Telling the tale of a fabled courtesan through traditional music and dance

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Telling the tale of a fabled courtesan through traditional music and dance

People called Sohn Jung-ah crazy when she decided to move to New York by herself in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Korea barred its citizens from traveling abroad without permission, and it went against people’s common sense that a girl who had just turned 18 would move to a foreign country alone.
Fresh out of a high school specializing in Korean traditional music and dance, Ms. Sohn’s future looked promising at home. But despite the opposition of her teachers and family, Ms. Sohn was determined to find a bigger platform, and she made the New York borough of Queens her second home.
Still based there, Ms. Sohn is back in Seoul for a brief visit to perform “Hwang Jin-i” tomorrow, in which she stars as the fabled gisaeng, or courtesan, of the Joseon Dynasty.
On a recent afternoon at a Seoul cafe, Ms. Sohn smiled and described her decision to move to New York as “daring.”
“I don’t understand how I got the courage,” she said, “but that was the one and only thing that I had in mind. I wanted to promote my homeland’s music to the world.” And that is exactly what she has been doing for decades.
“I happened to pursue a career in the traditional arts after watching my cousin taking lessons. I was drawn to it before I knew it. I’d dare to call it destiny,” she said.
“Performing on stage in New York for years has made me realize how little is known and appreciated about Korean traditional music and dance,” Ms. Sohn said, “but the thing is, even Korean themselves do not quite care about it, I think, which is frustrating for artists like me.”
Now 47, Ms. Sohn has been preparing hard for this performance, from editing the music to arranging the choreography, making use of what she has learned since she was 12.
For this 90-minute show, Ms. Sohn will recreate the life of the gisaeng, whom she said she relates to personally. The program will include a variety of dance styles, ranging from drum dance to solo performance. The dancing will be accompanied by Kim Duk-soo’s troupe of samulnori, referring to the folk music played on four traditional percussion instruments. Mr. Kim and his troupe are close to Ms. Sohn, since they have often performed together in New York.
The performance takes the form of a “dinner show,” with a meal included. It will be expatriate friendly, with English subtitles provided on a screen next to the stage.
“The key to this performance is making it familiar and exciting to people, no matter whether they’re fans of Korean traditional music or not,” Ms. Sohn said.

by Chun Su-jin

Tickets for the performance tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Hyatt Hotel cost 200,000 won ($200), including dinner. For more information, call (02) 512-7986.
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