‘Taekkyeon’ hits the Big Apple with plot twists and jump-kicks

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‘Taekkyeon’ hits the Big Apple with plot twists and jump-kicks


The stage musical “Taekkyeon” goes places the smash-hit cooking act “Nanta” won’t: into the realms of history, nationalism, martial arts, the traditional opera-like singing of pansori, talchum mask dances, and Broadway.
Yes, that Broadway. After less than a year of rehearsals, the ultra-Korean act is heading to New York for a one-week exhibition that includes other performances as well; the show’s producers hope to win a contract.
“Taekkyeon Arirang,” borrows its name from the martial art of taekkyeon and the song “Arirang,” which is something close to being an inter-Korean anthem. The show premiered on Tuesday at the SeongAm Art Center in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, and is staged by the Changjak Maeul (Creative Town) Troupe.
“I thought about what would best represent and promote Korea to the world, and I came across taekkyeon, which has never been incorporated into a performance before,” said Kim Dae-hyeon, the director and playwright of the play.
Mr. Kim began writing plays after winning the 1994 Hankook Ilbo spring literary contest for his drama, “Oedeung Arae” (Under The Lone Light). He is now in the position of “town chief” of Changjak Maeul, a group dedicated to original Korean theater pieces.
The idea for “Taekkyeon Arirang” first came to Mr. Kim 11 years ago, when he took a course in Taekkyeon. He had learned other martial arts, but none seemed to embody the Korean spirit the way Taekkyeon did.
The 100-minute performance begins with a friendly Taekkyeon match between villagers clad in white peasant outfits from the Joseon Dynasty. The moves are rhythmic and pulsing, not unlike a dance; the fighters shoot kicks at each other’s faces, but the style is softer than it appears. Instead of directly striking an opponent, a Taekkyeon practitioner knocks one down by pushing with his feet rather than delivering hard blows. To deliberately injure an opponent is against the rules.
“The philosophy of Taekkyon emphasizes coexistence ― it considers safety even while attacking each other. It reflects the peace-loving nature of Koreans, who have always sought to live together in harmony,” Mr. Kim said.
Most people, Koreans and non, see Taekwondo as Korea’s representative martial art. But while Taekwondo is by far the most famous of Korean fighting styles, its moves were never consolidated into a strict form until Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945. Taekkyon, on the other hand, was practiced as long ago as the sixth century, and survived a ban during the Japanese colonial period. Their names might be similar, but their principles and techniques are totally different.
The production of the play began early this year in January after giving up on searching for actors who could both act and do martial arts. The actors and actresses of the Changjak Maeul Troupe had to start by practicing both Taekkyeon and pansori.
“Most actors tend to learn Western dance or voice,” said Kim Yeong-wook, who plays the lead role of Jun-seong. “This was my first time learning Taekkyon, and the more I learned, the more I felt connected to my Korean identity.” His nine months of training earned Mr. Kim the rank of chodan, the lowest of Taekkyeon’s ranks.
To cover the challenging Taekkyon scenes, Kim Seong-min, the style’s national champion and leader of Chiwoopae, a Taekkyon demonstration group, was brought in as the troupe’s martial arts director. In his first venture into acting, he also took on the role of Baekho, who dies to save his friend Jun-seong. “I hope this will lead to more collaboration between Taekkyon and other performance genres,” he said.
The play starts with a festive Dano celebration (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month) with Taekkyon fights and mask dances before shifting into more weighty historical matters. The play’s timeline spans the period between the assassination of the Joseon Dynasty’s Empress Myeongseong to the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919. The four young men who had playfully sparred with each other grow up and embark on a grave mission to take revenge on the Japanese imperialists. They fail, and return home 23 years later, maimed and disheartened. Hearing that the Japanese have been tipped off to the impending independence movement, they make a last-ditch effort to stop the colonial government from suppressing the movement. (In real life, the March 1 movement had limited success. Korea didn’t win its independence, but the oppressive legal system was relaxed.)
With such emphasis on Taekkyon, a play that’s over an hour-and-a-half long could use more than a 10-minute exhibition of the martial art. The heroic patriotism strikes a chord in Korean hearts, but for those who don’t speak the language, actions would speak louder than words. However, pansori song bridge the scenes, providing a good opportunity to hear the Korean musical style in its proper historical context.
The director said the show would be changed to emphasize the action and visuals before being staged in New York. This is no doubt a wise decision: the current version is heavy on drama and dialogue ― none of which is in English ― and the plot is intended, in Mr. Kim’s words, to “awaken the Korean consciousness to the spirit of non-violent resistance.”
The size of the Seoul venue, a 200-seat blackbox theater, also made it difficult to show off some of Taekkyeon’s more flashy moves. That won’t be a problem on Broadway.
So after Broadway, where to next? “Next year we are planning to take the play to bigger venues, and hopefully international festivals as well,” Mr. Kim said. “This is just the beginning.”

by Kim Su-jin

The play, “Taekkyeon Arirang,” runs until Nov. 6 at SeongAm Art Center, located in 268-16 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu. Performance times are 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day (there will not be a 4 p.m. performance on the first day). Tickets cost 25,000 won ($24) for adults, 20,000 won for university students, and 15,000 won for minors. From Gangnam-gu Office Station on line No. 7, exit 2, turn right at the crossroads and go straight for 10 minutes before turning right at the Gangnam Menswear Building (it has a yellow sign). For reservations, visit www.ticketlink.co.kr or call (02) 2275-7045.
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