SEOUL — Things can’t get any better than when modern silhouettes by South Korean designer extraordinaire Jung Kuho meets innovative choreography by the fiendishly talented An Seongsu.
But apparently they can. The two have collaborated over a dozen times during the past 20 years, and their synergy peaks in their latest project for the National Dance Company of Korea — which, if marketed properly, can surely become a blockbuster production that represents the dichotomy of the modern and traditional that Korea is all about.
Jung, whose brand KUHO is regularly invited to Paris Fashion Week and other international stages, provided not only the black turtleneck jumpsuits and pleated skirts, but also directed the overall minimalist mise-en-scène, from the lighting to the music — all for An’s carefully crafted moves to shine.
Premiering Wednesday at the National Theater of Korea, “Altar” (“Dan” in Korean) is highly conceptual in its portrayal of raw human emotions — but as seen in a press preview Tuesday, in an immediate, accessible, and almost primitive way like Mark Rothko’s color blocks. The comparison isn’t much of a stretch as the stage transforms for thematic displays of purple, red, and green set against a black background, where the different elements act as an organic whole.
The music alternates between Korean shamanist melodies and Wagner (quite timely for his bicentennial), but trying to understand “Altar” as a form of romantic narrative may be slightly misleading — in spite of a series of sporadic pas de deux to the prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” — because the movements unfold more like a stream of consciousness.
“The dance explores the numerous meanings of the altar, as a symbol of social power or as a religious object, and the various inner-conflicts an individual can undergo before it. But I hope that the dance itself, the feel of the stage, and the overall mood of the music can touch the audience,” said Jung during the press event.
The three-act piece opens in pitch-black darkness; pale white faces and hands glide eerily toward the audience to the beat of drums, inviting the viewer to enter a sort of spiritual realm.
Principle dancers Choi Jin-wook, Lee Jung-yoon, Kim Mi-ae, and Jang Yoon-na showcase Korean traditions, where the breathing, hand gestures, and intricate footwork create seamless spatial designs with an unassuming grace. “Only Korean traditional dancers are capable of such heavy yet light footwork evocative of trees taking root in the earth,” said An.
While there are certainly “altars” or platforms that glide across the stage, however, movements remain horizontally, rather than vertically, aligned even though there are a mix of ballet and contemporary dance sequences. As much as modernization largely meant Westernization in recent Korean history, the local public is probably more familiar with ballet than Korean dance, the Western features make this conceptual piece more accessible — whilst not downplaying artistic experimentations and elements of surprise for the relatively conservative local audience (one sequence features topless female dancers precariously covering their breasts with one arm).
The scene changes as does the music, the architectural formations by some 40 dancers, and the lighting. Dozens of neon-lit tubes change rotation like water droplets, brightening up parts of the stage and the dancers to various degrees. “Korean dances were traditionally staged outdoors. I wanted to recreate the mood of such moonlit performances with the light fixtures, thereby controlling the sense of space and time,” said Jung.
The spontaneity of “sinawi” (think Korean shamanistic jazz) sets the mood, but don’t necessarily dictate the dance.
Jung had the instruments go solo rather than in chamber formations, and many beats provide a rhythm for the dancers — or vice versa in a more ideal setting: while having to alternate with the Wagner score would probably make it impractical, it would certainly be most interesting if the folk band Noreum Machi performed the pre-recorded score live.
“I hope the audience can enjoy the performance as a sort of minimalist ‘gut’ (shamanist ritual),” said An, and even those new to the genre would certainly be able to.
“Altar” marks the first of the dance company’s ambitious Choreographers’ Exchange Project, which will bring artists from near and far. Finnish dancer-choreographer Tero Saarinen will be showcasing a commissioned piece next year.
“Altar” continues through April 14. Tickets cost from 20,000 to 70,000 won.