Translating Traditional Korean Movement to ‘a Language for Our Time’


Like many court ceremonies, the Confucian ritual that has been performed for centuries at the royal Jongmyo shrine in Korea, is meticulous and measured, stately and restrained. In the shrine’s stone courtyard, a large group of women stand in place, arranged in rows, holding symbolic objects like bamboo flutes and wooden swords and periodically shifting the position of their arms in perfect, unhurried unison. This part is called il mu, which can be translated as “line dance” or “one dance.”

“Some people find it very slow, very boring,” said the Korean director Kuho Jung. “I love it, but I also want to modernize it. I want to translate it into the language of our time.”

That is what he has done in “One Dance,” a theatrical production that Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theater, making its United States debut, is bringing to Lincoln Center from Thursday through Saturday as part of the center’s Korean Arts Week. Where the original ceremony was designed to honor and entertain royal ancestor spirits, “One Dance” aims to hold the attention of audiences around the world.

“It’s a contemporary take on what’s traditional,” said Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer. Korean Arts Week, she added, is “our first experiment” focusing on one culture for a week, exploring different facets. “While it’s important for people to see themselves onstage, it’s also important for people outside of the culture to learn that maybe that culture is not so dissimilar from their own,” Thake said. (Other events include K-pop silent disco, a literature panel and concerts of surf rock and prog metal.)

Jung, a director-designer who has also worked in film and fashion, collaborated on “One Dance” with three choreographers. Hyejing Jeong, Seoul Metropolitan’s artistic director, is an expert in traditional Korean forms, while Sung Hoon Kim and Jaeduk Kim (who also composed the show’s music) come from contemporary dance. As they all explained during a recent video call from Seoul, speaking through a translator, creating a show that seeks to balance custom with current fashion was a team effort.

The structure they came up with is somewhat dialectical. The show begins with a traditional version of il mu, juxtaposes that against a section of contemporary dance, and then finishes with a kind of synthesis, an updated il mu. What remains consistent throughout are the principals of unison and multiplication. As in military drills and chorus lines, a single dancer almost never moves alone.

Even the traditional version has been theatricalized, though. Where the original stays put, this one, while using the same moves and objects, keeps changing formation: not just lines and rows but squares, zigzags and circles. The line rotates. The shapes fracture. Sometimes, the dancers move in bursts of quick succession, domino style.

Il mu isn’t the only court dance included. There’s also Chunaengmu, or the Dance of the Spring Nightingale, traditionally performed by a woman who stands on a woven mat and gently waves her long sleeves. In “One Dance,” it is performed by 24 women whose individual mats, laid out like cards for Concentration, can rise on wires. The sleeves are longer and wider, and as the dancers turn with raised arms, the bottom part of the fabric lingers a bit, causing the sleeves to spiral. When they’re all spinning, the stage looks like a field of floppy wind turbines, or an extremely elegant carwash.

“One Dance” goes in for mass effects like that, but the stage design is generally spare. Instead of castle architecture, Jung substitutes a movable frame of white poles that can outline the stage like giant goal posts or hover over it like a roof. The contemporary sections take place in an abstraction of a bamboo forest made of more white poles. The costumes are mainly in bold single hues. Compared to the original ceremony, “One Dance” is both less and more.

The music has similarly been stripped down and souped up. “We tried to tear it apart and then reinterpret it and put it all back together again,” Jaeduk Kim said. The court music was minimalized, he said, with what he called the rough sounds removed. The contemporary sections introduce Western instruments, but also use traditional Korean ones in untraditional ways. The eo, shaped like a tiger with a serrated back and scratched with a stick, is struck like a snare drum. A zither called the ajaeng is played in the manner of a contrabass. “And sometimes we use a contrabass like an ajaeng,” he said. “We try to be ambiguous.”

But the biggest change in the music is rhythmic. In the original ceremony, percussion is a form of punctuation marking different parts of drawn-out phrases. Much of the music of “One Dance,” by contrast, has a pulse, a beat — like a lot of Korean folk forms and what most of the world now thinks of as dance music.

This gives the contemporary sections their drive, as the low-slung dancers spin, swoop and lunge with a martial-arts attack. But the pulse also underlies the present-day feel of the updated il mu, making it sharper, more percussive, more on the music.

“In traditional Korean dance,” Jeong said, “you take it very slow and elongate it so that it just flows and keeps on flowing. It’s almost like you’re exhaling for a very long time without cutting it off. This is the essence of Korean dance.”

“With traditional dance,” she added, “we would not take our foot very far off the ground. It’s very subtle.” But in the updated il mu, the dancers not only raise their legs high; the bare legs of the women slip out through slits in skirts.

The updated il mu is also faster and more athletic. The dancers run, roll, jump. The finale, like that of many classical ballets or Olympic opening ceremonies, keeps adding and subtracting bodies that advance in waves, eventually filling the stage. But, Jeong said, “even though the pace is fast, you can catch traditional aspects in it, some of the traditional Korean breath.”

Everything in “One Dance,” Jung said, has special meaning in Korean culture. The traditional ceremony has origins in China, though it has lasted longer in Korea, and both it and “One Dance” are rooted in Korean philosophy. There is an il mu dance for scholars and one for soldiers. The formations are like “reading the sky to predict the future,” he said, analogous to Western astrology. Bamboo is a symbolic tree: “In Korean scholar culture, your mind has to be like bamboo.”

“I tried to modernize the dance for better global communication,” Jung said. But when he first encountered the original il mu, he thought it looked modern, “like an experimental performance,” he said. “The traditional dances of many cultures are more unique than globalized modern dance, and we have to keep some of these varied traditions in order to be modern, in a way.”

“I want people to know how modern this dance is,” he added, “but I also want people to see that this is the spirit of Korean culture. These are the two opposite paths I want people to understand.”


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