‘Tiger... lion... revolution woman’Jung In-jung wanted to dance for the people. She didn’t require a grand performance space. She didn’t require a stage, or proper seating. And so she chose to dance in bars and coffee shops.
Some people told her, “You are so cheap. Why do you perform there?” But she knew what she was doing. And she was tired of a system in Korea in which dancers were paid poorly, and sometimes not at all. Even more so, she says, she was tired of the system that lived by “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”
Years later, Ms. Jung’s performances around Hongik University are fondly remembered as underground performance art. Woo Yeon, who works with the not-for-profit international dance organization CID-Unesco, saw a few of these performances in 1996. “She created performances that most people had never seen before, and that you couldn’t see anywhere else,” Ms. Woo says.
Suffice it to say, Ms. Jung is no longer working the coffeehouses of Hongdae. In 1998, Jean-Claude Gallotta, the famed French choreographer, chose her to dance with his company for a project in Japan. Two years ago in Germany, where she now lives, she started her own dance company, called Blue Elephant.
“It was a fast rise,” the 33-year-old says about her new prominence in the dance world. “I don’t know if I’ll get on a slide.”
Her mentor, Mr. Gallotta, in Korea earlier this month to perform “Mammame” at the Seoul International Dance Festival, doubts she will. He predicts success for his former dancer, though only after a difficult journey. There’s something about her, he says. “She has the presence of a tiger, a lion.”
Late on an autumn afternoon, Ms. Jung walks down a winding stairway to a backstage dressing room at the National Theater of Korea. She turns off most of the lights, and settles her petite frame on a chair. She’s just flown in from Germany and is tired. Though she’s based abroad now, she returns to Korea frequently to perform. On the night of the interview, she’s set to perform “This or That,” a solo piece in which she explores choices. It would go against her philosophy to say exactly what the performance is about.
“In my work, I’m throwing out a question,” she says. “Some artists ask, ‘What do you see?’ And then they say, ‘This is a cup! See it that way.’ What is this [mindset]? I’m not giving answers, but questions. It doesn’t have to be a cup.”
“This or That” starts with Ms. Jung facing the audience. She stands straight as an offstage voice asks questions: “Do you like short or tall?” “Do you like young or old?” “Do you like man or woman?” “Do you like death or life?”
Initially, she stays in one place, acting out being short, being tall and so on with a directness that borders on being funny. Then the movements build on each other to become the vocabulary for a dance across the stage. She finds a high- heeled boot and wears it on one foot, the other foot bare. And so she dances a lopsided dance of this, or that. By the end of the piece she is sitting down, arms and shoulders jerking wildly as if overwhelmed.
Ms. Jung began dancing only after one of her other dreams was crushed. In elementary school, she was a young 100-meter sprinter, training with hopes of become a professional athlete.
One day, her coach told her, “I’m sorry, you’re too short. You are flexible, though. Why don’t you try artistic gymnastics?”
In middle school, she stopped running. But she kept stretching; then she started dancing, just by herself. “I can’t say it was ballet; it was strange movements,” she says. It was a hobby, but as she began thinking about what she would do after middle school, art school came to mind. “I heard if I go there, every day is dancing, eight hours a day.”
Her family opposed the idea, telling her the students she would be auditioning against would have years of experience. So, in addition to preparing for the auditions, she prayed to God for a year. “It was a girly thing,” she says now. But then, it was serious. “I prayed, ‘If you think I can’t dance, please don’t let me make it.’”
When she went to the audition, she was overwhelmed. It was just like a movie, she recalls. “Everyone was so beautiful. The room was beautiful.” But she made it.
Sunwha High School of the Arts was like starting all over again. “I realized what completely stupid dancing I had been doing.” And then Sungkyunkwan University was like starting all over again.
Then, in 1995, she won an American Dance Fellowship and went abroad for the first time, to New York. When she returned to Korea, she quickly became disenchanted with the dance scene here, choosing to work instead with video artists like Park Hyeong-ie, installation artists like Choi Jung-hwa and musicians like the Hwang Shin-ae Band.
Her solo debut was in 1997, at Changmu Post Theater. Soon after that, she had the opportunity to work with Jean-Claude Gallotta. When he told her he wanted her in his company, her reply was, “You pay or not?”
“In Korea, they said he’s a good choreographer, but I’m not going to dance for a foreigner just because of that,” she says now. “It’s not reasonable not to pay a dancer, even if you are a fantastic choreographer. I don’t believe words. I do it my way. Don’t touch me.”
But Korea was becoming too small for her. A documentary about her had aired on TV. Not only was she frightened by the ensuing public attention after just one solo project, she felt that her freedom was being taken away from her.
She had also hurt her back dancing. She needed an operation and a few months to recuperate. When she told Mr. Gallotta this, he said he would wait. So when her body healed, she left Korea.
Working with Mr. Gallotta opened doors for her. Choreographers from other countries began asking after her. She became a self-described gypsy. But when she went to work in Germany, one of the choreographers offered her a working visa.
And so she started her own company, choosing the name Blue Elephant for its connotations of fantasy, sadness and magic. “I want to be like a child and have a fantasy,” she says. “In children’s books, the elephant knows everything, but doesn’t speak.”
She’s working out her next production, which she says will be called “Golden Helmet” and will involve dancers from France, Korea and Germany. For music, she has enlisted Hole, a Korean band that mixes indigenous music with modern rock. She hopes to perform the piece in Korea next year, after it premieres in Germany.
Earlier this year, she apologized to Mr. Gallotta for how she’d responded when he first asked her to work with him ―by asking whether she’d be paid. He replied, “You are a tiger, lion, revolution woman. Normally, tiger eats meat. But in my company, you eat noodles. I see a lot of revolution people, but I don’t see this type. Most are black and white. You are a very mysterious woman.”
“I still believe in God,” Ms. Jung says. “But not like 16, 17 years ago. I can’t say to God, ‘Now I want to be president.’ I’ve got this, my life, and now I realize I love it.”
by Joe Yonghee