A city gets its beat back, and a troupe is born again

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A city gets its beat back, and a troupe is born again

ANSEONG, Gyeonggi ― It took a while for Kim Gi-bok to come open the door, but when he finally did, he greeted his visitors with a big toothless grin and steered them inside his small tile-roof house.
Mr. Kim is the last living member of Namsadang, a folk-entertainment troupe whose fame has crossed over into legend. He was also the troupe’s last leader, conducting the live performances for the all-male circus act that had traveled around the country putting on shows since 1853, during the late Joseon Dynasty.
Namsadang (which literally means “Traveling Male Entertainers,” since all the members were men) was a mix of many skills: It combined acrobatics with political satire and mask dances. It’s the kind of entertainment that movie-goers across the country are now lapping up at viewings of “King and The Clown,” a blockbuster movie about a group of court jesters.
Mr. Kim’s role on stage was deceptively simple ― all he had to do was hit a gong and jump up and down. But how and when he did this sent crucial signals to the rest of the troupe. A dramatic nod of the head, for example, would indicate that the music should build to a crescendo. A short man, Mr. Kim stood tall on the national stage. He received a presidential award in 1989 and the provincial government named him an “intangible cultural property.”
Now 77, Mr. Kim no longer plays with Namsadong, nor any other troupe. He has taught students, but most of them left to look for jobs. Others have found success: One of his students was Kim Deok-soo, the creator of the famous Samulnori four-piece drum style.
But while his students were venturing out to make their names, Mr. Kim decided to say in Anseong. After all, it’s not just where he was born, it’s where he learned everything he knows about showmanship.
“My master lived across town, and when he saw me imitating the village men hitting the gongs, he saw a lot of promise in me,” Mr. Kim said.
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That teacher was Lee Won-bo, the last band leader of Namsadang. Mr. Kim said that when he was only 10 years old, Mr. Lee had picked him up and carried him around on his shoulders, joyous at having found a protege.
Mr. Kim’s talents were obvious. He was said to have moved “as quick as a bee” and jumped “as delicately as a cat.”
“My parents tried to make me go to school,” he said, “but all I did in school was rap on the desks and books with my pencils as if they were gongs.”
During the interview, Mr. Kim kept moving his hands around the room, searching for old instruments. Soon he gave that up and jumped to his feet to show how he used to perform. For a moment, he seemed to be lost in his imagination, back on stage pounding a gong. He hummed old songs, his body rocked back and forth, and his arms flailed against an imaginary brass plate. Eventually he ran out of breath.
“Whew,” he wheezed, “I used to be able to do this all day long.”
Those days ended, however, in the 1930s, when the Japanese clamped down on Korean cultural activities and forcibly disbanded Namsadang. Mr. Kim resurrected the group in 1946, when he was 17, but by then its fame had diminished and many of the original members had gone on to other things.
Mr. Kim loves Anseong, and Anseong loves artists. It’s a happy loop of fate for the city, which gave birth to Namsadang and is now using the defunct troupe to remake itself.
The city is capitalizing on its long cultural history and its host of artist residents to put it on the map. Namsadang is the cornerstone of this effort; the city has not only provided a tomb for the troupe’s most famous member, but has formed and backed a new troupe, “Anseong City Namsadang.”
Mr. Kim visits the new troupe regularly, watching the young performers playing the traditional percussion, mask dancing and practicing acrobatics. “I traveled across the country and watched them perform,” he said. “But no group was better than Namsadang. I think they [other troupes] should come here and learn from scratch.”
Kim is one of seven “intangible cultural properties” who live in Anseong. Others include Lee Seok-dong, who preserved a style of dance from the Silla Dynasty called hwarangmu, and Kang Seon-yeong, a master of a traditional dance called taepyeongmu, which was performed for good luck.
The city of 160,000 has attracted many more performing artists, particularly in the field of traditional arts.
“We estimate that there are nearly 400 [artists] living here,” said Jin Gwang-bin, an employee of the arts bureau of the Anseong city government. “Some were born in Anseong, while some modern artists also moved in after hearing that the place is popular with artsy people.”
One reason the city pulls artists might be that it’s only an hour from Seoul, yet has a beautiful countryside landscape, complete with lakes and mountains.
The town was also the backdrop of a famous Joseon Dynasty novel. It was Park Ji-won, the literary figure who died in 1805, who described Anseong as a “lively city that flourished with flower shoes, drawing paper and craftworks,” in his novel, “Heosaeng-jeon.”
One of the members of the new troupe that Kim is most proud of is Kwon Dae-gyun, 39, a tightrope dancer. Kwon is now famous - he starred as an understudy for the older clown (played by Gam Woo-sung) in “King and The Clown,” which has so far lured more than 10 million viewers. As the popularity of the film soared, so did the attention on this tightrope dancer.
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Originally from Busan, Kwon said he grew up in a family of circus performers. He naturally took to acrobatics, though he said he did want to do it professionally.
“You know, the old days,” he said waving his hands. “Adult in the family wants you to go out and do it and you have to obey them.”
Tightrope walkers have few business competitors anyway, but Kwon turned out to be exceptionally talented. He left home to look for troupes that needed an act like his, and when he heard that Anseong was resurrecting the Namsadang troupe, he made a beeline for the city.
The troupe’s show consists of six scenes, the climax of which involves a tightrope artist telling jokes as he dances and leaps around the rope. It was a job seemingly tailor-made for Kwon, who quickly endeared himself to the other members of the group.
Those who can’t make it out to Anseong to see him perform in person can get a taste of his talent by watching the movie “King and The Clown.” Kwon said he used no special effects or stunt doubles to perform the amazing moves captured in the film, such as skipping on the rope with one foot or leaping into the air to dodge shooting arrows.
“If I used a wire, I could have been strangled,” he said. Asked if he considered using a net or mattress, he replied with a loud “pshaw!”
“You don’t seem to understand the fun and excitement traditional tightrope is all about,” he said.


by Lee Min-a
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