rites. The original music, and the two original dances that rely on that music for movement accompaniment (“see the music” – sort of), consist of sounds (mainly percussive) created during the 15th Century , one dance executed to one type of ancient and mainly percussive Korean music, another to another type of such music, originally presented at royal banquets to praise the royal ancestors. The dances were revised (or supplemented) shortly thereafter for performance at memorial rites to honor more royal ancestors. The ceremonial music and dances have been handed down for more than 600 years, reportedly are still performed as such in South Korea, are at the top of Korea’s Important Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and have been inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity.
By contemporary Western standards, however (and perhaps by Korean contemporary standards as well), these original dances are not particularly entertaining to watch – except maybe for cultural purists. They’re represented here by the first and third scenes of Act I (which is titled “Study of Ilmu”) with the first, called “Munmu,” recognizing the civil achievements of the dynasty being honored, and the third, called “Mumu,” to honor military achievements. The second and fourth Act I scenes are variations on these two dances. Both variations retain the basic style of their respective originals, but are somewhat amplified and expanded.
The difference between the two different styles is very clear. The first, the “Munmu,” is highly rigid line formations that occasionally change the forms of the lines (e.g., from two vertical (upstage to downstage) rows of women in white robe-like costumes and wearing black “top-hat”-like adornment atop their heads, that split into separate groups (left and right) of 12 dancers each, coming together again, and then forming patterns on the stage somewhat like a college football marching band (into an upside down “L” shape, shifting to a “T”-shape, then shifting to a four-sided rectangular shape) – without the “marching” component, but with similar regimentation and a sense of reverential ceremony. This (I think) was the original “Munmu” and the variation, with greater movement, essentially repeated the highly stylized slow movement, mostly through arm movement except when changing torso position, and stoic, unemotional looks on the dancers’ faces. It’s highly synchronized, executed to repeated percussive sounds.
The white-robed women then exit the stage, replaced by men (not certain – with a full costume that covers everything but the face, the dancers’ gender isn’t always clear) wearing orange and black trimmed robe-like costumes, a strange-looking hat with something resembling antennae poking up from it, and carrying black sword-like sticks. This was the “Mumu” ceremony, which looked appropriately martial, but was still slow-paced, ritualistic, and ceremonial. As with the “Munmu,” this group at some point moved somewhat faster, with the same aggressive posture but more animated, and with greater pattern variation. And the lighting also changed – from two sets of tube-like light (similar to oversized fluorescent tubes) stretching from the stage floor to near the rafters on the right and left sides, connected by a horizontal “tube” across the stage, one behind the other (they looked like oversized football goalposts). For Scenes 3 and 4, the lighting was redirected as overhead and somewhat angled, which then changed into a four-sided shape that hung above the dancers and was parallel to the stage floor.
My description is far more complex-sounding than the dances visually appear.
At the end, joined by the dancers (some or all) from Scenes 1 and 2, the dancers bowed, and left the stage.
So far, absolute movement limitation and rigidity, supplemented by variations on those visual themes, dominated the presentation. Dance by dance thereafter, the dances were more interesting, more visually dramatic, and more exciting to watch.
Act 2 (titled “Study of Chunaengmu”) also consisted of two scenes: the original, and variations. Created during a subsequent king’s reign (but apparently within the same or the next century), Chunaengmu is described as a court dance to commemorate the then Queen’s birthday, and reportedly was inspired by the song of an oriole on a willow branch (I assume referencing the accompanying music). I heard no indication of the latter, but the dance, as it evolves through the variations, does reflect the majesty of a court dance. While not as dramatic as the court dance in, for example, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, there’s a kinship – not just in ultimate presentation, but also in period: though I don’t know with certainty, MacMillan’s dance was probably inspired by court dances during the lifetime of the Shakespearan characters, likely the 15th or 16th Century (give or take a hundred years). The Chunaengmu dance was apparently created during the same time period. Though I’m aware of little cross-cultural contact during that period, the fact that both cultures evolved similarly (at least in this respect) is curiously interesting. But that’s an exploration for another day.
The original of the Chunaengmu dance begins with one dancer in front of what resembled an oversized playing card (but which I understand was supposed to be a carpet), moving slowly but with greater variety and less rigidity than the earlier dances. As the presentation progresses, this sole dancer was joined by a sequence of other female dancers (one by one or by twos), each with her own “carpet” and structured to maintain stage balance. At some point after the stage is filled the “carpets” are lifted to hang over the stage, providing a sumptuous visual stage set for the accelerated movement provided with the Scene 2 variations.
