A true dancer, and Zen some

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A true dancer, and Zen some

Lee Myung-mi believes that she was a Buddhist even before she was born. She says that in her "deep consciousness" she feels that she was meant to follow the religion; nevertheless, she used to always have questions, and feel empty inside. While she went to the temple to cleanse her sins, she was ready to go anywhere to find the answers.

Dancing was one thing in which she found meaning. Born in 1960 to a devout Buddhist family, she began taking Korean classical dancing lessons when she was 6 years old. She trained continuously, won many awards and eventually began teaching classical dance herself. Still, she didn't feel complete.

But in 1996, when she saw an expert of Zen martial arts, the Venerable Master Seol Jeog-un, perform at a large Buddhist festival in Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang province, she found her answer, she says. Lee had wanted to take the traditional dance styles she knew so well to another level, with spiritual elements like sublime breathing techniques and expanded movements. She thought that Zen martial arts, or sunmudo, was the ideal vehicle for that, with its emphasis on both inner and outer strength, static and dynamic balance and Buddhist roots.

Lee approached Mr. Seol, asking if he would teach her. He was cold at first, because he gets plenty of students who aren't willing to put in the work necessary to truly learn the discipline. He went on to test Ms. Lee's perseverance, patience and dedication to Buddhism.

Lee was determined, convinced she had found a way of liberating her soul. Once a week, to learn from the master, she would drive the one hour from her home in Busan to Mr. Seol's temple, Golgulsa, near the town of Gampo in North Gyeongsang province. Also, to prove her devotion, she went to Songgwangsa temple in Suncheon, South Jeolla province for the grueling Buddhist training camps. There, the participants meditate, prostate themselves before the Buddha repeatedly and are not allowed to speak for five days. She completed the course six times.

Often she spent the weekends at Mr. Seol's temple. Without exception, she would rise at 4 a.m. with the first gong toll to begin her prayers and training. Eventually Mr. Seol believed she was in earnest and invited her to a green tea ceremony, symbolizing that she had won his respect. Lee explains that Zen martial arts have a spiritual aspect that requires faith and discipline. "Unlike most dance forms, sunmudo cannot be imitated by beginners or nonexperts," she says. "It requires personal discipline and religious dedication."

Even before she met Mr. Seol, she was already dabbling in Buddhist elements to create new dances; in 1994 she created Korea's first Buddhist dance company, Ubai Dance Troupe. While her works reflect her personal religious fervor, she says the spirit of Buddhism is cultural. "Every aspect of Korean culture and tradition is related to Buddhism," she says. "Without the influence of Buddhist culture, there would be no Korean culture; I know plenty of Koreans are Christians now, but it has only been here about 100 years. How can you compare that with the history and roots of Korean Buddhism, which go back more than a thousand years?"

Because of the spiritual aspect of her art, she says, she rarely does the same piece more than once. Also, she rarely performs in public. "Spiritually based dances are different from commercial dances," she says. "If the movements are just done from memory, you can do them several times; but what I do is extremely intensive and exhaustive; I can only do them once."

One of her major works, "Karma," has been winning awards since 1999, including the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation's "Excellent Repertoire of the Year" award. When she performed it last June at the National Center for Korea Traditional Performing Arts in southern Seoul, the 1,600-seat theater was full. But no reporters or PR agencies were there; only devout Buddhists, monks and their friends. Only serious dance industry figures notice Lee. The professional magazine "Dance Forum" described the show as "the perfection of the control of force and contrast that seeks the essence of life within a broad spectrum of Buddhism."

"Karma" was spectacular in its production and innovative in its storytelling. It focused on the dirt beneath our feet, especially Lee's native soil. "Every element in 'Karma' was Korean," she says. "To signify the earth, I used rice paper, straw and earthtones."

The one-hour performance comprised a wide range of dance forms and visuals, from the poetic and classical to the dynamic and modern, like an impromptu painting demonstration, Indian-style dancing by female Buddhists and Zen martial arts by masters. Many of the dancers were wrapped in straw, which stood for the burdens in life, or wore mud-colored cloth to symbolize the earth. The movements of the Zen martial artists were enlarged as silhouettes on a rice paper panel, suggested the difficulty in attaining ultimate salvation. That nirvana was also represented by blossoming lotuses and gleaming light reflected by a convex mirror.

The climax of the work was the powerful solo dance by Lee, which essentially asks about the meaning of human karma. Her part, inspired by her father's death in 1994, also incorporated the image and color of the earth as the central imagery.

No one is more proud and pleased than Lee's teacher. "Lee has succeeded in combining Sunmudo's great potential with popular culture," says Mr. Seol. "Through her performance, people can better understand Buddhism."

On stage, Lee moves in a way that mesmerizes the audience. Her faith is a force that seems to engulf the entire stage. But offstage she is petite 158 centimeters and soft-spoken. She speaks with a lilting southern Korean accent, which makes her even more gracious and confident. "Because I'm so small, my movements need to be grand," she says.

Lee wears Korean traditional clothes, or hanbok, on a daily basis, as casual wear. She is as much a Joseon Dynasty-era woman as any of the characters in the historical dramas about those times that are popular on television. In line with the Joseon principle of taking care of your aging parents, she lives with her mother, and fervently prays for her. Together they often attend the Golgulsa temple.

Lee is preparing to hold one of her rare public performances, scheduled for next week in Seoul. "Lee Myung-mi's Dance" will consist of two parts. The first is four Korean traditional royal court dances done by mudong, or court dancers: Taepyeongmu, Jinju Geommu, Salpuri and Mugo; the second is a creative dance, titled "The Sound of the Earth."

In her traditional dances, she sticks to the original styles, saying she doesn't believe in "fusion." She complains that far too many dancers pass off "rootless" renditions of traditional dances as ancient Korean styles. She designs her costumes herself, making sure the designs reflect the aesthetics of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911) royal court dancing. The court dances, which flourished during the Joseon era, feature elaborate costumes. Court dancing often reflected the currents of the times. The Jinju Geommu is a sword dance from Jinju, a coastal city in South Gyeongsang province. The dance features gisaeng, or Korean geisha, dancing with swords. The Jinju dance is, at the same time, sensual and representative of Korean patriotism in the time of foreign invasions during the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935).

The dancers in her works come from the Ubai group, which meets at the Tongdosa temple in South Gyeongsang province and the Tongdosa Busan Mission in Busan.

"The Sound of the Earth" is part two of "Karma," Lee says. "After performing 'Karma,' I became more absorbed in the concept of the earth."

Asked what aspect of the earth she finds most fascinating, Lee becomes charged with emotion, her eyes sparkling.

"We human beings feel our pulse our heart and hot blood flowing under our skin," she says. "The earth also has a heart and blood flowing hot. I think human beings and the earth have something in common they both have strong pulses underneath and they both live according to their destiny. We come from there and return. To express that feeling and the process of the body and the earth becoming one, I use a lot of dirt and neol [the Korean traditional wooden see-saw]. You see how my costume, which starts white, becomes a golden brown as I dance atop the neol, or lie down on it. And you hear the natural sound of the wooden board hitting the ground, to the pan-Asian music, influenced by styles from Tibet, Korea and India but all my creation."

"Lee Myung Mi's Dance" is at 7:30 p.m. at Umyundang, The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. For more information, contact TicketLink 1588-7890 (Korean only).

by Inēs Cho

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