Chunhyang returns, in the nudeAs a choreographer, Ahn Eun-mi seems to revel in overturning the conventions of contemporary dance.
Her latest work, “Chunhyang” (its English title is “An Impossible Love”), in which she plays the title character, is based on one of the best-loved folktales in Korea, about the love between a male aristocrat and a young, attractive daughter of a village courtesan. The story has been reproduced thousands of times in films, plays and artworks.
The production ran from May 12 to 14 at the Yong Theater of the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan. It was also staged in four countries: Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.
Ahn’s version, however, presents a stark contrast with older versions. Chunhyang is an unmarried woman in her 40s. She is unattractive ― she’s even bald in the latter part of the play. Her lover, Lee Mong-ryong, played by the Chinese actor Xao Lang, however, is still a handsome young man.
In Ahn’s work, however, he is described as a well-built bisexual man who was once interested in Byeon Hak-do (Gang Tae-suk), the villain of the original story, but here an attractive, popular male figure with both guys and girls hanging all over him. As in the original, he tries to seduce Chunhyang and is rejected. Enraged, he pulls out the woman’s hair.
Ahn’s revival of the story provides awkward but amazing scenes. The dancers, both men and women, including Ahn, often dance topless on stage.
Throughout the performance, the dancers make blunt but elegant sexual expressions. Ahn seems to have a greal deal of experience at staging sex, having worked choreographing love scenes for films like “Miin” (La Belle, 2000), directed by Yeo Gyun-dong.
The costumes and music greatly strengthened the performance by mixing contemporary images with a more traditional atmosphere. Ahn’s performances are known for their eye-catching colors. In this performance, she uses colorful strips of bojagi, the fabric usually used to make traditional Korean clothing. The colors provide a visual spectacle that brings to mind the delicate scenes in contemporary Korean movies such as “Scandal” (2003) and “Forbidden Quest” (2006).
Behind the stage, eight musicians sit veiled by a giant red curtain. Because the curtain is half transparent, lights sometimes revealed the musicians’ movements, creating a mysterious effect on viewers.
The musical troupe is comprised of players of both Western and traditional instruments, such as the gayageum, a twelve-stringed Korean harp, a Korean fiddle, pipe, drums, a gong, a clarinet and a keyboard. One of the more notable figures is the female vocalist who sings Korean traditional songs. The songs give the performance a distinctly Korean feel ― without them, the stage would have only a vague and random Asian atmosphere.
There were some disappointments, however. The story’s happy ending seems to have been tacked on. The part in which Lee Mong-ryong regrets his actions and returns to Chunhyang seems unnatural, as if Ahn were trying to cut the story short.
Ahn’s character also seemed too domineering. Perhaps she couldn’t help it ― Chunhyang, after all, is the central character. But on stage, she didn’t mingle well with younger and smaller dancers, even with the two male leads in the performance. Rather, she looked like the leader of a college dancing team or a selfish goddess who demands to be acknowledged.
Overall, however, the exciting movements of the dancers outweighed the performance’s flaws.
In a way, “Chunhyang” overcomes its many risks, winning over audiences who these days prefer pop concerts or musicals. The work has been surprisingly successful, both in and out of Korea. Last Saturday, during the first day of its domestic performance, the hall was packed with regular audience members, both Koreans and foreigners, young students and senior citizens.
For a young showgoer reluctant to sit through a contemporary dance piece, “Chunhyang” is a good place to start.
by Jin Hyun-ju