Circus coming back to town

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Circus coming back to town

5th in the series | Namsadang

It’s the only time of the year when traveling entertainers can finally put down their gongs and climb down from their high-rise ropes. If it weren’t for the cold weather, the Namsadang troupe would be busy banging on traditional drums and blowing flutes, tightrope-walking and spinning bowls like they have been throughout the past year.
Let me rephrase that. Traditional circus troupes are known for flocking to anywhere they are invited to perform, regardless of the weather. So if it weren’t for the fact that they are now considered an official entertainment group worthy of a city’s maintenance and financial support, they would still be showing off their stuff outdoors.
“Namsadang performance has become part of regional pride here,” said Jin Gwang-bin, an employee in the arts bureau of the Anseong city government. “We support them financially and [the city] is still trying its best to give them all the support they need.”
The city has many reasons to appreciate the troupe’s work. Just last year, their performance lured more than 30,000 people nationwide to watch them perform acrobatics and traditional mask dances in Anseong, Gyeonggi province, one of the regions the traditional amusement groups supposedly originated from.
Of course, the sudden rise in the popularity links to the number of viewers of director Lee Joon-ik’s 2005 blockbuster “The Royal Jester, formerly known as “King and the Clown.” One of the members in the troupe, Kwon Won-tae, a tightrope dancer, starred as an understudy for the older clown (played by Gam Woo-sung) in the film, which has been seen by more than 10 million viewers. As the popularity of the film soared, so did the attention on the circus the tightrope dance is an important member of.
The group’s image has quickly shifted from mere bygone showmen to a cultural icon of the nation. Formerly, when the country was under a self-denying conservative Confucian influence, being part of an all-male traveling circus was not considered a respectable job. But no one denies that such groups’ performances were refreshing and a major means of entertainment for the peasants. The commoners watched the dancing men in wonder as they combined acrobatics with political satire and mask dances, making a joke of the upper class.
Literally meaning “Traveling Male Entertainers,” the Namsadang troupe traces its origins back to 1853, during the late Joseon dynasty. Unlike the court’s royal jesters, who were well-fed and performed exclusively for an upper class audience, these groups came together spontaneously from each region, using talents they learned from their families. They were distinguished from existing travel circuses such as Sadang (all-female) or Geollip (folkband) troupes. While Sadang and Geollip have a tradition of contributing a fixed amount of their earnings to Buddhist temples that supported them, the Namsadang troupe had no religious background and performed solely for people’s entertainment. The Sadang and Geollip troupes managed to maintain their thread of existence with the support of the temples, but it was difficult for Namsadang to continue. They stuck to their pride, however, insisting they “did not beg for their bread, using Buddhist’s offerings as an excuse like Geollip,” an accusation the other group would not appreciate. Perhaps it was that boldness that let them maintain their heritage.
In 1988, the Namsadang performance was finally designated Korea’s “Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 3,” bringing it under the country’s protection and support and acknowledging its artistic merit.
According to “Namsadang Performance,” a publication by the Cultural Heritage Administration, Namsadang is considered “a type of art that reflects and breathes the peasants’ lives.”
The Namsadang show is made up of a series of six subsequent performances including pungmul (a farmer’s instrumental performance), beona (spinning bowls and plates), salpan (acrobatics), eoreum (tightrope walking), deotboegi (mask dance) and deolmi (puppet show) shows.
Traditionally, it used to take six or seven hours to stage the entire show, starting at nine at night and ending at three or four in the morning. However, the show has been shortened to two to three hours for modern audiences.
Stars have been born throughout the years from this male troupe. Kwon Won-tae, understudy and actor Gam Woo-sung’s personal trainer, has been a tightrope walker for 30 years since the age of 10 under the influence of his parents, who were also acrobats. Nam Gi-mun is currently senior instructor in traditional percussion at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, Ji Wun-ha is a gong player who has been performing with Namsadang for more than half a century and Kim Gi-bok is considered an “Intangible Cultural Asset” and is also the oldest former leader of Namsadang still alive. Kim’s students include Kim Deok-soo, the creator of the famous samulnori four-piece drum style.
“When I started this job as a young boy, many people had terribly biased thoughts about performers with Namsadang,” Kim, now 78, said in an interview with the JoongAng Daily. He added that it was a job that no gentleman would want to have back then.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. “But I didn’t care. When I heard the clanging and clink of the gongs, I felt my foot moving to the rhythm and soon I was up and moving my shoulders,” he said closing his eyes in remembrance.
He no longer appears with the troupe, but hopes Namsadang will reclaim its past glory as the favored entertainment of the commoner.
Last year, more than a hundred people enrolled at the Namsadang training school in Anseong, with 44 graduates earning a license to perform the traditional art.

by Lee Min-a
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