Immediately following Act 2, the “carpets” are raised out of the way, followed by what appeared to be silver-colored strands (perhaps metal, plastic, or compressed cloth) that streamed down from the rafters to the stage floor, and Act 3 begins.
Titled “Jukmu,” Act 3 takes place in and around this set that, according to the program, represent bamboo trees, which in turn represent “integrity, fidelity, and loyalty” in Korean culture. The dance is intended to be a bridge between the formality and ritualism of the ancient dances featured in the first two Acts and Act 4, a contemporary vision based on ancient themes .This dance, which is original to this production, features male dancers manipulating long poles amid the faux bamboo, and demonstrates a similar sense of formality, but with an emphasis on individual strength and dexterity within that context that include independent movements that nevertheless can be seen as part of the whole.
The final Act, titled “Sin-Ilmu” (“New Ilmu”), is an original dance that takes the ancient basic dances to another, much more contemporary level. The marvel of it is that it succeeds in both respects. While the framework of ceremony and a semblance of formality are preserved, the impression, from spectacular (albeit uniform) costumes to speed of execution, includes costume manipulation that appear like color guard flags on steroids, with the dancers positioning and repositioning them concurrently with positioning and repositioning their bodies, all within “column/line” positions but morphing from one stage position to another with warp speed. It’s an impressive, mesmerizing, and exhilarating showcase, and one that would, or should, be a welcome component of any worldwide survey of contemporary dance. Indeed, perhaps as a consequence of its specific theater environment, as I watched the final dance on the program, what flashed through my mind were parts of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. The two dances are different of course, but the action within their respective contexts share a sort of artistic kinship, at times involving similar speed, movement transformation within what can be seen as a columnar framework (though, of course, without the solos and pairings that enliven the NYCB modern masterpiece), and uncomplicated but visually intense color.
In addition to the already-named choreographers (one or more of whom also composed the accompanying music), a substantial amount of credit goes to these Korean dancers themselves. While it’s true that none (at least based on my view) has what might be considered a “featured” role (although many move independently within the overall uniform dance concept), the precision involved is quite extraordinary. There are 39 dancers listed as being members of the company (it wouldn’t surprise me if all 39 were crammed onto the stage floor in the final dance), and there’s no way that I can separate them by gender, much less by stage activity (or by appearance, since, although I could distinguish one from another on stage, none was identified by photo). Regardless, each of these well-trained young dancers merits recognition: they may appear to be cogs in a machine, but they have individual obligations that, if not performed optimally, would be instantly visible – and I observed no such mistakes.
Finally, I mentioned at the outset that these performances were part of a larger presentation and celebration of South Korean culture. Concurrently with this One Dance program at the Koch Theater, Lincoln Center’s “Summer in the City” series of outdoor programs in the plaza welcomed a Korean Arts Week that, to my understanding, focused on other forms of South Korean culture. This too ended on the same day (Saturday) as the final performance of the One Dance program.
But there is another series of programs that continues at another venue. Discovery: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea, curated by the global art platform Artue, is an exhibition of cutting-edge Korean visual art created by young and emerging Korean artists. This program is on view now though August 27 on the Rink Level (the ice-skating rink) at Rockefeller Center (roughly between 5th Ave and Sixth Ave., and between 49th and 50th streets) as part of SK Industries’ “Celebrate Korea” Rockefeller Center series of programs. According to information provided, the exhibit offers a glimpse into Korean art’s present state and future potential through the lenses of a dozen artists on the forefront of Korea’s thriving art scene. Admission is free.
Additionally, this Rockefeller Center “Celebrate Korea” program culminates with a week of special events and pop-up shops within that area.
Earlier in this review I referenced a connection between a court dance as interpreted in the ballet Romeo and Juliet that was being performed next-door to the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. That “next door” is the Metropolitan Opera House, where American Ballet Theatre was winding up its Met season with that iconic ballet. I’m sure it was a coincidence (well, not so sure, but I assume it was), but on the same opening night performance of One Dance that I attended, leading the cast of Romeo and Juliet as Juliet was South Korean-born ABT Principal Dancer Hee Seo. Obviously, for those with an artistic bent, South Korean accomplishment and influence is somewhat ubiquitous, and relatively inescapable.