Mask dancer, manager? Choice was easy for him

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Mask dancer, manager? Choice was easy for him

INCHEON -- Cha Boo-hoi stumbles onto the stage, wearing a gray robe and the mask of an ugly, old, corrupt monk. He is rehearsing, playing a part he knows well after having done it hundreds of times. The hypocritical monk is drunk not on religion but on liquor. Mr. Cha reels this way and that, then tumbles to the ground. On unsteady legs, he breaks out in song, but it's mostly indecipherable; maybe it's a mumbled sutra. Then the ordinary people appear on stage, also in masks. They detest the monk and crave his downfall. They come up with a daring plan: Arrange for a maiden to almost seduce the monk, then expose his moral transgression. The scheme succeeds, and the commoners celebrate by singing and dancing. "Monks don't have any magic formula against a woman," they say. Enraged, the monk lunges at them and tries to hit them with his stick. But the people club the monk with firewood, easily winning the fight. Then one of them takes the maiden away.

This is the quintessence of Korean mask dancing, to express in an acceptable way criticism and resentment of those in power. In the real world, it would be very dangerous for a commoner to insult a monk or noble.

After the rehearsal, Mr. Cha, 42, is in casual clothes, sitting in a ragged red chair in the troupe's office. "I was destined to do mask dancing, but it took me a while to realize it," he says.

Koreans have been performing mask dances for at least three centuries; the styles vary by region. Mr. Cha's company performs the Eunyul style, named for the town in North Korea's Hwanghae province where it originated. While the styles have common themes -- conflicts between wives and concubines, woes of peasants, criticism of nobles -- Eunyul village's theater is known for its variety of masks and corresponding roles, such as a ritual-performing female shaman.

As a boy growing up in Incheon, Mr. Cha never thought of becoming a mask dancer. But his mother, Yang So-eun, was an expert at traditional music, so he was exposed to the arts. Mr. Cha studied industrial management at Seoul's Gwangun University. But the turning point in his life came just before that.

In 1978, after failing his first college entrance exam, Mr. Cha was preparing for a retest and was stressed out. One night, his friends invited him to see an Eunyul mask dance show at the National Theater of Korea. "I tasted a true sense of catharsis watching the performance," he says, lighting a cigarette. "The masculine and flamboyant dance moves just captivated me -- and changed my life, I guess."

In college, he joined a mask dance club and began to focus more on the extracurricular activity than on his studies. His mother was alarmed. "Being a professional mask dancer means no stability or quality of life at all," Ms. Yang told her son. As an only son, Mr. Cha respected his mother, so he quit dancing -- for two months.

"Mask dancing is like a drug, once you're hooked, you just can't get out of it," he says. "Whenever and wherever I was, I thought about mask dancing. Even in the subway, when I heard rattling sounds, I thought of the drums at mask dances."

An old Korean saying goes, "Parents can never win over their children." Mr. Cha finally won his mother's support. "She asked why I was taking the road not taken. I said, 'The road has already been taken, by you, mother.' And she smiled."

Ms. Yang, born in 1924, grew up in Haeju in Hwanghae province. As a child, she showed talent in music. One day, she was "discovered" by a mask dance master, Jang Yong-soo. In time, she was learning music and dance from the best instructors around. During the war, she fled south and ended up in Incheon, as did Mr. Jang, who founded the Eunyul Mask Dance Preservation Troupe.

The troupe will perform June 9 at the National Theater for the International Folklore Festival in Korea 2002.

The troupe is based in southern Incheon. For information on short courses (foreigners welcome), call 032-875-9953.

While the players are kicking, performing arts troupes from all over will be singing and dancing

It's not only soccer players who will be wowing the peninsula during the World Cup. To celebrate the event and promote cultural exchanges, a folk arts extravaganza, the International Folklore Festival in Korea, will kick off next Wednesday and run until June 9. Folklore troupes from 14 countries will come to Korea, while 26 local troupes will also take part. Best of all, the events are free.

Most of the performances will be staged at the National Theater of Korea, which is near Namsan in northern Seoul. A percussion troupe from Japan, Muse Awa, will perform its "tale of dream and fantasy." A dancing troupe from Senegal, Fambondy, will display its powerful dance moves and flashy costumes. Among the other performers are a dancing troupe from Thailand, stilt-walkers from France and tap-dancers from the United States.

A public relations manager for the festival, Shin Hyun-ae, recommends that expatriates check out Korean traditional musicals like mask dances and pansori, or solo operas. "The quality of the performances is guaranteed," she told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, saying that all of the local performers have been recognized by the government as "intangible treasures."

Every day, Korean traditional performances will be staged at the National Theater at 2 and 4 p.m.

One event to watch for is "Another World," where you can make traditional crafts, as well as do body and face painting. Also, surprise "guerrilla" performances will be held in places such as Itaewon and Incheon International Airport.

The international troupes will also perform in Korean World Cup cities other than Seoul. For more information, call the organization at 02-773-9960.

by Chun Su-jin

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