‘Jump’ has new spring in its stepIn 1999, Choi Chul-ki was flipping through TV channels when he noticed a show about the modern evolution of Korean taekwondo. The focus of the show was taebo, a mixture of taekwondo, karate, aerobics, boxing and dance created by Billy Blanks.
Celebrities such as Paula Abdul, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal had joined the taebo craze, which was spreading across the United States. Mr. Choi, then the director of the Korean show “Nanta,” was aghast.
“If this continues, foreigners will make taekwondo famous for something it’s not,” he thought.
And thus the seeds of “Jump” were planted, a chance to showcase the grace of Korea’s martial art in a performance that bills itself as Charlie Chaplin meets Jackie Chan. In “Jump,” two burglars try to sneak into a home, not realizing the family members are all martial arts experts.
Tomorrow, the latest edition of “Jump” comes to the newly renovated Performance Hall of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, running until Sept. 12.
Less than a year after its Korean debut, the show is ready to go overseas, either later this year or early next year. “I was debating between Las Vegas or Broadway, and decided that off-Broadway is a better fit,” Mr. Choi says.
He has been writing for theater and acting since he was in middle school. He began studying the traditional staging of other countries and found much richness in Japanese drama.
“But in our schoolbooks, there wasn’t as much Korean traditional staging to learn,” he says.
So when the opportunity arose in 1999 to work with the long-running show “Nanta,” he took it. The show, which debuted in Korea in 1997, mixes traditional Korean percussion, or salmunori, with a cooking adventure.
“‘Nanta’ was possible because of salmunori,” Choi says. He sees salmunori as a part of Korean culture that expatriates can appreciate without having to decipher another language. If “Nanta” had used Western rhythms, he says it would not have been as successful.
The show was shown at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999, which became a launching pad for more international exposure. It was shown at the New Victoria Theater in New York during the 2002-2003 season, and most recently, the Minetta Lane Theater. Created by Song Seung-whan, “Nanta” has been performed in 15 different countries.
Mr. Choi toured Europe with “Nanta,” and found that despite the solid reviews, most people were unable to recognize the country of origin.
“The exception was one veteran, an old grandfather who was in disbelief that something like ‘Nanta’ could come out of Korea,” Mr. Choi says. “My pride was hurt, and I thought, I really have to do something to make Korea big. There’s all these stories about the problems of Korea. But I believe culture and arts can help create a good image for Korea, which can only enhance it’s reputation across the board, from economy to politics to travel.”
In martial arts, Mr. Choi saw more potential to bring international recognition to Korean culture. Taekwondo, which almost all Korean men learn during their military service, was already world renowned, and “somewhat infamous due to [then-Dodgers pitcher] Park Chan-ho’s flying kick during a baseball game,” Choi adds.
Once the word got out that a show about taekwondo was in the works, even the taekwondo association wanted to participate.
“Their skill was amazing,” Choi says. “They could throw a knife into an apple on a person’s head.” But he was also looking for acting skills. So he brought together a new crew of actors and began training them in a variety of martial arts.
In 2002, he put on a few sample shows called “Crazy Family” to test the market. The stellar reviews allowed him to create a full production that debuted in July 2003 as “Jump.”
With each performance, the cast members’ skill increased, and Mr. Choi’s confidence rose. But in order to go abroad, he recognized that the Korean market is different from the international market. He called in a show doctor, Robert Du Plessis of Tiana Productions, based in Macau, who came to Seoul to watch the show from March to April. The show’s last run, which used some of Mr. Du Plessis’ suggestions, ended April 11.
“Korean humor and European humor are surprisingly akin. But U.S. humor is in its own field,” Mr. Choi says. In one morning scene, the entire family is running late and going crazy in what Mr. Choi considered very typical, and funny, Korean fashion. Mr. De Plessis said the scene was too long and not that funny, and asked the staff to shorten the scene.
In order to balance the power of the martial arts, the show added some romance and softer ballet type movements. They also coached the actors on more subtle facial expressions. “Korean actors have a reputation for being overly dramatic, especially with their facial expressions,” Mr. Choi says.
The set also had to go through some changes. “A hanok, traditional Korean home, is nothing new to Koreans. But to the eyes of people who haven’t lived in Korea, a hanok is exotic.” So they changed the set to reflect a more traditional Korea, using a backdrop of rice paper-covered sliding doors.
For the show’s run at the Performance Hall, the formerly standing room-only venue now has a stage and seats. The stage was built specifically for “Jump,” with coils and cushions underneath to allow the actors to jump higher than before.
Mr. Choi has also been talking to acting professors and producers in New York, including Simone Genatt, the president of Broadway Asia, which brought “Nanta” to the United States. The timing is working toward “Jump’s” advantage, as Korean culture, particularly its films, is starting to gain international recognition, and New York producers are looking for something new.
His next dream is to make “Jump” larger and to use martial arts as a base to branch out into different shows just like Cirque du Soleil.
But for now, “Jump” is his focus. “I believed in this and came this far,” Mr. Choi says.
by Joe Yong-hee
For more information, visit the Web site at: www.hijump.co.kr. Tickets are 20,000 to 40,000 won.