Jump! Acrobatic show was a leap of faith for tough dance crewHow high can you jump? What would you be willing to do to jump higher? Most importantly, how much would you pay to watch someone else jump so high they could stage martial arts fights in mid-air?
Lots of people are willing to pay 40,000 won ($38) for the privilege. That’s the going rate for a ticket to “Jump,” the non-verbal stage show that is wowing crowds across Korea and was recently performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The show’s appeal seems universal: the crowd is a mix of young couples, little kids and the silver-haired. The performance’s circus stunts, acrobatics and martial arts has also proven attractive to non-Koreans, and the show now has contracts to perform in 12 foreign countries. At the current venue, Cecil Theater in Jeong-dong, Seoul, the seats are full almost every night.
After two years of rehearsals and another two years of 1,800 shows, Jump has finally found success; it just didn’t come until a few months ago, after the troupe was lauded for its performance in Edinburgh.
In the beginning, the show’s director, Choi Cheol-gi, had no overarching vision. In fact, he had nothing but an off-the-cuff comment to a friend: “You know what? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were flying in the air doing taekwondo?”
His friend, Kim Kyeung-hun, is now chief executive of Jump’s production company, Yegam. He didn’t think much of the idea initially, but in October 2001 the two men persuaded three college friends to try making a combination somersault/martial arts show. The three ― Jin Yeong-sub, Yun Jeong-yeol and Jeon Ju-u ― were taking acting classes and knew nothing about martial arts, nor could they do somersaults.
When the three men showed up at the gym at Kyung Hee University to practice, they were drilled by Jeong Ok-u, the national women’s gymnastic coach, who made them do handstands for six hours to build up arm strength.
Six hours of handstands would be enough punishment for most people, but for Jin it was particularly tough. At the time, he was working part-time as a driver, and his constantly aching arms made driving dangerous. He kept going to the workout sessions, but didn’t care much for it until he saw what had happened to Jeon.
Jeon, who had weighed 90 kilograms (198 pounds), had lost 20 kilos since the training started. He also began to do somersaults. Yun quickly followed suit, and by the end of the year, all three ― Jin had by this time quit his job ― were somersaulting.
Mr. Choi, the director, and Mr. Kim, the CEO, were ready to move into phase II: the women.
Finding athletic women who were interested in acting wasn’t easy. It took three months of searching before Mr. Choi met a woman he thought could handle the demands of the show: Kim Ji-eun, 28, a gymnastics trainer and former national team gymnast who worked with Ms. Jeong.
Ms. Kim was not initially interested in the offer. Mr. Choi promised to give her acting lessons, but the deal clincher turn out to be something much less complicated: alcohol. He bought her drinks for a month, and she finally agreed.
Unfortunately, acting did not come naturally for Ms. Kim. On stage she was stiff, and off-stage she didn’t practice. Mr. Choi finally confronted her and demanded an explanation.
“When I try performing in front of people,” she said, “I feel like I’m standing there naked!”
By November 2002, a cast of 10 actors had been assembled and had begun performances of the forerunner to Jump, a show called “Bizarre Family.” The show ran for 10 days at the National Theater to massive audience acclaim. Some said it could be a “second Nanta,” referring to the famous Korean cooking performance.
That acclaim, however, didn’t translate into profits. For all their effort, each actor, director, produced and staff member was paid a grand total of 200,000 won. Some of them cried when they received their pay.
Undaunted, in March 2003 the troupe moved into a remodeled warehouse in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, where they would both live and practice. While the production team revised the story, the veteran martial arts director Park Gye-hwan drilled the cast.
“You guys just flip around,” he told them, “but you have no moderation, no elasticity.”
In order to have the cast kicking like black-belts, he made them spend hours stretching their legs. If an actor didn’t stretch far enough, Mr. Park would push them down. Mr. Jin had to be taken to the hospital twice.
“A lot of people quit, saying they were actors and not stuntmen,” said Mr. Yun. “But we learned some amazing stuff, like how to run up and down walls. Sometimes we pulled joints and twisted our ankles, but that’s the kind of stuff martial artists have to deal with.”
The new show was renamed “Jump.” It was not an immediate success. On average, just 70 percent of the seats were filled at Urim Cheongdam Theatre, where the show debuted. The producers were barely making ends meet.
Unable to pay for long-term theater rents, the troupe moved from venue to venue, giving performances at Polimedia Theater in Daehangno and at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul. By the end of the year, five of the performers had dropped out because of overdue wages. To make matters worse, an agent who had promised to round up financial backers bilked the company for 200 million won. Facing collapse, the producers borrowed money anywhere they could, including from staff members and actors who were still waiting for paychecks.
The breakthrough came early this year: a promoter from Britain saw the show and offered them a chance at the Edinburgh festival ― one of Europe’s biggest. The troupe went to Scotland in August, and Europe was bowled over. One reviewer called it a fantastic blend of Eastern martial arts and theater. Contracts began pouring in.
“We didn’t do it for money,” Mr. Jin said. “I’m just proud that I learned to stretch my leg to my ear.”
by Choi Min-woo
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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