Capturing Korea’s spirit in dance

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Capturing Korea’s spirit in dance

Pina Bausch’s latest project has piqued the curiosity of the dance community in Korea.
To celebrate its fifth anniversary, LG Arts Center has commissioned the 64-year-old German-born choreographer to create a piece about Korea, a country she holds dear. It is due to have its world premiere at the performance center in June 2005.
Bausch’s search for humanity, life vignettes and experiences led her to be the artistic director of what is now the Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater, a collaborative dance company in her native country, for more than 30 years.
Her work over the decades has influenced modern dance in countless ways. London’s Guardian newspaper once wrote, “Her influence on the dance profession has been huge. It is impossible to enumerate the hundreds of works over the past 20 years whose bleak world view, skewed narratives and self-consciously bizarre stagings have screamed their indebtedness to Bausch.”
Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar opened and closed his Oscar-winning movie “Talk to Her” with a Bausch performance. She’s been called the “wicked witch of German dance” for looking askance at classics. Instead, she pursues everyday images.
The renowned choreographer first performed in Korea in 1978 and has watched it change over the years. She has made friends here with whom she maintains “heart to heart” relationships. She has already used Korean music in projects like “Herb.”
Bausch has lectured here and invited the Korea National Dance Company to perform at her company’s annual festival “Ein Fest Wuppertal” in 2001. She was in Seoul last year to perform “Mascura Fogo,” inspired by Portuguese dance forms, to a sold-out audience.
The 2005 work will be part of her city series, actually a country series, in which she explores the culture and subtle nuances of different regions and its people. The choreographer has already done pieces involving 12 regions, from Hong Kong to Istanbul.
Explaining why Bausch was chosen for the production, LG Arts Center’s Choi Jung-hwa says, “She is world famous, and is already in the middle of the city series, which makes a project like this a perfect match for us and her.”
Bausch sometimes takes an “outsider” approach, which has led to some pieces being acclaimed more outside a country than inside. During the research phase for each production, she brings her entire company ― dancers, set designers, lighting designer ― to study the country.
As she prepares for her piece on Korea, Bausch, her crew and a team of reporters travel by bus up and down winding mountain roads near Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province.
As the troupe arrives at the fishing village of Haeran, a Namhaean byolsingut, or shamanistic ritual, is underway. A team of five young men is dancing around a rickety dock. One of them holds a bamboo pole, affectionately called an “antenna to the gods.” The ritual is one used to seek prosperity.
The performers are inviting the gods down to be entertained. “Over time, as the reason to perform these rituals has disappeared, they have been losing their meaning,” a villager says. “It’s been about 30 years since this ritual was last performed.”
As the sun drops low in the sky, the men walk around the dock, then invite the guests to sit down and celebrate. “The ceremony for the gods is important, but feasting and celebrating for everyone involved are just as important,” another villager says.
The guests sit on the wooden pier, under red paper mobiles. A woman dressed in hanbok of bright red and blue stands in front of a group of musicians clad in white. An offering altar is behind her, while the ocean and sky stretch around her. The flute begins to sound, the percussion instruments join in, and the woman begins to sing to the gods and move slowly, raising and lowering her arms.
As the sun sets, fluorescent lighting comes on. The night has a bite to it. Soju and hot jeon are passed around as the ceremony continues.
The guests mostly watch, laughing occasionally, as when a bachelor kneels in front of the altar and is spanked with a dried fish. The dancer lights a paper and waves it over the man, ashes flicking off his back. The fire is supposed to burn away any bad luck.
And as the night wears on, someone grabs an audience member. More are grabbed and tugged to stand up and dance. And then everyone is standing, dancing and jumping up and down and laughing.
The pier shakes wildly, and the lights bounce around. It’s as if a bond of self-restraint has been released. A dignified Pina Bausch, dressed in an elegant, dark overcoat, is laughing. Her company members are laughing. Old Korean villagers are laughing.
“We will not copy what we experienced, but we will express what we experienced,” Bausch says at a press conference after the ceremony, referring to her new piece.
Asked what has been the most striking thing about her research of Korea, she says, “To see this old town, the way of living, the women in the fish market, how fantastic. How can you compare it? And the byolsingut was an incredible chance. It just happened and we were lucky.”
Bausch has been soaking in impressions of rural and urban Korea, the country of her memories from 1987, and the Korea of today. She has been to Tower Palace and Apgujeong-dong in Seoul, Cheonggye Mountain in Gyeonggi province, and a Busan fish market.
She says she found all of them fascinating. She reiterates that she is just in the research phase for the project, on a two-week journey here. “I have no idea what to do with it yet. It’s frightening,” she says. “We cannot imitate it. We cannot do your dancing. We cannot sing ... Now is the time to be open and receive these things.”

by Joe Yong-hee
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